BALTIMORE — During their annual meeting in Baltimore, the U.S. bishops voted Nov. 13 against the release of a much-anticipated pastoral statement of support for Americans suffering from the economic crisis.

"This document is dead," stated the dismayed president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, after less than the required two-thirds majority of his brother bishops supported the release of the statement "Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Economic Times."

The debate preceding the vote underscored disputes over the scope and tone of the statement and offered glimpses of nostalgia among some older bishops for the 1980s, when the conference’s ambitious pastoral letter "Economic Justice for All" earned widespread attention in the media.

But the vote against the statement’s release was widely explained as primarily the unfortunate result of a fast-tracked effort that circumvented the usual review process that allows ample time for the full body of bishops to debate and revise before a vote.

Cardinal Dolan acknowledged that the outcome underscored the importance of following established procedures for producing statements that fully reflect the "voice of the body."

Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles echoed that insight during a press conference following the vote. Archbishop Gomez suggested that the statement needed to bolster its "vision of hope with tangible examples of what the Church is actually doing" to aid those in need, such as outreach provided by Catholic Charities and local parishes.

Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, who was appointed by Cardinal Dolan to spearhead the writing of the statement, expressed both regret and acceptance of the action taken by his brother bishops, who approved the statement by a 134-85 margin, with nine abstentions, short of the 152 votes needed to pass it.


More Modest Message

"Hope of the Gospel," in its final draft, outlined a relatively modest message for Church leaders, who in past decades have tackled broader issues of social inequalities, the marginalization of the poor and the rights of workers to bargain collectively and strike.

"We are very conscious that we stand in the tradition of Catholic social teaching, from Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (On the New Things) to Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), as well as the documents and statements that have come from the bishops’ conference these past 25 years, including ‘Economic Justice for All’ (1986)," wrote the authors of the statement.

"We do not intend to offer a comprehensive analysis of economic systems at work in our nation or in the world. Rather, we want to offer a word of pastoral wisdom and encouragement based on the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

Much of the 14-page statement underscores the need for moral integrity in the creation of a more just society, particularly in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis that exposed an array of ethical lapses in the banking sector and in government oversight.

The statement shifts attention from a national debate on the origins of the economic crisis and solutions for unemployment to the spiritual and moral challenges faced by ordinary Americans.

It points to the need for virtue during times of hardship, when aimlessness and despair may tempt some to give up hope and discontinue their efforts to secure employment.

The authors establish a connection between broader social trends, like the growing number of children raised in single-parent households, and rising levels of poverty, highlighting the need for better religious formation and the inculcation of virtue in schools. 

"We write during this Year of Faith. … It is our hope that this letter will encourage prayer and study, as well as promote conversation and discussion within our parishes and our dioceses, in order that together we may find creative and constructive ways of resolving the economic problems we face."


Actions, Not Words

During the press conference following the vote on the statement, Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, Calif., acknowledged that action at the parish and diocesan levels offered a more important message of hope to the poor than a conference document.

A number of bishops confirmed that many Catholics across the country had been extraordinarily generous in the midst of the economic crisis. For example, the national collection following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti had yielded $85 million for relief and rebuilding efforts in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.

However, the debate preceding the vote on the document also reflected conflicting views about the scope and prophetic role of conference documents. Several older and retired bishops lamented the failure to present the rich intellectual foundations of Catholic social teaching and apply principles in a more decisive and "specific" manner.

"My problem is that there is no sting and no bite," stated Bishop Peter Rosazza, retired auxiliary bishop of Hartford, Conn.

Retired Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston, Texas, hinted at the generational divide within the USCCB during an interview with the Register. He noted the document’s failure to address the rights of unions to organize or to critique specific policies that fomented social inequalities and suggested that some "younger" bishops were cautious about applying Catholic social principles.

"The economy is different today. But if we still want justice for our people, the economy has to be judged on how it affects people: Is it for people or trying to use people?" said Archbishop Fiorenza. "We asked that question in 1986, and we got it right then."


Urgent Matters

Recently after the election, the skepticism from some bishops may partly reflect a desire to stay focused on urgent matters at hand, from securing diocesan services for those in need to weighing the Church’s options for dealing with the federal contraception mandate.

During a Nov. 13 press conference, Cardinal Dolan confirmed that the conference sought to re-engage the Obama administration while pursuing legal and legislative remedies.

After a yearlong effort to educate the public about the threat posed by the mandate, the mood of conference deliberations this November signaled a time of careful analysis, with Church leaders seeking to deploy the weight of their office in a judicious manner.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., argued during the conference debate that the bishops overstep their "competence" when issuing specific policy judgments. During an interview after the vote, however, he made it clear that his diocese was committed to serving those in need and reported that Church agencies experienced a jump in donations since the onset of the crisis.  

Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., told the conference that the release of the statement would do little to enhance the bishops’ credibility.

"I am just not sure in this very difficult time that we as bishops need another document that won’t be relevant. I don’t think we can afford to erode our relevance any more. If we want to give hope to our people … we should scrap the document, go home and provide tangible support to those in need."

The 2012 campaign season, which included the appointment of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as the GOP vice-presidential candidate, prompted an expectation among committed Catholics that the public would be treated to a robust debate on the proper application of Church social doctrine.

Ryan had been criticized in several letters issued by USCCB committees concerned about the impact of his budget proposals on social entitlements. During the spring USCCB meeting in Atlanta, several bishops urged that the forthcoming statement on the economy avoid any appearance of partisanship, and that concern may have influenced the development of the final draft.

During a Nov. 13 press conference, Bishop Soto acknowledged that Ryan’s candidacy did not yield a satisfying debate on Catholic doctrine, but it did resonate with some of the public.

"The fact that in an election year any candidate might even pronounce the word ‘subsidiarity’ is already an accomplishment. In terms of the whole conversation about the role of government, I welcome that subsidiarity has been brought into the lexicon of public discourse," said Bishop Soto, with a flicker of humor.


Immigration Reform

Bishop Soto joined a number of his brother bishops at a Nov. 13 press conference to announce the conference’s stepped-up effort to press for comprehensive immigration reform to address the status of undocumented workers.

The conference may have tabled its statement on hope during tough economic times, but the bishops made it clear that they would continue to help those in need and fight to overcome injustice.

The stalled effort to secure immigration reform, said Bishop Soto, "has been justice delayed and denied. This issue needs to be brought forward now."

"We have a significant population that lives on the margins of life," he said. "They made tremendous sacrifices to be here. They are citizens waiting to be incorporated in this society."


Faith and Hope

Archbishop Vigneron said that he, too, sought to focus his energies on providing spiritual and practical support for the needy during a seismic shift in the economy, particularly in Detroit.

"One of the most debilitating things about economic troubles is people’s feeling a sense of powerlessness or hopelessness," he said. "When I am talking to Christians, I focus the message on Christ. When I am with interfaith groups, we talk about how religion can build up a sense of community and encourage people to look at one another as the most important resources we have."

As Detroit and the automobile industry struggle to re-establish their mission and priorities in a changing world economy, Archbishop Vigneron added, "My message is that God is with us, and we are with one another. People can deal with a lot of trouble if they are not alone."