Report From the Ad Hoc Committee on the American Economy

National Conference of Catholic Bishops Meeting, November 16, 1983

During the debate on the pastoral letter on Marxism, November 1980, some bishops spoke to the need for a comparable study on the relationship of Christianity to Capitalism. In fact, many saw such a document as especially meaningful if coming from the Conference of Bishops of the United States, given the importance of our nation for the economy of the world. Preparing such a document seemed consistent, moreover, with the practice of the Conference to issue periodic statements on the economy.

Archbishop Roach, President of the Conference, asked me to chair this committee, and Bishops Joseph Daley (Harrisburg), George Speltz (St. Cloud), William Weigand (Salt Lake City), and Peter Rosazza (Auxiliary of Hartford), were appointed its members. Because of illness, Bishop Daley asked to resign from the committee, and Archbishop Thomas Donnellan (Atlanta) graciously accepted the appointment to take his place. From among the religious, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men designated Father Michael Lavelle, S.J., then provincial of the Detroit Province of the Society of Jesus, as a consultant and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious named Sister Ann Margaret Cahill, O.P. to the same capacity.

In addition to the staff of four provided by the USCC (Mr. Thomas Quigley, Father Bryan Hehir, Mr. Ronald Krietemeyer, and Monsignor George Higgins), Dr. Donald Warwick of the Harvard Institute for International Development was named a special consultant. Later, Dr. Charles Wilber, chairman of the Department of Economics of Notre Dame University, was also added in the same capacity.

The committee has been meeting now at regular intervals for over two years. The format of most meetings is built around hearings from all sectors of society and then discussion by members of the committee and staff — such discussion leading up to the drafting of preliminary texts of the most important sections of the document. The committee has heard from theologians, economists, sociologists, Congressional staff dealing with economic issues, and representatives from social justice organizations from both the U.S. and the Third World. We have heard from a variety of business leaders, representatives of organized labor, and persons representing rural and farm interests. These hearings will continue and be supplemented by the large ‘amount of correspondence which reaches us from interested people in the United States and abroad — especially from Third World nations.

From the beginning the committee recognized the complexity of the issues involved and the controversial character of the undertaking. It was also soon made evident that some clear limitations would have to be placed on the work. The committee decided in its first meetings not to approach capitalism on a theoretical level, such as had been the treatment of Marxism in the previous pastoral. It was felt that capitalism does not lend itself to a similar analysis, since there is no simple coherent philosophical world view that is identifiable for the capitalist position. It was also felt to be impossible to treat of all the differing forms of capitalism found throughout the world (Japan, West Germany, France, or Brazil, for example) and so the committee chose to limit its work to the American economy in the first instance and how it affects the rest of the world to a lesser degree. Although we would have liked to have delved more extensively into economic interdependency, we have had to place some limits on our work and only make a beginning toward this essential aspect of the question.

One pole of our theme is thus more accurately described as capitalism as it exists in our own American society and, in a limited way, its impact on an interdependent world.

In Octogesima Adveniens (#4), issued May 14, 1971, Pope Paul VI, after citing the different socio-political systems and cultures of the world, challenged us in the following words:

In the face of such widely varying situations it is difficult for us to utter a unified message and to put forward a solution which has universal validity. Such is not our ambition, nor is it our mission. It is up to the Christian communities to analyze with objectivity the situation which is proper to their own country, to shed light on the Gospel’s unalterable words and to draw principles of reflection, norms of judgment, and directives for action from the social teaching of the Church.

Taking this text to heart, we are seeking to analyze the social teaching of the Church since Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) to Laborem Exercens of Pope John Paul II (1981) for those guiding principles that affect the economic and social fabric of our nation. An extensive section of our work has thus been devoted to an analysis of this Catholic social teaching and the principles that touch economic. issues. We are also trying to relate the universal teaching to our own specific economic, political, and cultural setting, mindful of the responsibility we have as the Church in this country to the world.

We feel our work is most opportune. We have found through our hearings the need in all sectors of society to bring to the empirical debate the moral and ethical dimensions that are too often left aside. In this way we hope to bring to the wider debate on economic policy a sensitivity to both the empirical data as well as the ethical dimensions every policy entails, keeping in mind in particular the centrality of the human person.

It seemed impossible for us to treat of all issues and policy possibilities, so we again imposed limitations on our work. We will examine in more detail the relationship between Catholic social teaching and four current and related areas of economic discussion. They are:

1) Employment generation. We believe that a case can be drawn from Catholic social teaching for urgent, serious, and concerted effort being given to the question of employment creation as a top national priority.

2) Adequate income for the poor and disadvantaged. The committee believes that we as Church, from our teaching on the dignity of the human person, have something to say about this area which not only affects policy but also its implementation.

3) Trade: U.S. and developing countries. By approaching this area the committee hopes to be able to point out moral and ethical implications which result from economic interdependency.

4) Economic planning and policy: The last item flows from the first three, although it is at a different level of analysis. Nevertheless, the committee notes that so many issues, for example those between labor and management, plant relocations, protective tariffs, cannot be treated without reflecting on the larger question of planning. It is necessary and urgent? Who should be involved? More re¬cent Catholic social teaching challenges us to examine this issue in a new way.

We hope, in limiting ourselves to these four categories, that we can broaden the debate in other areas as well, although they cannot be treated in our paper…

What remains to be done?

In the same paragraph of Octogesima Adveniens, Pope Paul VI states that Christians must first of all renew their confidence in the forcefulness and special character of the demands made by the Gospel. The committee does not believe it has yet come to grips with that challenge. So much of the social teaching of the Church of the last century has been derived from the natural law theory and the committee must yet wrestle with its relationship to the Gospel vision.

We would also like to hear more from members of other Churches who are dealing with the same issues.

In December of this year, Notre Dame University will host a symposium on the four areas outlined above as an assistance to the bishops for their further reflection.

We hope to continue our hearings through the winter, so that no area will not be heard from.

Finally, we would like to keep the following timetable:

1) Distribution and presentation of the letter during the meeting next November, 1984. Because of the sensitivity of the issues discussed and wishing to avoid false possible partisan implications of the letter, we believe it is best to avoid discussion of its contents during a presidential campaign.

2) Write-in amendments and then promulgation of a second draft. It would be our hope to have that second draft in the hands of the bishops before a spring meeting in 1985.

3) Third and final draft voted on at the November meeting in 1985.

In light of the above, you can see now why we prefer to call the pastoral letter, Catholic Social Teaching and The American Economy, rather than the more pretentious title — Christianity and Capitalism. We would be pleased if it is but a modest beginning to a continual examination of how economic issues affect our whole socio-political fabric and of the importance of keeping the ethical and moral dimensions present as an integral part of such discussion.

In this way we hope we will be doing as bishops that which Pope Paul VI asked of us in Octogesima Adveniens:

“It is up to these [local] Christian communities, with the help of the Holy spirit, in communion with the bishops who hold responsibility and in dialogue with other Christian brethren and all people of goodwill, to discern the options and commitments which are called for in order to bring about the social, political, and economic changes seen in many cases to be urgently needed” (#4).


  • Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland

    Rembert George Weakland (born April 2, 1927) was an American prelate of the Catholic Church. He served as Archbishop of Milwaukee from 1977 to 2002. He is the author of A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop, which explores Church reform issues and the child abuse crisis.

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