We Must Transform Ourselves First

The bishops of the United States have decided to issue a pastoral letter on the U.S. economy, and the first draft produced by the committee established for that purpose has been published. The first thing that needs to be said is that it is very much the bishops’ right and even responsibility to address themselves to this topic. Already the first draft of the document has stimulated a great deal of reflection and discussion among American Catholics, and it is sure to stimulate much more.

It seems to me that there is simply no question that the social teachings of the Catholic Church have not been effectively communicated to the faithful in our country. Even among “good Catholics” (those who take their faith seriously, attempt to practice it, and acknowledge the authority of the Church in matters of faith and morals), there exists a disquieting phenomenon that separates “individual” morality and “social” morality. By this I mean not the question of whether the law can enforce individual morality, as in the case of abortion (of course it can) , but rather whether there are moral norms, on which the Church can appropriately pronounce, regarding a political and economic system as a whole. The Church has, in fact, been laying down principles regarding modern economic systems for the last century or so, beginning with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, but how many of even the better educated Catholics in America could give an accurate statement of the general principles of the Church’s social teachings?

There are serious injustices in the national and international economic systems and American Catholics ought to be as aware of these, and as dedicated to their removal, as many of them are to violations of family and sexual morality. Improving our economic system so that each person has the appropriate material instruments for developing the talents (above all the spiritual, the intellectual and moral capacities) which God has given him is not simply a “nice idea”—it is a moral duty. There is no doubt that there are absolutely enormous difficulties in achieving this. The complexity of economic affairs, where so often an act undertaken to improve one problem worsens another is truly staggering. Nonetheless, the difficulty cannot be made an excuse for feeling satisfied with the substantial benefits that the vast majority of Americans derive from our present system. Great effort must be put into the task of (prudently) reforming our economic system to remove its defects and abuses.

Not the least of the reasons why this effort is demanded is that the limits of our economic system are not merely the result of a genuine lack of knowledge. Our society is shot through with deeply materialistic and individualistic tendencies. “Bourgeois” comfort-seeking is not the exception in America, but the rule—a tendency which most of us must make real efforts to resist. This is not, of course, to say that comfort is bad in itself—I’m no Manichean—but simply to point out that there is that side of human nature which makes it all too easy to give it a more important place in our lives and concerns than it should have. Insofar as the problem is not isolated but very widespread in our society, we must consider that the shortcomings of our economic system are likely to result from not only lack of knowledge, but also moral defects—moral defects, moreover, which our economic system enhances. (And one can also speculate as to whether the moral problems may contribute in some measure to intellectual problems.)

The first draft of the pastoral is—happily—divided into two parts, the first of which lays down general principles and the second of which suggests particular applications of those principles. The first, and more authoritative, part tries to educate the faithful in Catholic social principles, providing both biblical foundations and ethical norms. The second part, suggesting particular applications, constitutes the bishops’ contribution to public policy debates on these important questions.

While both parts of the draft are legitimate undertakings, I wonder if the linking of the two may not be unfortunate, for several reasons. First, to be an effective teaching instrument, the document must be relatively short—in my opinion, very much shorter than it is. As it stands, I think one can confidently predict that relatively few people will read (much less study) the whole document. Second, there is an inevitable tendency for people, especially the media, to focus attention on the more specific and controversial parts of the pastoral and to devote relatively little attention to the more abstract principles whose meaning and application is not so immediately obvious. Third, the focus on the controversial specific recommendations is likely to have the unfortunate effect of diminishing the willingness of some of the faithful to attend to the more authoritative general teaching. Those who strongly disagree with the specific recommendations may wrongly feel that none of the document should be followed. Yet perhaps it is precisely many of these people who most need to be educated in the social teachings of the Church.

To achieve the educative purpose which is so necessary, the document could be divided into two parts. The first, educative part should be the major substance of the pastoral itself. The second, more public policy-oriented section could be a report issued separately, perhaps by the Justice and Peace division of the USCC. Besides the above reasons, this would be desirable, I think, because it would manifest the greater importance of the educative purpose of episcopal pronouncements, which takes clear precedence over the contribution to the actual formation of public policy itself.

With respect to the actual content on the draft of the pastoral, I will confine myself to a few observations. First, even the first part, as it stands, is probably too long to be readable by many. The section on biblical foundations in particular could be sharply cut without doing any harm. Second, the section on “ethical norms of economic life” is the real heart of the pastoral, I think, since it is the section which contains the largest portion of the draft’s statement of the Church’s social teaching. While there might be differences over how to organize this section, it certainly can serve as an effective core of the letter. It is precisely the kind of statement which will challenge American Catholics to evaluate our economic system in light of the moral principles proclaimed by the Church (e.g. the priority of persons over things, work as means of self-realization, subsidiarity, a balanced view of private property, the moral demand that we attend to the needs of the poor, etc.). Perhaps one suggestion that could be made is that the grounding of the section in natural law, and the Church’s authority to teach that law, be specifically included. (This would help to point out the common basis for the Church’s moral teachings, as they apply to both “individual” and “social” morality.) Another suggestion would again focus on language: perhaps there could be more explicit reference to, and explanation of, the priority of “the common good” in Catholic social thought.

On the specific recommendations of the second part, I would respectfully suggest that much of its analysis and a number of its major recommendations seems rather doubtful to me. Few among even quite liberal economists seem to think that unemployment could be reduced as much as the draft suggests it must be. The causes of poverty certainly include many of the factors that the draft cites, but the arbitrary exclusion of motivation as a possible factor seems unjustified. There ought to be a much stronger emphasis on the fact that the breakdown of the family and sexual mores are responsible for much poverty (including much of the “feminization” of poverty.)

On the other hand, there are parts which are much stronger. I was impressed, for example, with the balanced treatment of the very complicated subject of transnational corporations. The section on the overall management of the economy also seemed to me thoughtful and balanced.

American Catholics—especially the laity—need to be educated in the social teachings of the Church, and we should certainly greet the pastoral as a great opportunity for sustained reflection on moral principles of economic life. At the same time, this must be seen as part of a broader effort to transform our lives, and the lives of those we deal with, so that the goal of all our activity, economic and otherwise, will be to “establish all things in Christ” (the Pauline motto of Pius X’s pontificate). No number of pastorals will prepare us to transform the American economy into a more just economic system unless we ourselves are transformed first.


  • Christopher Wolfe

    From 1989 to 2021, Dr. Wolfe was President of the American Public Philosophy Institute, an interdisciplinary group of scholars from various universities, supported by local business and professional leaders, that promotes a natural law public philosophy rooted in the principles of the American Founding. The APPI is now the Dallas Forum for Law, Politics, and Culture, and Dr. Wolfe is President Emeritus. He also is one of Crisis Magazine's original writers.

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