ATLANTA —The U.S. bishops approved a proposal by Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., during their meeting in Atlanta this week to draft a message on the U.S. economy.
“It has been a long time since the body of bishops has addressed the moral and human dimensions of economic life in light of Catholic teaching,” Bishop Blaire, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, told members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at the Atlanta meeting.
“This is especially urgent when so many of our people are suffering and wonder whether their Church cares and has anything to say about their situation and the economy that has left them behind.”
He proposed that the statement, “Reflections on Work, Poverty and a Broken Economy,” would offer principles and insights culled from Catholic social teaching, including “the encyclicals of Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est and Caritas in Veritate,” to provide a strong message to the faithful during a time of economic crisis.
The statement will also examine the “costs” of the crisis and express solidarity with the unemployed and those at the margins, with the hope of eliciting “Catholic conversations” on the moral responsibilities of various individuals and institutions at the heart of the economy.
But in a sign that some conference members are concerned that recent statements have been hijacked by partisan forces during an election year, the discussion preceding the vote featured a series of interventions by several bishops. They raised concerns about conference statements that attacked the budget proposals of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and warned that any new statement should not venture beyond their competence as teachers of faith and morals.
This April, in two widely quoted letters to the House Agriculture Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee opposing cuts required by the budget resolution, Bishop Blaire stated, “The House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria” in Catholic social teaching that requires adequate protections for the poor.
The comments and objections raised by several bishops at the meeting spanned a variety of concerns. They challenged the specificity of some heavily publicized statements, expressed skepticism about their competence to weigh in on prudential matters traditionally left to the laity and suggested that the connection between the traditional family unit and a strong economy had been ignored.
Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing, Mich., was the first to step to the podium during the discussion that preceded the vote.
“There have been some concerns raised by lay Catholics, especially some Catholic economists, about what was perceived as a partisan action against Congressman Ryan and the budget he had proposed,” said Bishop Boyea. That statement “didn’t really further dialogue in our deeply divided country.”
In his view, statements that endorsed specific economic policies revealed a lack of “humility.” He told the assembly, “We need to learn far more than we need to teach in this area. We need to listen more than we need to speak. We already have an excellent, fine Compendium [of the Social Doctrine of the Church].”
Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., agreed that the committee was “at times perceived as partisan” and neglected the principle of subsidiarity, which calls for solutions that can be provided close to people in need.
Archbishop Naumann suggested that drafters of the statement needed to rethink a tendency to advocate for government assistance, and he said that the conference’s proposals should not ignore the ballooning national deficit.
“Sometimes we’re perceived as just encouraging the government to spend more money, with no realistic way of how we’re going to afford to do this,” he observed.
A third statement, by Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, echoed Archbishop Naumann’s suggestion that the proposed document focus more on the family as the central social institution and spoke of how the “disintegration of the family” had fueled the demand for government assistance.
Bishop Blaire was not available for further comment during the Atlanta meeting. But in a May 4 interview with the Register, he defended his public statements.
“I know they have interpreted our response as critical of the Ryan budget and perhaps it is. But, really, I want to protect the poor and vulnerable in our country. We will keep speaking out no matter what party is in power,” said Bishop Blaire.
“You have to determine what your priorities are. If your only priority is to cut the budget, that approach is inadequate.”
This week, in an interview, Archbishop Naumann said his intervention reflected his hope that the drafters of the statement incorporate the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family, underscoring the economic impact of the decline of marriage that has left single mothers and their children on the margins of society.
“One point I wanted to make was that the same people who see the solution as government assistance are the same people attacking the traditional family. We need safety nets, but we also need to look for solutions that strengthen the family. People should have the dignity that comes from caring for themselves,” he said.
“I am hoping that this document will address points that have not been in previous documents.”
James Capretta, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and the former associate director at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) from 2001 to 2004, suggested, “If the bishops weigh in on economic questions, it would be best to emphasize points upon which the Church speaks with unquestioned authority and credibility.”
“Specifically, the bishops should reinforce the need for economic policies that promote and strengthen the nuclear family, especially among low-income households, where marriage is rapidly becoming the exception and not the rule for those having children. What those policies should be is a complicated question, but there’s no doubt about its importance to the future vitality of the country,” said Capretta.
Bishop Boyea, for his part, said his critique of recent conference statements on the economy arose, in part, from a dawning awareness about the complexity of economic policy.
Recently, he was one of 15 bishops who participated in a conference hosted by the Lumen Christi Institute for Catholic Thought at the University of Chicago which has organized a series of national conferences for research economists on economics and Catholic social thought.
The conference, “Toward a Moral Economy: Politics and Values for the 21st Century,” featured a major address by German Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich. The meeting drew about 300 scholars and religious and business leaders and was co-sponsored by the German Catholic Social Science Unit (Katholische Sozialwissenschaftliche Zentralstelle) and The John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.
“The conference pointed out to me how much I don’t know about the whole issue of Catholic social teaching and the economy,” said Bishop Boyea.
“One of the most exciting things about it is how many wonderful Catholics are really taking their faith seriously in the marketplace. It’s wonderful to listen to them and encourage what they are doing. They are doing the work of evangelization,” he said.
Joseph Kaboski, a Notre Dame economist who has participated in the Lumen Christi Institute conferences, said that their value “is really the exchange itself. The economy and society are always changing, and Catholic social thought is really a perfect example of the ‘living Tradition’ of the faith at work.”
He expressed the hope that the bishops’ statement would initiate a “conversation” among the faithful about essential matters.
“We have these eternal principles that are true always and everywhere,” he said, “but we need to always be reflecting on them and reapplying them faithfully to changing situations.”