Toward Consensus: Suggestions for Revising the Bishops’ First Draft, Part 1

Peter Flanigan has shown in America [January 5-12], 5-12], that there is a remarkable parallelism between the first draft of the bishops’ pastoral letter and the lay letter on the U.S. economy. A substantive consensus is within reach.

Nonetheless, a patch of philosophical analysis appears from time to time in the bishops’ draft, which is not mandated either by Scripture or by Catholic social teaching: Newsweek has captured it in the headline, “God as Social Democrat.” This strain of argument, added on top of the basic discussion, is deeply troubling to many: (1) for practical reasons (it is likely to hurt the poor) and (2) for philosophical reasons (its presence appears to coerce those who cannot, in conscience, accept it as a valid philosophy of political economy). This way of thinking appears chiefly in Chapter Two of Part One, “Ethical Norms for Economic Life.” But its presence also appears in scattered sentences and formulations, like a vivid red thread, at several other locations throughout the draft.

In addition, there are many individual sentences which, with care, might be revised so as retain their fundamental intention but in a more inclusive, less philosophically narrow way.

Michael Harrington, the president of the Democratic Socialists USA, has said that if a political party adopted the first draft as a political platform, he would join such a party. That rather narrow point of view is found throughout in the vein mentioned above. It might be retained, but in a less exclusive, alienating way.

Our assumptions in what follows are twofold: (1) the bishops wish to be critical of the U.S. economy, in a way which leads to moral improvement beyond the status quo; and (2) the bishops wish to do so in a philosophically inclusive way, so as to inspire all U.S. Catholics in a philosophically pluralistic framework, scrutinized in the light both of Scripture and of the tradition of Catholic social teaching.

In other words, the pastoral letter should transcend philosophical divisions among Catholics. It should speak to and for liberals and conservatives, democratic socialists and moderates, not solely to and for one faction alone.

Some General Observations

Initial reactions in the press stressed the “Policy Applications” of Part Two. This was inevitable, since a pastoral letter is by intention practical. In addition, a major election campaign involving profound philosophical differences had just been concluded (in which a higher proportion of U.S. Catholics voted Republican than ever before). Yet in their sections regarding public policy. the basic affirmations of the first draft and of the lay letter are remarkably similar (although, as we shall see, the two letters approach the problem of specificity differently).

Both letters affirm that the measure of a good society is how well it cares for the needy, the poor, the vulnerable. Both underline the importance of a creative, inventive economy in creating new employment. Both argue that the current U.S. welfare system needs basic re-design, the better to fulfill its legitimate purposes. Both defend the principle of free trade and open markets in the U.S., especially for goods from the Third World. Both recognize the positive contributions of multinational corporations, together with the moral-political problems that arise from their actions. Both reject central planning, while urging more cooperative forethought concerning economic growth. And so forth.

There are differences — some of them important — between the respective parts of the two letters concerning policy applications. For one thing, the lay letter, striving for consensus on fundamental principles, mentions many alternative specifics but endorses few; whereas the bishops’ first draft endorses numerous specifics (which it explicitly recognizes will stimulate legitimate dissent), For another, the bishops’ first draft takes up a point of view on policy, in the matter of specifics, which many Americans, both liberal and conservative, have studied for the past decade and found wanting. This approach renders the first draft more narrow and less inclusive than it might be. The same point of view might be retained, if its legitimate alternatives were at least mentioned and the reasoning behind them given some notice.

Yet it is, really, in Part One, “Biblical and Theological Foundations,” that the first draft is (ironically) most polemical. Three concepts figure most centrally here, and each is inadequately developed: (1) The basic question of what an economy is (“…what an economy does for people … and to people . . .”); (2) the meaning of “poverty” in Scripture; and (3) the philosophy of “economic rights.” These three concepts underlie the entire pastoral. If they are flawed, the flaws affect much else in the letter. And they are flawed. Yet the flaws could be corrected by further refinement, by surer clarity, and by necessary qualification. A second draft, so amended, would move much closer to general acceptance if the necessary effort were expanded.

Three Flawed Concepts

A brief discussion of the difficulties many see in the three central concepts mentioned above may be of use to the drafting committee. Consider each of the three in sequence.

(1) Reifying “the economy“: Often, the first draft speaks of “the economy” as if it were something outside of and above individuals. This approach neglects the specific nature of a free economy, which allows individuals freedom to make economic decisions. Thus, the opening sentence reifies the economy (as do several others throughout): “Every perspective on economic life that is human, moral and Christian must be shaped by two questions: What does the economy do for people? What does it do to people?” In his instruction on liberation theology, Cardinal Ratzinger stressed the danger of speaking of “social sin” or “structural sin.” So, again, Pope John Paul II in his Instruction on Penance. In the United States, the first of the world’s free economies, stress is rightly put on the individual responsibility for economic decisions: homeowners, workers, investors, owners, managers, etc. Decisions are not made by “the economy”; individuals make them. The first draft too often depersonalizes, surely through inadvertence.

Suggested revision: “What do people through the economy do for people? What do people through the economy do to people? What do people through the economy do with people?” These three questions better capture the specific nature of the free economy; the Catholic doctrine of individual responsibility, virtue and sin; and the cooperative, associative nature of free economic activities. This third point is especially important both to notions of social justice and to Part II, chapter 6, on “collaboration” and “cooperation.” This change of viewpoint should be observed consistently throughout the draft. (Otherwise, individuals escape responsibility by saying, “It’s not my fault, the economy made me do it…” Moreover, to reify the economy is to think unconsciously in a collectivist way, perhaps yielding too much to system and structures and institutional actors, while minimizing the responsibility of individuals in freedom. This is a matter of balance and, in a moral discussion, of clarity.)

Correlatively, in speaking of the poor, the draft tends to look at the poor as passive victims, done to and for, without any of the responsibilities of free moral persons. One should always ask “what can people do with and for the poor, to enable them to take responsibility… Responsibility and moral obligation ought to be key notions, both for the affluent and for the poor, right from the opening sentence. A free economy requires this focus. Its aim is to free people to be responsible for themselves and their families. Moral responsibility also requires this focus; as the ground of human dignity, it lies at the heart of Catholic moral teaching.

(2) Concepts important to political economy in Scripture [A. Biblical Perspectives, ¶s26-721. While there are many good things in this biblical section, there are several glaring weaknesses.

(a) Spiritual vs. material poverty. The biblical view affirms “poverty of spirit” (even for the wealthy); this evangelical concept of poverty includes, but goes beyond concern for the material needs of windows, orphans, the poor, etc. This difference needs clarification. Even in saying, “the poor ye will always have with you,” biblical teaching does not condone passivity in regard to the material condition of the poor. But neither does it hold that overcoming material poverty is the be-all of social justice. If all the poor were middle class, the work of the Church ‘would not be finished. The rich, too, as Pope John Paul II stresses, are often impoverished in spirit. In the Bible, poverty is a nonexclusive concept.

(b) Works righteousness. In dialogue with the Lutherans, the church has been stressing salvation by faith and grace, not works. Yet the tendency of the first draft (¶s41, 57, etc.) is to identify salvation with “doing justice” in the world. This is a delicate point. The text at times suggests that doing justice wins God’s blessings and prosperity, in a parallel to the (bogus) Calvinist concept that prosperity is a sign that one has been doing justice. (There is a tendency for biblical scholars to overlook later doctrinal debates, and thus to re-create false impressions based on Scripture alone.)

(c) The draft overpraises the legitimate notions of community and solidarity, to the relative (but not total) neglect of individual responsibility. This tendency has fateful economic implications. Due balance is needed.

(d) By concentrating on the Scriptural milieu, the draft ignores the differences between the meaning of words such as “poverty” in that milieu and their operational meaning today. E.g., biblical poverty is not the same as that of the U.S. Census Bureau ($10,200 per year for a non-farm family of four). Moreover, the invention of the institutions of the “open society” in modern times makes operational a new relation between the person and the common good (J. Maritain, etc.). The biblical section fails to note the immense developments — intellectual and institutional — between the biblical era and today’s world. To this extent, its hermeneutical task remains unfinished.

(e) In stressing “creation, covenant, and community,” the first draft overlooks the central notion of sin. Human sinfulness is the basic insight behind the “open society” — Trust no person with too much power. The separation of systems (democracy, free economy, and pluralism) and the separation of powers in government (executive, legislative and judicial) flow from this insight. So also does the anti-utopian, realistic tradition of prudence, in a contingent and sinful world. The failure to stress sin is a grave omission. The biblical section, as is, gives rise to an olympian, abstract vision of perfect justice and peace. It mentions “the interim” during which history now unfolds. . But it does not appropriately show how no society in sinful history can be built as if the vision of perfect justice and ‘peace had already been realized, or could be realized.

(3) Economic Rights [B. “Ethical Norms for Economic Life,” esp. Section A, ¶s74-89]. The aim of this section is to be “radical,” to call for “A New American Experiment,” and to extend the “pride of place” given by the Founders of the ‘ U.S. to “political and civil rights” to new “economic rights.” It attributes U.S. reluctance to declare “economic rights” to “individual and group selfishness.” This last accusation is dubious. The resistance is profound, philosophical, and theologically sound.

(a) The mere declaration of economic rights is of no real use to the poor, as is shown in the many nations (Soviet and Third World regimes) which do declare such’ rights — in order to blunt the reality of civil and political rights.

(b) The concept of economic rights undermines the American idea of the limited state. Civil and political rights prevent the state from blocking God-given, unalienable rights. But economic rights empower the state to take positive actions, including the establishment of definitions, conditions, and procedures which beneficiaries must meet, and the seizing of powers over the economy necessary to meet them. This logically takes the form (in China) of population controls; (in the USSR) of mandatory displacement of the unemployed to employment as the state directs (in Siberia, e.g.); and (in Poland) of control over political life by control over all employment. Economic rights inevitably increase the power of the state. (One should note that the one economic right protected in the Constitution — private property — has the form of the civil and political rights, in that it limits the state and sets due bounds to its authority.)

(c) Economic rights profoundly change incentives. They shift the moral obligation of self-reliance and responsibility for providing for one’s family from the individual to the state. Over time, this shift is bound to affect the motivations and habitual virtues of some proportion of persons (witness the experience of Scandinavian socialism).

(d) The concept is not necessary. As the declaration of economic rights does not, by itself, help the poor, so helping the poor can be effectuated without it. A good society can and should help all poor persons either to attain self-reliance (if they can) or to support them (if they are too young, too old, disabled, or otherwise dependent). It does not need to declare “rights” in order to do so.

(e) The concept is ambiguous. The word “rights” has at least three meanings. Which meaning the draft intends is not clear. First, set in the context of constitutionally defended civil and political rights, the first draft seems to be — but probably is not — asking for amendments to the Constitution (“The New American Experiment,” “pride of place”). Second, if not constitutional rights, the word “rights” in ordinary American usage at least seems to suggest legal, actionable rights. If that is its intention, such a declaration would unleash a torrent of civil litigation. A massive governmental intrusion into private affairs would be necessary, to establish who, based on which possessions, would be entitled to what. A third meaning is covered in (g) below.

(f) Stated as a ‘constitutional or legal right, the concept flies in the face of profound American commitments to equal opportunity, self-reliance, and the dignity of personal responsibility. Suddenly, “economic rights” would turn citizens into privileged, entitled clients of the state.

(g) Stated as a claim in justice, the concept of “economic rights” is valid. It is true that needy, dependent individuals (the battered traveler aided by the Good Samaritan, e.g.) make a claim upon the virtue of justice, over and beyond the claims of charity, because each person is made in the image of God. A human being simply cannot stand idly by while another (made in the same image) suffers. But, set in the American context of language about “rights” (constitutional and legal), this draft loses the emphasis upon the legitimate claims inherent in the virtue of justice (and the image of God). It injects into public debate a tremendous (and finally useless) controversy over the Constitution and the legal presuppositions of American life. This controversy would be horrendously divisive. Many citizens for good and overpowering reasons resist the concept of “economic rights” insisted upon at the U.N. by the USSR in 1948. Even though they dislike the idea of watering down the concept of “rights” by extending its usage too often and too far, many might accept the more limited meaning which invokes the virtue of justice. Further, most will agree that the virtue of justice makes claims not only upon individuals but upon societies. As the lay letter notes, the measure of a good society is how well it cares for its needy.

(h) There is an existing American alternative. Americans deeply respect the concept of “Equal Opportunity for All.” A close reading of the first draft suggests that everything that is desired by the drafting committee can be met under this concept. The extension of equal opportunity to all would gain in practice every practical end desired by the declaration of economic rights, without entangling and empowering the state in ways many citizens came to the U.S. to escape.

(i) The section on “Economic Norms,” therefore, fails in two fundamental purposes. First, it fails to grasp and to state accurately the social teaching of the Church on economic rights (the context of the virtue of justice). Second, it fails to grasp and to state accurately the basic equivalent American concept of “liberty and justice for all.” It tries to impose a third alternative, that of economic rights, whose historical record in regimes where it is already practiced is at best dubious and, at worst, deeply offensive to many Americans and many Catholics. This section could be re-written without it, to no notable loss in effectiveness in actually helping the poor. If the concept must be retained, at the very least its relations to constitutional rights, legal theory, and the virtue of justice need to be clarified.

So much by way of general observations, on the three basic difficulties: reifying the economy: various concepts (such as poverty, works righteousness, sin, and the individual) in Scripture; and economic rights.

Specific Recommendations

A. Introduction. Why We Speak [¶s1-22].

(1) The bishops declare two goals for themselves: to act as teachers, “adding our voice to” the public policy debate; and, second, “to influence public policy.” The step from the first to the second purpose is a very large one. The second step is specifically political. It seems to suggest lobbying and trying to influence legislation. For tax-exempt organizations, there is a strict divide between these two steps. Theologically, too, the bishops seem to waver between a teaching role and a role as political actors.

If both purposes are intended, it would be wise to set strict limits to the second, for theological as well as political reasons. Political action even by secular persons arouses political reactions, including fierce passions, even hatred — such as political leaders often experience. There is something to gain through political activism; but also much to lose. The downside must be carefully weighed.

(2) A false image is suggested (¶10) as if in considering the U.S. economy the choice is between “incremental change” and “deep shifts” in structures. Actually, the U.S. economy constantly experiences internal revolution, more than once in a human lifetime. Consider the great upheavals brought by industrialization, the railroads, and the “trusts” after the Civil War; the rise of automobile culture; the New Deal; the affluence and “television culture” since World War II; and the new electronic revolution (“The Second Industrial Revolution”). All these have changed economic, structures, relationships, culture, popular values, and centers of power. (The shift from Snow Belt to Sun Belt has altered the focus of internal migration, political power, and economic dynamism.) The metaphor “future shock” struck many as a plausible description of the experience of a rapid sequence of revolutionary changes. Our tradition is one of revolutionary, not incremental, change. That is the nature of democracy; of a dynamic future-oriented economy; and of a churning pluralism.

The first draft hints at a revolutionary, radical posture by the bishops, beyond mere “incremental change.” But change in the U.S. is normally far more than “incremental.” Besides, the Church is a healing, tradition-maintaining, reconciling family of God.

B. The Christian (Biblical) Vision [¶s26-72].

Most of my comments have already been made above. A few more may be of help.

(1) The theme of “solidarity,” while a good one, is dangerous when carried to excess. In the 1930s the appeal of National Socialism attracted many Catholics, such as Emmanuel Mounier of Esprit, by opposing solidarity to the “decadent individualism” of liberal societies. So today does the appeal of Socialism and Communism. The proper biblical ideal includes both the responsible person and communitarian cooperation for the common good. The “open society” invented in recent generations has institutionalized an historically admirable reciprocity between the free person and the free community — as these had not been institutionalized in biblical (authoritarian) societies. The community which does not respect the responsible person (liberty of conscience, dissent, etc.) is not a fully human (biblical) community. The isolated individual unaware of his or her social bonds to the entire human family is not fully human (biblical). The person requires community, the community requires the person. The Trinity — separate Persons in Community — focuses the radical image of this reciprocity.

The individual receives too little focus in this Scriptural survey. This is an error, since traditional American concepts of the responsible person owe much to biblical thought. In fact, the role of the Bible in America is far too much neglected in this section. The whole treatment of Scripture here has a non-historical character, skipping too quickly from the biblical era to today.

(2) The treatment of eschatology and realism [¶38] lacks the sophistication of Reinhold Niebuhr. It too easily collapses into a weak utopianism. Its sense of sin is almost nonexistent. Its reference to “sinful structures” owes more to contemporary Latin American discourse than to Scripture. and fails to reflect recent critiques by Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II.

(3) The biblical themes of liberty, personal decision, and conscience are too much neglected. The individual is almost lost in the overemphasis on solidarity.

(4) The sense that human sinfulness requires intermediate institutions, designed for sinners, which provide checks and balances, correctives and preventives “in the interim” before the Last Days is understated.

(5) The role of democratic institutions and the free (but not unfettered) market in correcting self-interest is overlooked. Self-interest is an abiding reality, both good and bad, of human life (“love your neighbor as yourself“). In relating Scripture to American institutions, reflections on ordinary self-interest are required, since the Founders were explicit about such materials, claiming that their vision of man owed much to biblical tutelage.

C. Ethical Norms for Human Life [¶s73-150].

In addition to the general observations (above) on “Economic Rights,” the following comments are germane.

(1) Jargon of dubious clarity hurts this section. Much of it derives from Third World writers, in systems quite different from our “open society.” Some examples:

(a) Participation is a recurrent theme. What is intended by this term? Does it mean “free action”? Consider

Catholicism in Crisis/March 1985 the moral sphere: All Americans have rights of conscience, worship, speech, assembly, action. Who is barred from moral participation? Consider the political sphere: All Americans have freedom to vote, are urged and cajoled to vote, and freedom of every sort of democratic political activity. Who is barred by others from political activity? (Until the Civil Rights movement, blacks were excluded. Now, though?) Consider economic participation: The meaning of the draft here seems to be “effective equal opportunity,” such that all do in fact have access to credit (if they wish to launch enterprises of their own, as they are free to do); and such that there are effective employment opportunities for all who wish to work. (An unprecedented proportion of adult Americans now holds paid employment: nearly sixty percent, with a further unprecedented proportion now seeking paid employment: nearly seventy percent.)

For this ideal, the word “participation” seems ambiguous as regards the difference between “equality of opportunity” and “equality of results.” Persons retain full human dignity — for example, the ill, the disabled, the retarded — even if their “participation” is restricted. Besides, participation depends on the active energy of the human subject as well as upon the opportunities afforded by a free society. Many choose not to participate in many of a wide range of activities open to them (even church-going).

The word “participation” does not clarify complex reality. It begs for clarification.

(b) Marginalization [¶s92-93]. This, too, is a Third World word. If it means “the denial of equal opportunity,” or “becoming needy,” powerful American phrases are available for it. The examples the draft draws from American life — a “downward cycle of poverty” (even while new immigrants simultaneously refuse to be its victims); “plant closings” (even while available jobs reach unprecedented high numbers); “farm families driven off the land” (when inheritance taxes force much selling of land); and “elderly people become homeless” through the conversion of apartments to condominiums — do signify serious human needs. Yet for each of these there do exist powerful institutional lobbies: the poverty-welfare complex (which may in some cases be doing more harm to the poor than good); labor unions; the farm associations; and the powerful associations of senior citizens. The word “marginalization” does not cast light on the differences in these situations nor upon prospective solutions actually helpful to those in need. The Church (and others) certainly should help all persons in need, including those in these examples.

But the word “marginalization” has its full force in non-free, non-open societies, in which millions have only extremely limited margins of action. In the U.S., ironically, much more publicity and legislative action have been given to “victims” than to those among the poor who have risen out of poverty, often by heroic (but widespread) efforts. Most poor persons, as the bishops later show, are poor only for a short time. Resources spent for the needy are immense. New experiments and efforts to help are constantly being proposed.

Finally, “marginalization” suggests a deliberate policy — people being driven to the margins. Or at least an intention to keep people invisible or out of sight. This fault cannot be attributed to the U.S. news media, or to the legions of spokespersons for the poor and for victims of every sort. Some credit should be given for the abundant national attention bestowed upon the unemployed on television and elsewhere, rather than the employed; and to the non-working poor, rather than the working poor. Some credit, too, should be given to the successes of poverty programs, rather than their unintended failures; the return to the land, rather than the leaving of it; etc.

The American ideal is to be up-and-doing, full participation in as many activities as the day has hours. Despair, hopelessness, passivity, “marginalization” run counter to American habits. In fact, what puzzles Americans is what is going wrong among those who do not act for themselves. The apathy associated with much of the world is not American.

(c) Priority. The word “priority” occurs often in this draft, e.g. referring to “priority to the needs of the poor.” But “priority,” like “cause,” is an equivocal word of many meanings. Sometimes it means the first thing to be done; sometimes the most important end or goal; sometimes the primary criterion for judging success or failure, etc. In an impoverished society, if all first steps are *remedial (to meet immediate needs) no economic growth can be expected; hence, poverty will remain unchanged. If one’s priority (aim) is to lift the poor out of poverty, other steps may first be necessary (prior in time). Indeed, the very first step may be to establish an order or system conducive to raising up the poor in a routine, regular way over time.

Admittedly, in the search for economic development, many Third World governments have given priority (first steps) to inefficient activities (a national airline; heavy industry; export crops, etc.) such as effectively exclude benefits to the poor for a very long time, if not permanently. It is the property of wisdom to assign steps their proper order. The criterion of “priority” must, in this light, be wisely and clearly used.

To use “priority” as a slogan is of no practical help. Given the diversity of the world’s economic systems, the Pope may use “priority” (“priority to the needs of the poor rather than to the desires of the rich,” e.g.) in a generic sense. A document aimed at Americans, a practical people, should be far more concrete. An important national priority (“freedom from want” is one of the Four Freedoms) is to raise up the poor; but questions of “prior” first steps are much debated. Here one must study what precisely has been going wrong, and what is working. Then proceed experimentally.

(d) The Three Priorities: Norms, not Policies [¶s103-106]. The draft declares three ethical norms. It expresses these as “priorities.” The “highest priority” for economic behavior is assigned to (a) the fulfillment of the basic needs of the poor. Secondly, (b) increased economic participation for the marginalized is contrasted with “the preservation of privileged concentrations of power, wealth, and income,” and given “priority” over it. Thirdly, (c) the investment of human wealth, talent, and energy is assigned as its “priority targets” (a) and (b). There are problems inherent in the word “priorities,” as noted above. In addition, these three norms are not stated as goals that will actually motivate real (partly good, partly sinful) people but, rather, as moral standards they ought to take as motivations. Will such motivations inspire a dynamic society, in fact?

Given the present productivity of the U.S. economy, the “norm” of now fulfilling the basic needs of the poor makes sense; indeed, it is widely accepted. Still, inflation would cruelly hurt the poor most of all — and increase their numbers by devaluating the incomes of those now not poor.

So this “norm” has important pre-conditions. Again, it is not so easy to determine which of the poor need help in fulfilling their “basic needs,” since many of the poor are upwardly mobile on their own; nor to determine what, precisely, will help, rather than undermine, the poor, since some programs of the recent past, designed to help, seem to have done considerable damage.

Secondly, “increased economic participation” is hardly possible for most of the U.S. poor, who are minor children, the elderly, the disabled, and otherwise incapable of full economic participation. As for helping the able-bodied poor to increase their economic participation — i.e., to find work — few Americans disagree with that! What stands in the way is hardly “the preservation of privileged concentrations of power, wealth and income.” Only about one-third of the U.S. poor are able to work; the vast majority of these do work, full-time or part-time, but inflation during the Carter administration made many formerly good jobs too low-paying to raise a family above the poverty level (for which about $5.00 per hour, after taxes, is now required). No one disagrees that a dynamic economy, creating more new jobs, is an indispensable priority if all who wish to work can find work. Thus, the priority before this priority” is a noninflationary, dynamic, job-creating economy. Also, personal help is a prior need for those of the poor who wish to work, but whose habits, attitudes, and skills currently make them “unemployable.”

Third, assigning investment and talent according to the “priority targets” of “fulfilling basic needs” and giving “increased economic participation for the marginalized” raises questions about who assigns priorities, and how. The draft faults investments in “luxury consumer goods” and “military technology.” To take the latter first: Decisions on military matters are arrived at democratically; military spending is currently under seven percent of GNP, and the proportion of that which goes into military hardware is approximately twenty percent. Many serious critics think that the defense of freedom is well worth that amount and, indeed, requires significantly higher expenditures for the updating of conventional (the most expensive) forces. As for the first point, which “luxury consumer goods” should be halted or diminished? By whose decision and authority, and what consequences for employment and services?

The problem with these so-called “norms” is an implicit abstract ranking. Clearly, the poor need to be helped; the unemployed employed. But the implied image of the economy is that of a zero-sum, managed economy, whose “priorities” are set by experts standing outside the system and directing it consciously from above. (Otherwise, to speak of conscious “priorities” doesn’t make sense.) True, the first draft may mean to persuade investors and economic activists to apply their energies differently than they do. The present text provides little by way of persuasion. It seems to express mere preferences. Worse, it is insulting and unnecessarily polemical. Consider the next point.

(e) Privileged Concentrations of Power, Wealth, and Income [¶100]. The draft declares that “the level of inequality and wealth in our society . . . must be judged morally unacceptable.” This judgment is rendered here according to purely abstract criteria without an examination of what that level is, as compared with any other society today or in recorded history. This is “non-historical orthodoxy.” The draft cites without examination an empirical — not a doctrinal — assertion of the 1971 Synod of Bishops: “The influence of the new industrial and technological orders favors the concentration of wealth, power, and decision-making in the hands of a small public or private controlling group.” Immediately, without criticism, the draft leaps to “this concentration of economic privilege,” as if it were a fact. It does not seem to be a fact. Abundant efforts to designate who constitutes this “small” and “controlling” group in the U.S. have consistently foundered. In fact, there seems to be many, varied, and shifting elites. Industry is often divided against industry, firm against firm. Economic power is checked by political power, and both are checked by moral and cultural powers. Official positions within them are open to different persons of different backgrounds and classes.

“Small … controlling group” is a species of conspiracy theory. More than that, it suggests a static, closed society. It ignores upward and downward mobility, the circulation of elites, a society of equal opportunity, and an economic environment in which some industries and some firms become suddenly obsolete (“plant closings”) and new technologies are constantly being invented. Consider the date of the bishops’ nod of 1971. The Arab oil-cartel had not been formed, let alone begun to dissolve. U.S. steel seemed stronger in 1971 than in 1984. No one spoke yet of the Northeastern, North Central industrial complex of the U.S. as “the Dust Bowl,” and Apple Computer and Silicon Valley had not yet been heard from. Even McDonald’s was a relative infant. U.S. auto companies had not been rocked by Japanese imports; South Korean and other textiles had not yet risen to challenge U.S. firms; Brazil was not yet heavily in debt, and was being touted for its “economic miracle.” Wall Street was not yet being rivaled by the “new” Sun Belt elites of California and Texas.

Who, in short, were the “privileged concentrations of power” in 1971 and who are they today? Are they the same? And what constituted their “privileges”? Usually, this word signifies political status, rights, powers. But does it simply mean here that those with higher incomes and • greater wealth can make larger and more sweeping decisions about their possessions? (What happens, though, once their decisions are made in “fixed” investments?) What is the average life-span of a fortune, once made? How many millionaires were there in the U.S. in 1971, and where are their fortunes today? (To take a more significant time frame, where are the fortunes of 1931?)

These are not obscure points. Scholars have tried for generations to identify America’s “power elite,” and again and again been frustrated by the sheer dynamism, openness, diversity and changeability of the U.S. economy. No one denies — the facts are reported annually — that there are elites in the U.S., as in every society in history. But the individuals within those elites (1) change, and (2) compete against one another. Furthermore, the elites of the economic system — officers of public corporations, owners of privately held fortunes or firms, labor union officials, and others — are rivaled and checked by political elites, media elites, and elites of intellectual life, the churches, and public opinion.

In particular, “the new industrial, technological order” is the opposite of static. Old industries and technologies suddenly wither. New elites in new industries and technologies keep arising.

Finally, the great story of the twentieth century is not economic power. It is, around the planet, the rise of the power of the state. From Third World dictators to the Nomenklatura of the USSR, from the Social Democracies of Sweden, France, and West Germany to Japan and the United States, the power of the state in 1985 is vastly greater than it was in 1900. In most parts of the world, the state has nationalized entire industries. The state is conspicuously more powerful than individual corporations, holding powers of life or death over many threatened industries. The state alone controls police and military power, the force of law, regulation, taxation, and monetary and fiscal power. The state is the largest single purchaser of goods and services. In most of the world, the state controls half or more of all employment. By comparison with 1900, “concentrations of economic privilege” in 1984 have been diminished; concentrations of state power are in nearly half the world totalitarian and, virtually everywhere else, vastly expanded. In the U.S., the most dynamic part of the economy is small business, in which some eighty percent of all new jobs are created; the numbers employed by “The Fortune 500″ have been relatively static, or declining, for some years.

(f) Criteria of distributive justice [¶97]. This draft lists five criteria of distributive justice as regards income and wealth. No argument is made for this list. The 1942 text of John A. Ryan of Catholic University, an admirable thinker, is the only source cited. The five criteria are:

(1) the basic moral equality of all persons;

(2) the different needs of different persons;

(3) the level of effort, sacrifice, and risk undertaken;

(4) the relative scarcity or abundance of the goods distributed, as well the different talents or skills of the recipients;

(5) the overall human welfare of all, individually and collectively.

To this list, an attentive, reader will readily think of others. For example:

(6) incentives for invention, creativity, and the emergence of rare talents (typically from among the poor);

(7) free upward — and downward, mobility of families over time;

(8) the existence and functioning of a “safety net” for the most poor and needy;

(9) the protection and furthering of economic dynamism over time;

(10) social encouragement for savings, capital accumulation, and experimentally-minded investment in the future.

(11) the fostering of a climate for entrepreneurship and a strong small-business sector.

The crucial practical point is to try to imagine a system which, in a rough but routine and regular way, fulfills more of these criteria than any other.

The draft continues [¶98]: “This complex [not sufficiently complex] set of criteria implies that a certain inequality in distribution of income and services [sic] can sometimes be justified… The moral acceptability of unequal economic rewards, however, is strictly conditioned.” ¶99 then mentions one criterion: the effects of distribution “on those persons whose basic needs are unmet.” “This condition establishes a strong presumption against inequality or wealth as long as there are poor, hungry, and homeless people in our midst.”

But this is surely a mixing up of two quite different concepts. Suppose that there were no more “poor, hungry, and homeless people” in our midst. By the stated criterion of the first draft, this situation would then seem to permit the current inequalities of income and wealth. The draft does not show, and cannot show, that the current inequality is the cause of the poverty in our midst, as clearly it is not. A mere $45 billion would lift all poor persons in the U.S. above the poverty line. Such a shift of resources — or, actually, a better use of existing aid to the poor — would lift all the poor out of poverty. But it would hardly affect current levels of inequality, since the amount required to end poverty is too small to affect general proportions.

One can only conclude that the draft has been rushed to a pre-determined conclusion. To repeat: there is no proven connection between the needed help to the poor and current levels of income inequality. A different design of social welfare programs would give cash grants directly to the poor, until all were above the official poverty level used by the bishops, while leaving current disparities virtually untouched. There must be something about current disparities offensive to the drafters of the pastoral, beyond the condition of the poor.

What is it? Based on the first draft, one can only speculate. Perhaps current inequalities offend an aesthetic sense. They are, in Arthur Okun’s phrase, “unlovely.” More likely, what offends is the systemic device Americans have hit upon in order to meet the eleven criteria of distributive justice mentioned above, or at least more of them than any other society has succeeded in meeting. That is the device beyond the conscious “prioritizing” of academic experts, rational planners, or command economies: the market.

Ironically, given its moral importance in the American experiment, the first draft never really considers the market as a system designed to promote distributive justice over time. Four observations are in order: (1) the market is a social device, obliging all who enter it to attend to the needs and choices of others; (2) in practice, the market is properly “fettered” by law, regulation, culture, tradition, and the (pluralistic) moral standards of those who participate in it; (3) the market does not take care of every need of society, but must be supplemented in such areas as education, regulation, care for the poor, etc., by the political system; (4) the market system has been designed and promoted in order to meet — not perfectly, but better than any known (traditionalist or socialist) alternative — the eleven moral criteria mentioned above.

The first draft fails to discern the moral underpinnings, intentions, and consequences of the market system (on a comparative historical, not a non-historical basis). This non-historical, abstract approach is a major deficiency of the section on “Ethical Norms for Economic Life.” For one cannot properly speak of “ethical norms” in the abstract, in discussing a particular economic system, without at least specifying the “middle axioms” that appropriately apply to that system. Actually, the “Ethical Norms” in the first draft seem better designed for the static, zero-sum economies of traditional societies. They better fit some Latin American societies, even in phraseology, than they fit the distinctive dynamics of North America.

(g) Economic Democracy. This phrase, which occurs in ¶89, is the slogan of European socialists, notably Olaf Palme, for the “second stage” in the socialist agenda: after the realization of political democracy (civil and political rights), a new experiment in economic democracy (economic rights, with political control over the economy). It is also the agenda of the Institute for Policy Studies, is detailed in Derek Shearer’s book of that name, and is the program of Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden for their new political party in California. These conceptions of “economic democracy” are probably not intended by the bishops; but their draft will certainly be cited as an authoritative and highly valued endorsement of such politics.

There is not much problem with what the first draft actually means, operationally, by “economic democracy” — that is, experiments in worker ownership and worker management. But many practical difficulties have appeared in such experiments in this country, in Yugoslavia, and elsewhere. Such schemes are certainly no panacea. The AFL/CIO is wisely skeptical about their utopian and often impractical character.

The main difficulty, however, is the potential misuse of “economic democracy” as a slogan for what the bishops mean to support. The phrase is a democratic socialist battlecry; if that is what the bishops intend, they should say so frankly. If not, they should spell out the limits of their own use of the concept.

In particular, the second draft should note that the phrase inverts the order wisely implied in the concept “political economy.” Its generic form would be “economic polity.” That is, it places politics in the substantive position, at the center of human activity. For some, this will mean the state; for others, it will mean the intense politicalization of economic activities. The consequences of this inversion of the traditional ideal of the liberal society — political economy — need to be faced.

A Few Remarks on Part Two: “Policy Applications”

While one could comment in equal detail on the specific policy proposals of Part Two, most of the major conceptual difficulties of the first draft are readily identifiable in Part One. A good many of the specific proposals in Part Two do not flow directly from the principles expressed in Part One. To treat each specific proposal effectively, one would need a significant discussion on each point. Many critics of the first draft, Republican and Democratic, liberal and conservative, have given sound reasons why specific recommendations of the draft seem not to be convincing or why an alternative policy seems more likely to succeed. (In some detail I have analyzed the section of Part II dealing with poverty and welfare [¶s187-240] in a paper to be printed in This World and wish not to repeat myself. The section on foreign aid and international organizations seems particularly unconvincing in the light of experience; so with other sections.)

In general, the first draft approaches specific public policy questions — such as employment, poverty and welfare, global interdependence, and cooperative forethought — from a point of view honorable in itself but far from being universally accepted among scholars. Indeed, many who would have accepted it fifteen years ago have come to find it wanting. The critique of the draft’s general point of view by neo-conservative scholars and others is not fully considered; and their many substantive objections, expressed over the years in such journals as Commentary and The Public Interest and in many books, are not met. This failure places the specific policy recommendations on weaker ground than would be necessary, even if one wished to maintain the same general point of view. Obviously, for those who find the general policy point of view unpersuasive, dissatisfaction with the specific proposals is quite high.

These dissatisfactions, however, should not mask the point made at the beginning of this analysis, that on matters of general principle both the bishops’ first draft and the lay letter share much common ground in their respective sections on public policy. On the whole, the lay letter mentions specifics without endorsing them (since who knows in advance which policies will actually work), whereas the bishops commit themselves rather more fully to many specific proposals. At the same time, the first draft frankly recognizes that many persons of good will may analyze the same problems differently and may also propose quite different specific solutions. It would have been helpful if some of these alternative approaches had been considered.

It would be fun to enter the debate on Part Two in detail; but the space required, then, would be forbidding. Permit me then to close with a word of deep appreciation to the bishops for their humility in conducting this drafting process in such an open manner, exposing themselves to the hazards of argument, and being willing to share publicly the process of listening, reflecting, and re-writing. There is considerable hope of a consensus inspiring all from many diverse points of view to work ever harder for the high goals both of Catholic social thought and of the American experiment in political economy.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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