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Briggs & Stratton suit consequence of moral debate


As the United States and the Soviet Union amassed unimaginable nuclear firepower in the late 1970s, the arms race veered out of control. U.S. deterrence was viewed almost exclusively as a technical matter: numbers of warheads, weights, firepower and speed of delivery systems. All designed to outdo the Soviets' own terror system. End of discussion.

Totally missing then was any serious reflection on the morality of it all. Aside from a few voices, including Pax Christi members -- most notably Detroit's Bishop Thomas Gumbleton -- hardly anyone talked about nuclear morality. Such talk, when it occurred, was seen as almost unpatriotic.

At the urging of Gumbleton and a few others, however, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops decided in 1980 to put nuclear morality on its agenda. They formed a committee of five bishops, headed by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. The committee held a series of meetings to hear a wide range of views.

The bishops' efforts focused attention on the topic.

In 1983, the bishops issued "The Challenge of Peace," a lengthy pastoral letter that offered limited support to U.S. nuclear deterrence within strictly limited guidelines. Some were elated, others disappointed. Historians, however, will probably note that the bishops moved the nation forward, forcing a moral perspective on any future arms discussion. They may have changed history as a result.

Moral consciousness matters. The persuasiveness of moral arguments helped end political colonialism, fostered democratic sensibilities, stirred interest in human rights, advanced the causes of women and won new respect for indigenous cultures. In time, perhaps, moral arguments will lead us to a greater respect for our environment.

Institutional policies generally do not evolve morally without the impetus of moral scrutiny.

The religious leaders of our nation are again being called upon to engage in another moral discussion. As we enter a new century, the emergence of a global economy appears to be shaping life, work and relationships worldwide in ways unimaginable only a few years back.

In just a decade or so, the vestiges of national and regional economies are giving way to global market forces, with enormous consequences for better or worse. It is not enough to simply extol free trade as the answer to the world's economic ills, especially when wealth is increasingly concentrated and a quarter of the human family lives at subsistence levels or below. Whose responsibility is it to feed the hungry as new global economic patterns work themselves out?

In this new ferment, corporate jobs now routinely move across national boundaries. Incalculable sums of money, affecting millions of workers or pensioners, the equivalent of some nations' entire economies, follow the sun or leap on fast-buck opportunities as money managers issue new electronic orders that affect all our lives.

Is anyone or any institution responsible for the outcome of these transactions? Who is to protect the vulnerable? What communal obligations do each of us have to balance against the need to maximize profits in a new economic era?

Since the mid-1970s, NCR has attempted to report and analyze aspects of our changing economies. The late NCR Latin America Affairs Writer Penny Lernoux was among the first reporters to write about the consequences of U.S. corporate decision-making in Latin American nations, a topic at the time far removed from U.S. consciousness. Since Lernoux's death in 1989, we have continued such reporting even as the scope of the U.S. economy has radically changed, developing new global ties, especially in Asia.

As members of a global church professing belief in the dignity of human life and the sisterhood and brotherhood of every human being, we have attempted to report and to engage our readers in economic discussions as our nation and much of the rest of the planet's nations have entered uncharted economic waters.

Meanwhile, we have held fast to the idea that, whatever the global forces, they involve people and affect lives and must be considered within a moral framework. So new is the era of global capitalism, it exists almost without moral scrutiny.

As in the case of the nuclear arms race 20 years back, we at NCR think that the consequences of such a vacuum are alarming.

It was in this context that in December 1994 our then news editor and now managing editor, Tom Roberts, worked closely with our Latin America editor and staff writer, Leslie Wirpsa, in putting together an article on the consequences for laborers in Milwaukee who were losing or stood to lose their jobs as the Wauwatosa, Wis., based Briggs & Stratton Corp. moved jobs to lower wage-paying areas in the southern states and in Mexico.

As a result of that article, Briggs & Stratton sued us for $30 million, alleging libel and invasion of privacy.

Much is at stake here, not only for us but for the entire Catholic press and beyond. Aside from basic First Amendment questions, the Catholic press, to remain responsible, has no choice but to raise moral questions. Editors at Our Sunday Visitor, our colleagues, have understood this and have publicly offered their editorial support.

Morality matters. We feel that offering Catholic perspectives on issues of public policy is essential to the well-being of our nation and the wider human family.

As for the Briggs & Stratton suit, NCR has filed for its dismissal. Legal proceedings are costly and lengthy. They are also critically important when it comes to defending our rights and obligations to speak out as Catholic reporters and editors. Rather than shying away from engaging in this or any other moral discussion, we must move ahead with our tasks.

For NCR or any other religious publication that professes a moral outlook to back down would be to abandon one's mission and lessen the hope that we as citizens or members of the wider human family will ever begin to approach what the U.S. bishops called for in their 1986 pastoral letter, "Economic Justice for All."

Tom Fox is NCR’s editor and publisher.

National Catholic Reporter, February 14, 1997