The United States bishops plans to produce a pastoral letter on the economy have provoked controversy in presidental election year. Peter Stanford looks at why the letter has stirred such emotions.
NOT A WORD of the United States Catholic Bishops' pastoral letter on the economy has yet appeared, but already it is causing intense speculation in financial circles, and some concern in the political arena.
Recently the respected journal Business Week speculated that the letter in its final form could sound "a lot like the 1984 Democratic presidential platform".
However, the first draft of the bishops' pastoral letter on the relationship between Catholic social teaching and the American economy will not be ready until after the Presidential election in November, a careful piece of timing.
The draft letter will then be subject to amendment before the final text is put to the full meeting of the United States Catholic bishops' conference the following November.
The expectation which the letter has aroused can in some part be explained by the controversy which surrounded the US bishops' letter on nuclear morality, The Challenge of Peace. It has also been fuelled by remarks by members of the draft committee.
For instance, the Chairman of the committee, Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee commented that "we are coming more and more . . to the view that the economy is global".
The letter was originally conceived as an analysis of capitalism to tie up with an earlier letter on Marxism drawn up by the bishops. However as Archbishop Weakland remarked after that project was abandoned "there is no simple coherent philosophical worldview that is identifiable for the capitalist position".
So the bishops then changed tack and launched an inquiry into the moral and ethical dimensions of the United States economy. The proposed letter is to fall into four parts.
The first area to be considered is economic planning and policy with particular reference to the relationships between labour and management, plant locations and the role of protective tariffs. A second field is the question of setting aside adequate revenue for the poor and disadvantaged, and whether the State has a duty to supply such finance.
The problems of the disadvantaged then leads on to the third domain of employment and job creation and the need for "employment generation". The annual rate of unemployment in the United States is currently running at 7.5 per cent.
The final area of reference is United States trade with developing nations, and the idea of economic inter-dependence, a view which the bishops would seem to accept if Archbishop Weakland's comments are to be taken as the view of the draft committee. As with the pastoral on nuclear weapons, the bishops are treading carefully at first, and consulting as broad a span of interested groups as possible. Last December they held a threeday symposium at Notre Dame University which was attended by the five bishops responsible for the draft letter. A cross section of American economic groups was present to hear addresses from businessmen and conservative economists as well as theologians and social activitist.
Last month the bishops consulted the Jewish and Protestant churches leadership on the topic of the economy. The concensus which emerged from that meeting was that the state had an extensive role to play in regulating economic activity, and guaranteeing that human needs are met.
However, comparatively little has emerged of the details of the bishops' consultation so far. A much more fruitful breeding ground for comment on the Church's part in the economy is to be found in the discussions of a lay commission set up at the same time as the bishops group also to examine Catholic teaching and the US economy.
The Lay Commission is dominated by conservatives who fear that the bishops' analysis of the economy may be too radical. Principal among them is Michael Novak who was an outspoken critic of the bishops pastoral on nuclear weapons. The view which emerged from the lay commission's meetings in July was that the Government ought to leave welfare mainly to private philanthropy. Submissions to the lay commission had come out in favour of trusting in free enterprise as the key to meet human needs, through a production of more wealth, rather than a redistribution of existing wealth.
These are of course only some of the submissions to the commission which will produce a final letter at the same time as the bishops draft letter appears.
Another theme to have emerged from the lay discussions is a questioning of the role of the church in examining the economy.
Fr Ernest Fortin, a theology professor at Boston College, has challenged the idea that Christian beliefs require certain specific social or economic systems, policies or decisions. "The God of the New Testament is not a very political animal or a very good economist", he said.
Fr Fortin's views are symptomatic of an undercurrent of concern within the Catholic Church in America that the bishops should be tackling more immediate pastoral problems such as the role of women in the Church.
William Stanmeyer of the Lincoln Centre for Legal Studies which gave a submission to the lay commission accused the US bishops of putting "the stress on social issues, not on moral ones", and said that the letter came at "a very inopportune time" because "the Catholic Church is in enormous disarray" in the Linked States over more directly doctrinal issues.
There is also a certain fear in Catholic circles that the pastoral on the economy might cause some dissention with the political esablishment, particularly if Ronald Reagan is re-elected as President in November, and the letter is as radical as some have predicted.
The memory of the President's attempt to force Pope John Paul to curb the US bishops over the pastoral on nuclear weapons remains fresh in many minds, and since the Vatican re-established diplomatic ties with the United States earlier this year, anxieties have deepened.
The United States ambassador at the Holy See, Mr William Wilson, is a man very much in the economic mould of the President, and he would be able to use his official position in the Vatican to urge the Pope to look very carefully at any radical statement on the economy by the American bishops.
However, all these fears presupposed that it will be a radical statement. For a reliable pointer as to what the bishops might say, it is informative to look back at their last statement which dealt with a subject in the economic domain.
In a November 1982 resolution, they wrote "justice demands that the Government maintain its proper roJe in guaranteeing that basic human needs are met in society ... Our Catholic tradition has consistently held that all persons; must in the image of God and endowed with a fundamental human dignity, have a right to such basic necessities as employment, adequate income, food, housing, medical care and education". If such a text were to be the result of the bishops' current discussions, it would indeed cause the President, whoever he may be, to think very carefully.