Accountable Economics

There is no issue in this country so in need of leadership from the Church as people’s struggle to cope with the economic pressures that are fragmenting their families and preventing them from loving God and neighbor as they should.

Certainly inflation is down; the stock market is going crazy; interest rates have retreated to what we used to consider usurious rates; but there are still at least eleven million adult Americans looking unsuccessfully for work and most of the rest of us must still struggle just to maintain a modest level of existence.

New answers to these problems need to come from laity, clergy and bishops alike. Yet we in the American Church should learn from the experience of our predecessors: avoid ideological arguments and focus on ways to make economic institutions accountable.

In the late 1880’s, American Catholics faced a similar challenge. The Church at that time was growing in both numbers and influence, yet the immigrants who made up the bulk of her members were not receiving a just share of the American dream. At the end of the first American Catholic Congress in Baltimore in 1889, the laity passed a resolution “to cooperate with the clergy in discussing and in solving those great economic and social questions which affect the interests and well-being of the Church, the country, and society at large.”

Laymen William Richards of Washington, D.C. and Peter Foy of St. Louis presented major papers on economics to the lay, clerical and episcopal delegates at that Congress. There was never a suggestion that the American system ought to be condemned. Most of the participants at the Congress felt that Catholics should in fact become more Americanized. The theme of the speeches was not theoretical, but practical: the Church should help push the door of opportunity open to admit more working people.

The abuses of capital and the gospel of wealth were strongly attacked. The leaders in Baltimore recognized that poverty was not the result of individual fault but of social injustice. Various speakers offered proposals for making the economic system more accountable to the people who made it function with their labor. Richards and Foy made specific recommendations for social insurance, pension funds, tenants’ rights, relief programs, disability payments, job training and vocational education, tax reform to “force the rich to share their surplus with the poor,” the formation of more trade unions, and an end to “monopolists’ resistance to the forthcoming demand for an income tax.”

In 1919, laymen of the Knights of Columbus in Louisville asked sociologist Fr. John A. Ryan to address them on current economic problems. His paper, Social Reconstruction: A General Review of the Problems and Survey of Remedies, was later adapted by a committee of U.S. bishops and promulgated as a pastoral letter. Social Reconstruction was — as were the Baltimore statements thirty years earlier — short on rhetoric and long on specific, programmatic ideas for reform of the economic system. Aware of the eschatological nature of Christianity, the pastoral spent no time trying to baptize one economic system nor condemn another. Instead, it recognized that the most moral economic institutions were those accountable to the interest of the people of God. (This they called the principle of the common good.)

In the brief introduction, it was argued that economic justice is a precondition to the other great issue of that day and ours: world peace.

The deep unrest so emphatically and so widely voiced throughout the world is the most serious menace to the future peace of every nation and of the entire world. Great problems face us. They cannot be put aside; they must be met and solved with justice to all.

The pastoral then got down to work analyzing and suggesting programs for making the American economy more accountable. Many of their proposals became the basis for the New Deal and served as the Church’s social platform for the next fifty years: municipal housing projects, cooperative stores, group medicine, minimum wage, insurance for illness, disability, unemployment and old age. Ryan and his colleagues argued that the “full possibilities of increased production will not be realized so long as the majority of the workers remain wage-earners. The majority must somehow become owners, or at least in part, of the instruments of production.”

The Church and the U.S. society in which it now exists needs a pragmatic program that goes beyond trade unions and the welfare state as the solution to all of our economic woes. The fact is that the problems of unemployment and inflation and usury and advertising are beyond the scope of both liberal and conservative traditional answers.

The federal government now spends over half of its annual budget on preparing for war, waging war and paying for past wars. Most corporations now have no loyalty to this country or any country. Many unions are more concerned about their own survival as an institution than in the protection or promotion of their members. Television is the single most important influence on society’s values.

The economic question that the people of God must address in very specific and practical terms is this: How is the isolated family going to hold these institutions of power accountable, and is the Church going to help them do so?

There are some examples of this kind of accountable economics now happening in this country, often with the support of some part of the institutional church:

— In many local congregations, people are pooling their buying power to negotiate with banks or supermarkets or landlords or insurance companies.

— Some denominations and church bodies and religious orders have been attempting to use their stock proxies to force changes in corporate policy.

— Church-backed consumer boycotts have won justice for farm and textile and other workers.

— Workers have purchased factories that were about to close or leave their communities and are attempting to run them as cooperatives.

— Credit unions, schools, hospitals and other alternative institutions have been organized by the Church to compete directly with profit-making organizations.

— Congregations and community organizations are building new and rehabilitating old housing with and without government help.

— Self-help groups of the unemployed have been organized in some parishes to produce new solutions for their members.

As they did seventy and a hundred years ago, these and other new approaches to society’s woes need the active leadership of both laity, clergy and hierarchy and the commitment of the still imposing resources of the Church. If the Church can just focus their thinking on one word — accountability, what it is and how to achieve it — then it could produce a program on economic justice that is right on the money.


  • William M. Droel and Gregory F. Pierce

    When this article was published in 1983, William M. Droel had just completed his master's thesis, Mediating Structures and Catholic Social Thought, at Mundelein College and Gregory F. Pierce was awaiting publication of his book Activism That Makes Sense: Congregations and Community Organization by Paulist Press.

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