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Eclipse of Justice: Ethics, Economics, and the Lost Tradition of American Catholicism.

Eclipse of Justice: Ethics, Economics, and the Lost Tradition of American Catholicism. By George E. McCarthy and Royal W. Rhodes. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1992. Pp. vi + 298. $24.95.

In 1986, the Catholic bishops of the United States issued a pastoral letter on the U.S. economy entitled Economic Justice for All. McCarthy and Rhodes use the bishops' letter as a recurring point of reference, but their study does not present itself simply as a "commentary" on the letter. They acclaim the bishops' document as a great achievement, praise the process of broad consultation that produced it, and criticize conservative opponents who took it to task. They also believe, however, that the letter fell short on two important scores. It failed to undertake any real structural analysis of the social evils created by capitalism, and it failed, as have most writings on political economy, to develop a consistent social ethics. Making up for these failures, by providing a structural analysis of capitalism and a more adequate social ethics, is the primary goal of the book.

M. and R. begin their study with a distinction that underlies their efforts to establish a more consistent social ethics. In the U.S., a narrow natural-rights tradition, espoused by conservatives, stresses political rights and individual liberties. An older and richer natural-law tradition, which draws upon the Bible, Aristotelian philosophy, and the contributions of Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, and the humanistic Marx, offers a broader foundation that stresses community and socio-economic rights. The opening chapter also studies in some detail a number of earlier pastoral letters by the U.S. Catholic bishops. The book continues with criticisms of conservative views on political economy. Michael Novak's positions are targeted, in particular, throughout the book.

Chapter 4 contains the authors' most concentrated structural analysis of capitalism, or more specifically of U.S. capitalism, especially as it operated during the Reagan years. Drawing upon a multitude of studies. M. and R. highlight a number of social injustices that they believe result from capitalism: inequalities in wealth, income, and power; economic crises; wasteful military spending; corporate monopolies; and the use of state power to legitimize capitalism and to promote an unbridled private accumulation of wealth.

The Reagan years, conservatives claim, marked a stunning achievement for the U.S. economy. M. and R. challenge this claim. The rich did prosper. Incomes of the richest one percent of the population soared, up 74 percent during the 1980s; but the poorest 20 percent declined in income. Moreover, conservatives criticize government spending on welfare, arguing that the spending only increases dependency and takes money out of the private sector where it could be invested more fruitfully. The real "welfare" spending that should concern us, M. and R. respond, is the money given over to big business in amounts that dwarf money spent on the poor. According to a study of the Congressional Budget Office, total government contributions to industrial development amounted to more than $474 billion (in 1984), by way of direct subsidies, tax breaks, and other benefits.

Later chapters of the book include biblical-theological themes and a study of "dependency" theories which the authors believe offer a much better analysis of U.S. relations with poor Third World countries than does the weak section in the bishops' letter.

The main strengths of the book lie in its strongly documented critique of the negative consequences of capitalism and in its insightful criticisms of conservative ethicians who seek to justify capitalism (e.g. by building capitalist values into the very criteria used to evaluate economic systems). Some weaknesses diminish the book's impact. It does not propose any clear alternative to capitalism or indicate what features might need to be retained to avoid falling into the Marxisttype socialism which appear to be disintegrating in Eastern Europe. Its theology chapter repeats themes already made quite familiar through liberation theology. While the book does a good job of enunciating different dependency theories, it relies on them too exclusively in analyzing the causes of underdevelopment in Third World nations.

Overall, however, the book provides a very useful and stimulating probe into major issues regarding economic justice.

University of Detroit Mercy Arthur F McGovern, S.J.
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Author:McGovern, Arthur F.
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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