e-mail us


Catholic teaching has little to say to capitalism

The U.S. Catholic bishops have reduced their "Catholic Framework for Economic Life" to a one-page 10-point statement.

The goal, they say, "is to stimulate discussion and draw attention to the ethical dimensions of economic life." Accepting the invitation to discussion, NCR offers several observations.

Drawing attention to the ethical dimensions of economic life is useful and salutary when that "economic life" means attention to the poor or attempting to influence government. But it is illusory and almost misleading if the bishops' invitation and 10 points are meant to suggest that Americans, Catholic or not, can somehow significantly influence the economic decision-making or economic trajectory of the multinational corporate world. Multinational corporations in the aggregate control the economic world. To think otherwise is to err.

(Try seriously asking corporations about their adherence to the bishops pastoral letter, "Economic Justice for All" -- as NCR did -- and the result can be a $30 million libel suit.)

The crucial point in this country, where the gap between rich and poor is wider than in all 17 top industrial nations, is that the national wealth is increasingly being sucked up to the top -- and the mechanism is the free market and corporate investment.

Will dialogue on ethics touch that? Or only add to the breast-beating?

In other words, if "ethical" means how employees are treated, that's one thing. If it means how the economic power of the corporations in aggregate treat the national economic well-being and what can be done about it, that's another. Apparently there is very little can be done about it. All the headlines and forehead smacking over downsizing did not result in a single job saved.

There is certainly nothing in Catholic teaching on economic life that provides a clue as to how a national dialogue on economic issues can deal with a corporate capitalism which, to all intents and purposes, has escaped national sovereignty.

Principles, while valuable, are not enough.

The Catholic bishops 1986 pastoral letter on economic justice did not offer insights or directions into reversing a national and global economic system that primarily benefits the rich.

A century of Catholic social teaching does not yet assist with the practical complexity of individual moral economic choices, inside the corporation or outside.

Daily economic life is not easy or clear, whether one is in a corporation, a chancery, a university or a gas station. Yet frameworks are just words.

Stating what ought to be, morally and economically speaking, is always relatively easy. Stating what is wrong with a given economic situation also is relatively easy.

What has never been addressed in a century of Catholic social teaching is how to get from where we are to where we want to be -- once we've defined where we want to be.

This lack of direction is always defended by saying the church cannot become involved in recommending specific economic programs.

But the church does not ensure that others come up with workable, arguable, focus-demanding suggestions either. So the pattern is repeated, and unless someone somewhere seriously sinks money into exploring alternative models of economic life and the paths by which those models might come to fruition, this is all just more talk.

The closest the bishops got to actually dealing with economic complexity arose not from the conversations resulting from the economics pastoral, but from the peace pastoral -- when some workers with families to support had only one job opportunity, in the nuclear armaments industry.

There was talk of working in a "sinful situation" and enduring it until an alternative came about.

Pope John Paul II has called the current world economic situation "sinful." What does this mean in practical terms? Let the bishops challenge the Catholic universities and others to come up with some workable alternatives that take both the corporate economic engine's needs and national economic needs into account.

Let the bishops insist that those alternatives spell out how the country and the world moves into a post-capitalistic, economically just, new world and new millennium.

Let the bishops ensure that their episcopal challenges to these Catholic universities and others are accepted, produced, distributed and supported.

Then the dialogue might mean something.

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 1996