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Making capitalism moral.

"Socialist theories have far less chance in American than in Europe," said the archbishop. "In the first place, the sentiment of personal dignity and responsibility and the spirit of enterprise are much developed in the American people. . . . Furthermore, there is room in the United States for all kinds of energy. Labor there insures honorable life; then, the greater number of Americans have conquered their situation by personal valor, at the price of efforts, perils, and heroic sacrifices. They are not disposed to share with others what they have gained by so much work."

The archbishop was John Ireland, head of the St. Paul archdiocese. It was the summer of 1894, and the America he spoke of so admiringly was a far tougher, far more cutthroat--and, in that sense, far less "Christian"--place than it is today. There was no such thing as welfare payments, no such thing as child labor laws, no such thing as subsidized medical care for the needy. The divide between rich and poor was enormous; the geometric growth of the middle class was still a long way off. The great capitalists of the day became known, not without reasons, as the "robber barons." The poor did what they could to get by, without expecting their government to help them.

Nevertheless, to an Irishman facing another year of famine, America was not a place where the poor were exploited but a place where he might be able to fill his belly. To an Italian whose family had spent generations tied to a parcel of land that became less and less productive with each passing year, America offered a potential way out. When Archbishop Ireland looked out at his flock of Catholic immigrants, what he saw was not so much the exploitative nature of capitalism, as the obvious chance for his people to find a better life. That is why Archbishop Ireland, and the other American bishops of his era, could accept an economic system that was, at bottom, not rooted in Christian virtues and ideals, notwithstanding all the blather to the contrary spewed forthy by capitalist cheerleaders from George Gilder and Michael Novak all the way back to Adam Smith himself. That is why, historically, as the Jesuit Historian John Courtney Murray has written, "the church in American has accepted this thing which is the American economy."

Ninety years later, the American bishops look out upon their flock--by now fully 25 percent of the population and represented at every level of society--and at the economic system in which they operate and see things in a far more demning light. They see a system in which "women and men are thrown out of work as a result of plant closings or national policies they are too weak to change." They see that "entire families today are frequently driven off the land because their small farms cannot compete with large agri-businesses." They see that "elderly people become homeless because they lack the resources to purchase the apartments they have lived in when the owner converts the buildings to condominimums." From such evidence they conclude that much is wrong with American capitalism. It is driven by the sin of greed; it promotes "inequality of income [while] there are poor, hungry and homeless people in our midst"; and it tolerates the existence of "sinful structures that institutionalize injustice."

These more recent quotes come, of course, from the first draft of the American bishops' pastoral letter on the economy, a product of four years of deliberation, which was first unveiled for public consumption within days of the 1984 presidential election. The final version, which was to be released this spring, has been postponed a year because the bishops have been so swamped with comments and criticism; a second draft of the letter is scheduled to appear in October. Nonetheless, the bishops can be expected to hew to their major theses. Despite vocal dissent from conservative Catholic laymen, the bishops reaffirmed the central goals of the project during a national conference in June. The New York Times reported "a resounding consensus of support" for the first draft's sweeping indictment of the failure of the American economy to provide for the poor.

Much, obviously, has changed in this country since the 1890s, though not all of that change has been what you might expect if all you had to go on was the word of American bishops, then and now. America today is a far more humane place than it was 90 years ago, and this is especially true in regard to American capitalism. Much of the inherent dog-eat-dog harsness of the system has been legislated away. With the election of Frankling Roosevelt (and subsequently John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and yes, richard Nixon), the unfettered American capitalism that existed at the turn of the century has been tamed in many ways. Roosevelt's 100 Days established the principle (and the fact) that government could intervene in the market, theretofore the most sacred of sacred cows. Government could break up monopolies, or assure the rights of labor unions, or itself put the unemployed to work. In the 1960s and early 1970s, there were additions to the agenda: worker safety and the environment, for instance. We also erected a "safety net" for those who fell victim to the heartless vagaries of the market. Unapologetically, we took money from the rich--in the form of the progressive income tax--and gave to the poor.

The liberal imagination in the post-war era has been fixed on capitalism's losers, as opposed to its Horatio Algers. The liberal instinct has always been to distrust the market, to impose limits on the lengths to which the capitalist could go in pursuit of profit. For the most part this liberalism has prevailed. Today, only the most nuttily dogmatic libertarian would argue that the entire government apparatus errected since Roosevelt's time should be dismantled. Even someone like Michael Novak, who has spent most of the 1980s arguing (unconvincingly, in my view) in favor of the inherent morality of the market, does not call for, say, the dissolution of the Food and Drug Administration. For the right0wing as well as the left--for Jack Kemp as well as Ted Kennedy--the idea that government can soften capitalism's punches has become the status quo.

From Spellman to two Johns

In its heyday, liberalism was always informed as much by morality as by pragmatic politics. Making sure the hungry had enough to eat, or that the poor had shelter--there weren't many votes in that, not after the Depression at any rate. It was simply the right thing to do. You would think, therefore, that the country's moral and religious leaders would have been among the first to line up behind such noble sentiments. Some of them were, to be sure. But, curiously, not America's bishops, who could be found either sitting on the sidelines or running interference for the capitalists.

Why was this? Partly it was that most bishops saw what Archbishop Ireland had seen--that the blue-collar immigrant Catholic was better off in America, with its heartless capitalism and all, than he had been in Europe. Better to be grateful than to rock the boat. But as the decades passed, that perception became less a factor as other, more complicated reasons took hold.

The immigrant imperative has always been to become more American than the president; bishops, often themselves the sons of immigrants, were no less immune to that than their flocks. For much of this century, American Catholicism has had a strong nativist streak, most easily identified, alas, at its ugliest--Father Coughlin's radio diatribes, for example. Thus to criticise capitalism was to criticize America itself, and that was unthinkable.

Bishops, moreover, were men at the top of their profession; they often identified more strongly with other such men in different walks of life than with the poor. The scene in the film True Confessions in which the ambitious young priest Robert DeNiro wheels and deals for his diocese while playing around of golf at the country club is pretty close to the mark. In real life, Francis Cardinal Spellman, the legendary bishop of New York for so many years, was never comfortable with the one saint in his midst, Dorothy Day, tolerating her Catholic Worker Movement but never encouraging her. Instead, Spellman reveled in the company of the men he considered his peers, some of whom were Catholic (Joe McCarthy, Joe Kennedy) and many of whom were not (Bernard Baruch, Robert Moses). Their values became his values; when Bernard Baruch whispered to him over lunch that the end of the Depression was just around the corner, it became that much easier to ignore the plight of the downtrodden. Spellman rarely attacked a public figure, but he once conducted a well-publicized feud with Eleanor Roosevelt. Not coincidentally, she was the person associated with Franklin Roosevelt's government most hated by Wall Street, for even more than her husband, she was considered the traitor to her class.

Finally, the American bishops needed the capitalists--or at least needed their money. How else could you build churches? How else could you run a shool system? How else could you staff hospitals, if not by asking for money from those Catholics in your diocese who had "made it?" Pricking the consciences of your wealthiest parishioners was not exactly the way to buy the bricks and mortar you needed. Quite simply, the American bishops were loath to bit the hand that fed the Church.

But bishops can change, too, however belatedly. And change they did. First came Pope John XXIII's Second Vatican Council, which played a very important role in the transformation of the American Church. The Council, which ended in 1965, was the Church's great consciouness raiser, an event whose effects are being felt to this day. The radicalization of the Catholic Church in countries such as Holland, the "liberation theology" movement in South America, the outspokennes of Catholics everywhere on issues such as birth control and the ordination of women--all of these things can be traced in some way to the Council. Out of the Council, there also came a new spirit of activism in the Church, particularly at the grass-roots level, and a renewed emphasis on the poor and the have-nots.

In America, at the same time the Council was getting under way, John Kennedy was running for president. Garry Wills, in Bare Ruined Choirs, his influential book about Catholicism in the 1960s, makes much of the confluence of "the two Johns," and he is right to do so. The bulk of Kennedy volunteers were Catholics, and their conversion to the "new" Catholicism was an amazing thing. These were people who scarcely ten years before had been among Joe McCarthy's most fervent supporters. Now they were just as solidly in the camp of the two Johns. They could speak with passion and eloquence about the crying need for programs such as Medicare, which earlier they would have condemned as "communistic." Because of the two Johns, the nature of the Catholic ministry in America changed too. No longer did young men become priests to escape an immigrant's ghetto; now they were idealists and activists, usually products of the middle class, who wanted to help put in place what they saw as the social agenda of the Council and Kennedy. When the civil rights movement geared up, and later the antiward movement, these young idealistic priests and nuns were right in the thick of things, marching, protesting, and, in general, questioning the inherent justice of "the system."

Then, in 1972, one of those events took place that are barely noticed at the time but years later seem fraught with significance. Pope Paul VI named Jean Jadot, a career Vatican diplomat, to be apostolic delegate to the United States. In addition to acting as ambassador to the country to which he is assigned, the apostolic delegate is an adviser to the Pope on Church matters in that country, including the matter of naming new bishops. Prior to Jadot's arrival, most new bishops came out of the chanceries of the most important American sees; they were secretaries or advisers--cautious, conservative men whom their mentors had been grooming for years for positions of power. Jadot changed all that. He began insisting that new bishops have "pastoral" experience, and he began taking particular notice of the idealistic (and in many cases quite obscure) priests who scorned chancery work and who now populated the American Church. It wasn't long before he began suggesting to Rome that some of them might make good bishops. And often, they were made bishop--to the great surprise (and, no doubt, chagrin) of the current members of the hierarchy.

Byt the time Jadot returned to Rome in 1980, the revolution he had begun was largely complete: the American hierarchy was dominated by a different kind of men, with a different set of values. In Seattle, Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen today withholds a percentage of his taxes equal to the percentage of the Pentagon budget, and for this he is applauded by most of his brethren bishops. As a group, the bishops have recently condemned the arms race, and, specifically, America's role in accelerating it. The bishops have also backed the Catholic-dominated sanctuary movement, which harbors illegal aliens from El Salvador. This action is being taken in direct defiance of the Reagan administration. Twenty-five years ago, that would have been impossible. (Indeed, 25 years from now, it may again be impossible. It is worth noting that John Paul II has begun moving the pendulum in the other direction. The chief exemplar of the change is the archbishop of New York, John Cardinal O'Connor, widely regarded as a Church conservative, whose criticism of Geraldine Ferraro during the presidential election catapulted him into the headlines. O'Connor's positions, however, are still largely minority ones within the hierarchy, and, in fact, his actions during the election dismayed most of his fellow bishops.)

Obsessed by 'the system'

And now comes the bishops' critique of the economy, which--no surprise, given the modern history of the American hierarchy--is considerably less than glowing. On one level, there is something admirable about the modern bishops' willingness to raise their voices in dissent. In these smug "I've-got-mine-pal" times, it is important to be reminded of the pains of unemployment, of the 35 million Americans (nearly half of them children) who are poor, of the misery that prevails in so much of the world.

It is especially important to be reminded of what conditions like these imply for those of us who are better off. Here, the bishops take to the moral high ground, mincing no words, softening no blows. They quote Pope John Paul II's tough talk--"the needs of the poor take priority over the rich"--and then add their own two cents' worth: "No one can claim the name Christian and at the same time acquiesce in the hunger and homelessness that exists around the world and in our own country."

These are not the words of bishops dazzled by millionaire golfing partners or asking, hat in hand, for contributions from potential patrons. These are also not the words of politicians or power brokers. These are the words of religious leaders speaking to our conscience--shaming us--which is precisely what moral leadership is supposed to do.

Yet why, despite this laudable concern for the forgotten poor, does the pastoral leave one feeling so utterly cold? In part the answer is that the document is just that, a document, full of cautious phrasing, bureaucratic-sounding proposals, and old, failed ideas. Strip away the bishops' anger over the plight of the poor and focus instead on their solutions, and the words fall flat on the page. But there is also something more fundamental going on here. Though they never quite come out and say it, the bishops plainly feel uncomfortable with the idea of capitalism. It all seems so, well, unseemly--all these capitalists running around trying to make money. So greedy. So sinful. What they can't bring themselves to see is what John Ireland and men of his ilk saw: capitalism has this funny fringe benefit. While the capitalists are getting rich, people are being employed, and the general prosperity for all is increasing. That stubborn fact suggests something valid on which to build, as those bishops of 90 years ago implicitly understood, even if they didn't bother much about the need for moral guidance within the free enterprise system. To today's bishops, however, it is "the system" itself that is at fault, and the actions people might take within that system are practically irrelevant.

Ah, yes, "the system." Remember the days when people talked about the system and how it was the root of all injustice? The bishops remember. And why not? These are men whose vision of America was formed in the 1960s, and it shows. Reading the pastoral is a little like stepping into a time machine. We're back in the Great Society and the Other America, fighting the War on Poverty with government programs and dollars. The anachronism arises from the bishops' willful ignorance of anything--writings, studies, real life experience--that might discredit those old programs. To them Michael Harrington is still the teller of all truth; Charles Murray is just another right-wing crank. To them, the old solutions are still the right solutions. The anachronism also arises because of the way the bishops have framed their inquiry. Although the letter is ostensibly a critique of the entire economy, they write that "our fundamental norm is this: will this decision or policy help the poor and deprived members of the human community. . .?"

An exclusive focus on the poor was understandable in the early 1960s, when America was still king, and the only remaining task, it seemed, was to let the poor in on the seemingly bottomless bounty. But two decades later, with basic industries in decline and Japanese and Korean products continuing to flood our markets, the nation faces fundamental questions about its ability to generate that wealth in the first place. By their own predisposition, the bishops have opted out of the crucial moral questions surrounding our current economic troubles.

This is not say that the bishops ignore enterprise altogether. They make all the requisite nods in that direction, and, yes, they acknowledge, however grudgingly, that capitalism generally has worked out better than any other modern system. But it is at these moments that their prose seems its least enthusiastic, when the bishops seem merely to be going through the motions. They don't develop the possibilities of enterprise tempered by moral guidance the way they develop, for instance, their impassioned defense of the welfare system. There is nothing of the elan one finds in admonitions such as: "Limits on . . . the accumulation of wealth are essential if we are to avoid what Pope Paul VI called 'the most evident form of moral underdevelopment,' namely avarice."

Leave Eurosocialism in Europe

The bishops' emphasis on the inherent injustice of "the system" causes them to take many a wrong turn, but three in particular stand out. The first is their obvious, if unstated, preference for an economical model along European lines--socalled Eurosocialism. It is an easy trap to fall into, for on the face of it, the Eurosocialist model sounds far more caring and humane than America-style capitalism. The bishops wring their hands over plant closings; in Europe, plants almost never close, even if they are unprofitable, because European governments (except Thatcher's, of course) believe jobs take precedence over profitability. The bishops worry about the unemployed; in Europe, the unemployed are well taken care of, often collecting almost as much money on the dole as they did when they were working. the bishops lament the plight of so many Americans in the Northeast who have had to move south to find work at half the pay they used to make; in Europe, that rarely happens. The bishops rise up in Europe, that rarely happens. The bishops rise up in righteous indignation over the poor; in most European countries, the poor recieve some form of "guaranteed national income." Indeed, in most of Europe, "the system" does take care of everyone. The national bureaucracies are overloaded with the kinds of programs the American bishops seem to pine for: "improvement and expansion of job placement services on both the local and national level . . . . In an advanced industrial society like ours, all actors in society, including government, must actively and positively cooperate in forming national economic policies . . . . We recommend the formation of local, state, and national coalitions to press for the design and implementation of job creation," and so on.

I lived in Europe long enough to see that what sounds good and caring on paper doesn't necessarily work out that way in the real world. Yes, the poor are taken care of, but where in such societies are the opportunities to cut across classes and make one's way in the world? Yes, the unemployed don't starve, but that doesn't mean they don't go to their graves feeling just as empty and useless as any unemployed person in America. Yes, there are bureaucracies aplenty, but the arteries of bureaucracy harden quickly and stifle the kind of economic creativity and ingenuity that is so valued in America. Fundamentally, the Europeans, like the American bishops, don't trust entrepreneurship and don't value the creation of wealth--they positively scorn it; being an industrialist is something you do if you can't get into the civil service. Hence the emphasis, again, like the bishops', is on the distribution of wealth rather than it's creation, and those Europeans who do have a good idea that will make them some money usually end up in America. (Such expatriate success stories were a staple of French journalism when I lived in France.) The result is stagnant societies, with very little growth or new prosperity and a class system that is set in stone.

It is the sense of blue sky, the hope that by hard work or ingenuity you can cross class barriers, that is completely missing in Europe--and that is the blessing of the American economy. If that sounds maudlin, just ask the Korean who owns the corner market or the Salvadoran who would give an arm for a green card. Which is not to say that American capitalism doesn't pose some difficult moral issues. Surely it does--the issues of plant closings and having to leave one's home to find work are particularly difficult. It is to say, however, that the grass is not necessarily greener in Europe. A system that seems less harsh--and more moral--on the surface, may, in fact, be just the opposite upon further inspection.

A second area where the bishops' analysis causes them to go astray is in their perception of the poor. If "the system" is the victimizer, then the poor must be the victims, right? As such, they are presumed to be in a position of automatic moral superiority. Of course, many of the poor have been victimized by forces beyond their control. And there is no question that these people need help--from the government, from all of us who are better off. But are all of the poor victims? And what sort of help actually helps them?

These are among the most hotly debated policy questions in the country. The bishops are oblivious to the debate. Their answer is the old answer: more money, more programs. They call for a welfare plan that doesn't "stigmatize" those on welfare, and they argue, among other things, that "eligibility for public assistance should not depend on work requirements or work tests." Yet, is it "moral" for people who are perfectly capable of working to get money from the state simply because they are not inclined to work? Do the bishops forget that most of the taxpayers providing that money are not in possession of "concentrations of wealth" but rather are working people who have things like mortgages to worry about? Is it really more "moral" to continue the kinds of programs that fueled the War on Poverty? Or is it less moral because those programs have fostered a "culture of welfare?" I don't pretend to know the answers, but I do suggest that the answers are not as simple as the bishops would have us believe.

Finally, there is the issue of individual charity. Spellman had his Dorothy Day blind spot, but so do these modern bishops. In some ways Spellman's was easier to understand. Dorothy Day was a true moral leader, preaching values by living them; her example contrasted so sharply with Spellman's that it shamed him. But today's bishops identify with the same concerns she did. So what's their excuse?

In liberal Christian circles, there is a school of thought according to which a Mother Theresa is not a force for good in India. The arguement goes like this: Mother Theresa helps the most impoverished of India's poor, but she does nothing to address the underlying causes of their poverty. She doesn't confront the government. She doesn't instigate rebellion. By her acts of charity she puts a patina of virtue upon a corrupt system and helps to prop it up. In the pastoral letter, the bishops seem to be buying this argument. Nowhere is Dorothy Day or Mother Theresa even mentioned, and rare indeed is the idea that we all bear some individual responsibility for the plight of the poor and the needy. The onus instead is on government, and the proposals revolve around ideas like expansion of the U.S. Employment Service and "gradual consolidation of programs for specific groups into a unified program of assistance coordinated by the federal government." After a while, you start wondering: is this spiritual counsel or a monograph from Brookings?

It is true that a night a week at the Salvation Army shelter is not going to eradicate poverty at its roots. But as people like Dorothy Day and Gandhi saw, the system doesn't really change until people do; if such change isn't the primary mission of religion, then what is? (How about, for example, the need for well-off Americans to give up entitlements such as Social Security when they're not needed, so that more is available for the poor?) Proposals to consolidate programs and the like, by speaking to everyone, really speak to no one. While the bishops do make the connection between individual behavior and the wellbeing of everyone else, they seem a lot more interested in programs.

Business needs the bishops

What is most dispiriting about the bishops' exercise is that capitalism could use a healthy dose of moral guidance these days. Like the bishops, most people have come to equate capitalism with big, impersonal corporations and with out-and-out greed, but the need not be the case. Capitalism is morally neutral; it can work good or ill depending on the nature of the enterprise and the ground rules the society lays down.

Today the ground rules are not very good. Too often, they bring out the worst in us rather than the best. We need, in short, moral leaven within the loaf of capitalism.

Some current church leaders seem to understand this. At the June meeting of the bishops' national conference, for example, Auxiliary Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan of Brooklyn said that American capitalism should be portrayed "as a good system that needs improvement." No danger of retreat to Cardinal Spellman's boosterism for greed in that modest dissent.

An obvious place to start is with the speciulation and useless finagling called "paper enterprise." Corporate takeover wars, bizarre tax shelters, kinky speculation schemes, have reached epidemic proportions, draining both capital and talent away from the creation of jobs and wealth. Chevron borrowed $10 billion to buy Gulf Oil last year; Phillips, $4.5 billion to fend off raiders. No new jobs (except for lawyers) and no new oil, just a blizzard of paper.

There's alsothe question of interest. Right now the nation is sinking in debt; the merger wars are just the beginning. Last year American individuals, businesses, and governments went deeper in debt than in any 12-month period in our history. This debt is a heavy burden on both enterprise and government. Fourteen percent of the federal budget goes to pay off creditors, from wealthy foreign investors to everyone who happens to own a certificte of deposit.

In an earlier era, the Church saw unearned enrichment as a moral issue. The mere act of charging interest was called "usury," and the punishment was excommunication. I'll concede that may have been going too far. But increasingly it becomes apparent that the Church's concerns were practical as well as moral. We need to separate the wheat from the chaff. Why do the tax laws, for example, shine as favorably upon people who trade stocks and commodities as upon the farmers and businesspeople who create the wealth so traded? Why do we reward the land speculator--who reaps what he has not sown--as much as the individual who builds something useful, such as housing, upon that land (which the speculator makes more expensive)? The producer should take priority in the economic pecking order over the creditor or trader, and who better than the Church to propound the moral dimensions of that distinction?

Even more important is the design of the institutions through which business is conducted. Today the dominant institution of capitalism is the corporation owned by absentee shareholders. William Simon and others tell us that capitalism is a form of freedom. But the absentee-owned corporation eliminates freedom; it makes a corporate eliminates freedom; it make corporate managers absolutely beholden to the claims of shareholders for a maximum return on investment. In so doing, it tends to sever the moral links between enterprise and community. Even if the company president thinks he ought to install scrubbers on his smokestacks or he ought to keep the plant in Hometown instead of moving it to Taiwan, he is not free to do so (unless required by law) if it will mean less return. The shareholders could reward his well-doing with a lawsuit for wasting their assets--even if the company was still making a profit.

One remedy is external regulation that enables a conscientious manager to justify his actions to the shareholders. Another remedy is to make more room for decisions of conscience within the enterprise itself. Two means to this end are worker ownership and consumer cooperatives, and the bishops--to their credit--advocate these. Worker and coop owners are not beholden to absentee shareholders; they have more freedom to forsake some degree of profit to make the workplace safer, or to keep a plant in operation. Noting that worker ownership has saved numerous companies from bankruptcy, the bishops ask, "Why should it not give added strength to new or growing enterprises?" A good question.

But what of companies that are not worker owned? The bishops observe that business "is a genuine Christian vocation when carried out as a form of stewardship." Unfortunately, they do not follow up with guidance on how to exercise that stewardship when Stewart Mott is not your major shareholder and you are meeting with the stock analysts in New York tomorrow. One way is through family ownership. The laws today offer numerous inducements for family owners (of newspapers, for example) to "go public" or sell out to larger companies, thereby subjecting themselves to the bottom-line tyranny of the market. Family owners, like worker owners, can tell those stock analysts to kiss off and so have more leeway for moral decisions regarding their customers, workers, and communities. (Local ownership generally tends to reconcile the needs of enterprise and community; the owner of a local restaurant cares more about the condition of Main Street than Roy Rogers does.)

This is not to suggest that there aren't any greedy familu businesses in America; some of them run company towns. Nor is it to suggest that every steelworker in this country would be distressed if his mill dumped some much into the river. Family and worker ownership don't eliminate the need for regulation. But they tend to reduce that need by internalizing community values into the enterprise itself. They give managers more leeway to act upon the values to which the bishops rightly hold them. At the very least, such forms of ownership would eliminate the automatic alibi that faceless shareholders now provide and would make both owners and managers confront more directly their Christian duty to operate their enterprises in the best interests of the community as a whole.

The bishops say much about our economic life that is important and wise. They chastise us for materialism. They hold our economic life to a standard higher than the utility curves of the economic texts. But they also show an unhealthy ambivalence towards the central engine of the nation's economic health. Not sure whether they even like it, they fall short on the moral guidance that will make that system really work. It's too bad. A little moral guidance wouldn't be a bad thing right now.
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Title Annotation:Catholic bishops' pastoral letter
Author:Nocera, Joseph
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1985
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