Toward the Future: Catholic Social Thought and the U.S. Economy — A Lay Letter

Editor’s Introduction

In January 1984, in a wide-ranging conversation in New York, George J. Gillespie, Michael Joyce and William E. Simon, former Secretary of the Treasury, came up with an idea: Why not form a committee of lay Catholics to respond to the invitation from the American Catholic bishops to reflect in a religious, way on the U.S. economy? Thinking it over for some time, Mr. Simon a month later sent out invitations to some thirty other lay Catholics, nearly all of whom agreed immediately to serve in the task. Mr. Simon accepted the burden of chairmanship, and asked Michael Novak to serve as vice-chairman. Patricia Leeds of Cornell University agreed to serve as executive director. The first formal meeting of the group was June 12, in New York City. Six hearings were held in diverse cities. Mostly, the members of the commission wish to express their own experience and life-long reflections. This letter does not pretend to any ecclesiastical authority. But it does attempt to acquit the obligation, imposed on lay persons by their baptism and articulated clearly by Vatican Council II, to reflect on their daily work in the world in the light of Gospels. The editors believe that this letter — coming not quite one hundred years after the First Lay Congress of American Catholics in Baltimore in 1889, which addressed similar topics — has historical significance, and are grateful to the Lay Commission for granting permission to publish it.

“We consider the establishment of our country’s independence, the shaping of its liberties and laws as a work of special Providence, its framers ‘building wiser than they knew,’ the Almighty’s hand guiding them.”

The Bishops of the United States the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, 1884


For I was hungry and you gave me food I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me. I was ill and you comforted me, in prison and you came to visit me…. I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me.

— Matt. 25:35-36, 40

A daily examination of conscience

—     What have I produced with the goods and talents God has given me?

—     Can I tell God I am giving a fair amount of my personal time and treasure to help those in need and to help them to achieve economic self- reliance?

The brave settlers who first brought Christianity to America took seriously these words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven.” Well known to them, Saint Matthew’s gospel offered them three further passages (25:1-46) about the nature of this kingdom which is to “come on earth” — remarkable passages which established a framework, then and now, for reflecting on the U.S. economy: the brilliantly paired parable of the wise and foolish virgins and the parable of the talents, followed by the injunction to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty.

We lay men and lay women, in addressing our reflections on the future to all our fellow citizens, recognize that Christianity cannot be identified with any one earthly system, political party, or partisan purpose. We recognize, too, that Christian Scripture does not offer programmatic guidance for the concrete institutions of political economy.

In the words of the great Catholic economist Heinrich Pesch, S.J.:

Religion cannot produce grain; it cannot do away with physical ills. Morally advanced peoples will, no doubt, profit economically from the active, especially the social, virtues of their citizens and will be better prepared to endure physical evil and hard times. But this does not mean that the economist should theologize or moralize in the treatment of his subject matter or, what is worse, try to derive an economic system from Holy Scripture.

This is in part because Scripture is intended for all eras of history, and for all human beings, under all forms of political economy, and in part because the true center of its interest lies in matters of grace and the spirit that transcend any and all forms of political economy. We are grateful for our inheritance as American Catholics. But we do not identify American society with the Kingdom of God. That would be idolatrous. As Abraham Lincoln noted in his Second Inaugural, our system stands now, and ever, under the judgment of the Almighty.

Thus, we recognize clearly the many sins, market imperfections, vices, and structural deficiencies of the U.S. political economy. There is no point in being American if you cannot be open to criticism, imagine a better future, and begin practical reform today.

A Christian Scripture is not programmatic so we also wish to proceed in a non-partisan spirit, concentrating on basic principles, rather than on practical proposals about which persons of good will properly disagree. What unites us is Catholic faith and U.S. citizenship, not specific programs or partisan causes. While sharing goals inspired by our mutual faith and common citizenship, we often disagree about prudential policy judgments, and we encourage the broadest possible public argument about particular policy options. Since disagreement on specifics is consistent with unity in fundamental principles, our aim is to stick to fundamentals. This we find to be the method of Christian Scripture, as we see in the three passages of Matthew 25 mentioned above.

The parable of the wise and foolish virgins stresses that good intentions are not enough. God cherishes watchfulness and practicality. The five foolish virgins brought their torches but no extra oil. At midnight called to serve, too late they went for oil. Neither virginity alone nor fidelity to their assigned tasks availed the foolish virgins. Coming at an hour they did not expect, the bridegroom excluded them, because of their improvidence.

The second parable details the terrible punishments which lie in store for those who do not produce new wealth from the talents God has placed in their stewardship. In English the word “talents” has a double meaning, not solely the silver pieces of the original text, but also human gifts of mind and heart. The creative use of talent (in both senses) is crucial for understanding the moral elan of the U.S. economy.

The third passage instructs those who seek to build the kingdom on earth to care for the poor and the needy, at the cost of their own eternal salvation. Yet this passage contains two ambiguities. Should care for the needy be personal — or systemic? Our answer is “Both.” Is the “kingdom on earth” to be built in the soul or in society? Again our answer is “Both” — although no society in history ever fully embodies the Kingdom. Individuals cannot shirk their personal responsibilities to help the poor, by “letting the system do it.” Here all of us profit from such heroic examples as Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa. Just as surely, escape from tyranny and poverty is achieved in a sustained way through a wise ordering of society.

From before the time of Jesus multitudes have lived in poverty and under tyranny. To further their liberation, our forefathers designed an order of political economy in which the poor and needy might routinely raise themselves out of poverty by methods economically wise and conducive to unparalleled economic creativity. In short, such passages as Matthew 25 have not only personal but also systemic application, liberation requires institutions that work. “Liberty,” as Walter Lippmann has written, “is not the natural state of man, but the achievement of an organized society.”

Christians of every age have applied the third passage of Matthew 25 to personal charity. Applying it both to persons and to systems, we make it the leitmotif of our reflections:

Then he will say to those on his left: “Out of my sight, you condemned, into that everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels! I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink. I was away from home and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing. I was ill and in prison and you did not come to comfort me.” Then they in turn will ask: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or away from home or naked, or ill or in prison and not attend you in your needs?” He will answer them: “I assure you, as often as you neglected to do it to one of these least ones, you neglected to do it to me.” These will go off to eternal punishment and the just to eternal life. (Matt. 25:41-46)


Finally, then, a word of guidance: Every human society must strike a proper balance between individual liberty and common action. The American experiment has entailed a keen struggle to find that balance. On the one side is the unique commitment of our people to personal liberty, as enshrined in and animating the federal Constitution. On the other is the central presupposition of that historical document: that our vigorous familial and communal life continue healthy and strong, a common unity. Strong families and strong communities teach those personal virtues without which the Constitution cannot be preserved, and provide care for those who are in need of help and guidance. E pluribus unum: One out of many.

Today, that sense of balance is sometimes lacking in the language of those who either choose individual liberty over all other concerns, and hence embrace a kind of radical individualism, or seek to enlarge the power and scope of government, and hence embrace a kind of statist meddlesomeness. Catholic social thought has from the first sought to avoid the “double danger” (Pius XI) of individualism and collectivism. It holds firm three basic principles: the sacred dignity of the person, the social nature of human life, and the obligation to assign social decisions to the level best suited to make them.

In recent decades, Catholic thought has been deeply influenced by the American experience, often almost un-consciously. It has also, to a degree which will probably increase in the future, helped to shape the American experience. To understand the reciprocal relation between thought and experience, we begin by reviewing the principles of that thought and the history of that experience.

Thus, in Part I, we survey the principles of Catholic social thought, and examine the great significance of the American experiment for Catholic social thought. Catholics on other continents have scarcely noted this significance. It was clear to our U.S. Catholic forebears a century ago, and it is clear to us.

In Part II, we reflect on the lay vocation of co-creation, especially as it is now being lived by millions of lay persons in economic activities. Placing the theme of creation at the center of his teaching on economic justice, Pope John Paul II has suggested that it is the vocation of humans, made in the image of the Creator, to unlock the secrets the Creator has hidden in creation, and thus to move history toward the fulfillment of the Creator’s marvelous designs. So, too, political economies should liberate the creative energies of every human person within them. This liberal democracies set out to do.

In Part III, we face five serious problem areas in the U.S. economy: (1) the family; (2) poverty and welfare; (3) job creation; (4) free trade and global interdependence; and (5) social cooperation and providence. While we do not propose programmatic solutions, we do call attention to areas requiring imagination and fresh initiatives. It is the glory of systems such as ours that they are always open to reform and, like the Church itself, semper reformanda. These words of Pius XII in 1951 express our vision:

True religion and profound humaneness are not rivals. They are sisters. They have nothing to fear from one another, but everything to gain. Let each remain loyal to the law of its being, while it respects the vital needs and varied outward manifestations of the other, and the resultant harmonizing of two forces will endow any people engaged in the fulfillment of its appointed tasks with the most valuable incentives to real prosperity and solid progress.


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