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 which disappointed so many business people.

The new statement is broader in its approach than others have been 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 businesses 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. A summary:

1. “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.

2. “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.

3. “A fundamental moral measure of any economy is how the poor and vulnerable are faring.” This is a bracing summary of two-thousand years of teaching on the moral obligations to the poor, and the bishops have long upheld it. However, the opening word is not “the” but “a.” This repudiates the liberation theology claim that the poor should be the only consideration (so why not expropriate the rich?), and allows other social classes to be included in the moral measure of economic systems.

4. “All people have a right to life and to secure the basic necessities of life (e.g., food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, safe environment, and economic security).” Some in the media claimed this plank endorses “welfare rights,” which would be alarming. It's 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.

5. “All people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages benefits, to decent working conditions as well as to organize and join unions or other associations.” “Economic initiative” is Pope John Paul II's phrase for the entrepreneurship which this plank embraces. There can be no right to a job as such, but only to “productive work” in which a person contributes to the common good. “Just wages” is the phrase used by scholastic economists to mean the market wage. And finally, workers can joins unions, but also “other associations,” which could even include groups of replacement workers.

6. “All people, to the extent they are able, have a corresponding duty to work, a responsibility to provide for the needs of their families, and an obligation to contribute to the broader society.” At long last, rights, even those of workers, are bound up with the duties and responsibilities that advocates of the welfare state and labor strikes never want mentioned.

7. “In economic life, free markets have both clear advantages and limits; government has essential responsibilities and limitations; voluntary groups have irreplaceable roles, but cannot substitute for the proper working of the market and the just policies of the state.” This sentence, beautifully crafted and philosophically well balanced, is another open embrace of economic liberty. Note the adjective “free” appears before market; good-bye market socialism.

8. “Society has a moral obligation, including governmental action where necessary, to assure opportunity, meet basic human needs, and pursue justice in economic life.” Should government assure opportunity? Absolutely. The best way is to enforce contracts, prevent invasions against person and property, and provide a legal structure hospitable to wealth creation.

9. “Workers, owners, managers, stockholders, and consumers are moral agents in economic life. By our choices, initiative, creativity and investment, we enhance or diminish economic opportunity, community life, and social justice.” This statement speaks directly to the issue of the personal ethics that must always be upheld in all our business dealings.

10. “The global economy has moral dimensions and human consequences. Decisions on investment, trade, aid, and development should protect human life and promote human rights, especially for those most in need wherever they might live on this globe.” So much for nationalism and protectionism, which dismisses poverty in foreign places as irrelevant. History has shown that free trade is the best guarantor of human 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. They are providing moral and ethical guidance for individuals and societies. As the Pope says, “In her social doctrine the Church does not propose a concrete political or economic model, but indicates the way, presents principles.”