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The Bishops' Big Economic Tent

To the joy of Catholics who support capitalist institutions, the U.S. Bishops have at long last applied the principle of ecumenism to economic issues. The vehicle is a short ten-point “Catholic Framework for Economic Life,” passed unanimously at this year’s meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. It comes ten years after “Economic Justice for All” the Bishops’ controversial pastoral letter that disappointed so many businesspeople.

The new document departs from years of confusion, in which the Bishops appeared to side only with the left on economics. The statement is broader in its approach and more consistent with the Bishops’ primary realm of competency: moral instruction. It is much sounder from an economic perspective, allowing ample room for holding the business economy and the free market in high regard. The Bishops embrace market institutions by name, and, in a praiseworthy departure, offer no explicit (or even implicit) endorsement of redistribution, confiscatory taxes, or regulatory management. Following are some examples of this new approach to economics.

“The economy exists for the person, not the person for the economy.” This underscores the reality–forgotten in an age of socialism and economic planning–that the economy is, in the first instance, made up of individuals who act, choose, and plan for the future. It is illegitimate to treat the economy as a superstructure–composed of huge and manipulatable aggregates–to which society must be forced to conform. Economic systems must be in accord with human nature, and not the reverse.

“All economic life should be shaped by moral principles. Economic choices and institutions must be judged by how they protect or undermine the life and dignity of the human person, support the family, and serve the common good.” Both individuals and institutions are subject to this stern standard, including government and its bureaucracies. No institution has harmed family life more than big government, with its high taxes, bureaucratic red tape, and dependency-promoting welfarism. Economists from Joseph Schumpeter to Michael Novak and Gary Becker have stressed that vibrant family life and the common good are inseparably linked to private property, equal rights, and economic liberty.

“All people have a right to life and to secure the basic necessities of life.” Some in the media claimed this plank endorses welfare rights, which would be alarming. It is a small step from welfare rights to socialism. In fact, the statement says people have a right “to secure” necessities, and this qualifying phrase makes all the difference. A right to secure something is not the same as a right to the thing itself; securing requires initiative and action. There is no normative right to others’ property, but only to secure necessities for ourselves in a manner consistent with others’ rights.

I don’t claim my free-market take on this statement is the definitive rendering, but herein lies the beauty of the Bishops’ ten points. They have provided a moral framework that embraces markets, rejects socialism and excessive government management, calls upon people to put morality at the center of decision making, while tolerating divergent opinions on the details.

The Bishops are doing what they do best: providing moral and ethical guidance for individuals and societies. As John Paul II says, “In her social doctrine the Church does not propose a concrete political or economic model, but indicates the way, presents principles.”