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Episcopal papers speak a bit on economic justice.

FRIBOURG, Switzerland -- The absent hero from the congress on episcopal teaching on economics, organized jointly by the Fribourg Faculty of Moral Theology and the Rome-based Jacques Maritain Association, was Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee.

Weakland had been in at the start of the vast project of which this conference was the climax. In 1991, centenary of Rerum Novarum, commentators conceded that Catholic Social Teaching, CST, had been directed almost exclusively to papal social teaching. It was mostly a study of what popes had said.

The Fribourg faculty conceived the idea of inspecting what bishops had to say throughout this hundred-year period. There was a danger that the research team might disappear beneath mounds of yellowing paper, for the work of bishops in all five continents was to be collated.

There had to be some limits, however. Though the hunt was on for bishops as teachers of CST, the particular emphasis would fall on economic justice. Because this is a relatively modern concept, one was spared Irish bishops' denouncing dancing, and most of the texts studied were post-Vatican II.

The work was broken down, continent by continent, in a series of regional conferences. At Cagliari, Italy, in 1987 the team surveyed the productions of the developed countries in the presence of Weakland and others who had drafted some of the documents they were considering.

The panorama was completed with meetings in Madrid in 1989 on Latin America; Djakarta, Indonesia, in 1990 on Asia; Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in 1991 on Africa and Mozambique; and so in 1993 they were back in Fribourg where it all started. The project was financed in the main by the Swiss National Fund for Research.

The provenance of the 1,149 documents was as follows: 43 percent from Europe (of which 36 percent came from France); 24 percent from Latin America (of which 21 percent came from Brazil); 9.5 percent from North America, in which Canada outstripped the United States 7.8 percent to 2.2 percent; 15 percent from Africa; and 7.6 percent from Asia (of which 32.6 percent came from the Philippines).

It seems this mountain of cogitation has so far produced only a little mouse of a conclusion. In a lecture grandly called "The Epistemology of Episcopal Statements," the brilliant Frenchman Emile Poulat said the texts had so far merely been gathered, not studied scientifically.

This dispensed him from making any generalizations about them except for one: the Union de Malines, a Belgian social group, made a similar study of the years 1891-1931 -- from Rerum Novarum to Quadragesimo Anno. In this study there were only two instances of the use of the word economy, and both referred to prudent housewives.

Madame Lucrezia Meier-Schatz, who collated the present survey, drew attention to the key-words study: "poverty" and "unemployment" occur frequently, but there was very little reference to "taxation" or "inflation."

At that point the suspicion began to dawn that a great many of these episcopal statements are probably economically illiterate and certainly ephemeral. But that does not make them worthless. They are all part of the ongoing pedagogy that a good bishop keeps up constantly. It includes Sunday sermons or sound bites at the airport as much as pastoral letters. It can mean being repetitious and probably boring -- banging on about the same thing.

Some of those present were deeply skeptical about the value of these musty documents. What reception did they have? asked Franciscan John Jukes, auxiliary bishop of Southwark, London. What evidence was there that they made any difference to anything? Apart from Latin Americans, who have produced some "prophetic" documents, few were prepared to make very strong claims.

Jukes' pragmatic modesty, however, was partly a cover for the inaction of the British bishops. "Because of the substantially secular character of British society," he said, "it is rarely appropriate or productive for the bishops to issue teaching documents directed to the world at large. Any such attempt is met by silence or indifference on the part of the secular media." But the British bishops have had backstairs influence, he claimed.

But one document emerged from the heap and secured the consent of all: The U.S. bishops' pastoral "Economic Justice for All" was hailed again and again as an inspiration.

Michael Costigan, an Australian speaking for the Pacific region, explained that the Australian bishops had consciously followed the method of the U.S. bishops in their 1992 pastoral, "Common Wealth for the Common Good." It was debated at length in the Australian Parliament. Its firm rejection of individualistic economics (Thatcherism, Reaganomics) may have influenced the last election.

It was left to Martin M. McLaughlin, adviser to the USCC on international economic affairs, to warn that the pastoral's impact should not be exaggerated.

Follow-up programs had taken place in only about a third of the dioceses. There is little evidence it was studied in Catholic colleges, and one can't point to a single policy change resulting from the pastoral. No CEO, McLaughlin claimed, had a good word to say for it, and most of them thought the bishops had "exceeded their competence, exceeded their authority and were wrong."

No one, however, paid much attention to this pessimism. The likely reason: This assembly needed the U.S. bishops' pastoral as an instance of episcopal teaching to set alongside papal teaching, not as a rival or competitor but as a complement.

Paul VI's letter Octogesima Adveniens explains that in his view the situations in the world are so complicated and varied that it is impossible to offer "one teaching to cover them all. Such is not our ambition or even our mission."

But the mission Paul VI felt incapable of fulfilling could not be left undone: It was up to the local churches to "discern the signs of the times" with the help of whatever local professional talent they could muster.

Pope John Paul II does not accept Paul VI's self-denying ordinance. He feels confident he can provide universal teaching. So to defend the U.S. pastoral has now become almost a subversive act.

Yet Roberto Papini, secretary of the Jacques Maritain Association, quoted Centesimus Annus to show that John Paul appreciated the contribution of local churches: "On the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum I would like to thank all those who have made the effort to study, expand and spread Catholic social doctrine. In this, the collaboration of the local churches is indispensable."

But here the bishops are allowed to "collaborate," not to contribute, and the local churches are seen as strictly subordinate.

The comments of French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, president of the Vatican Justice and Peace Commision, were eargerly awaited at the end to see whether he would redress the balance. He is the least "Romanized" of the foreigners who have found their ways into the curia.

The collection of episcopal documents, said Etchegaray, proved that bishops had been doing their job. They provided a "defense and illustration" of their episcopal ministry.

They could be "more effective" than universal documents because they were "closer to the people" and spoke "in local accents." He dreamed, however, of joint North-South collaborations that would produce something utterly new in episcopal teaching. So Etchegaray kept a careful balance between "primatial" and "collegial" social teaching.

Poulat, finally, claimed the "most original and innovatory" part of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church is that which deals with the seventh commandment (Thou shalt not steal).

Its originality consists in accepting the view of the U.S. bishops' pastoral that economics is not outside the realm of evangelical morality; that the economic system, far from being an end in itself, is ordered to the good of human persons who should be its beneficaries and not its victims; and that "the universal destination of all the world's goods" excludes too great disparities of wealth.

So all those poised to criticize the catechism should remember it borrowed its economic justice from the U.S. bishops' pastoral.
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Title Annotation:Catholic bishops
Author:Hebblethwaite, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Apr 23, 1993
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