The nation’s Catholic bishops and some of their Protestant counterparts have embarked on an ambitious effort to change the way Americans think about the U.S. economy.

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has produced nine public-service radio announcements that are being broadcast throughout the country. The radio spots invite listeners to call a toll-free number to “find out what you can do.” The number connects callers with a recording that offers ways of putting into practice “the values and principles” contained in the bishops’ recent pastoral letter on the U.S. economy.

Calls for Action

The radio campaign is only one aspect of a major effort to spread the message of the church document, titled “Economic Justice for All: Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy.” The letter maintains that all economic decisions must be guided by moral principles. One such principle is that of “economic rights” to a job, food, health care, and adequate housing. The bishops call for a “new American experiment” in which civil and political rights would extend to the economic realm.

The prelates’ letter labels as “social and moral scandal” the fact that some 33 million Americans are living in poverty. And it calls for new public and private initiatives to fight poverty and create new jobs.

Less noticed by the news media are the spiritual dimensions of the bishops’ critique. The letter warns of the “idolatry” of seeking security in wealth and material possessions rather than in Christ. For the bishops, the issue of economic justice ultimately comes down to personal conversion. The U.S. Catholic Conference, as well as many of the nation’s 180 Catholic dioceses, religious orders, and church-run schools are taking this message to the general public.

The pastoral letter faces continued resistance from a small but influential group of conservative lay Catholics led by former U.S. Treasury Secretary William Simon and writer Michael Novak. While backing off previous charges that the document is socialist, the critics say it nonetheless places too much faith in government intervention as a means of helping the poor, and fails to fully appreciate the tremendous wealth-producing machine that is the U.S. economy.

Protestant Response

In contrast, the bishops’ prescriptions for economic justice have been praised by mainline Protestant leaders, who are helping spread the message of the pastoral letter.

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“What they [the bishops] have laid out hits a real vein of interest across church lines,” said George Ogle, a veteran economic-justice advocate for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. “For a while now, church people have been involved in such things as helping the unemployed, dealing with the farm crisis, and fighting the root causes of poverty. What the bishops’ letter has done is give expression to a lot of what people have been experiencing.”

Ogle’s agency is distributing materials on the bishops’ letter to the United Methodist Church’s annual conferences, or regional jurisdictions. In addition, the National Council of Churches has said it will join in “implementation” of the letter.

Mainline Protestant views on economic justice are quite similar to those of the bishops. J. Bryan Hehir, the Catholic bishops’ top public-policy adviser, said the pastoral letter is “part and parcel” of recent Protestant denominational documents that have applied Christian faith to the workings of the economy. “There are few uniquely Catholic principles or conclusions in the letter,” he said.

After the pastoral letter became official Catholic teaching last year, a primarily Protestant coalition, Interfaith Action for Economic Justice, held a two-day gathering to pay tribute to the bishops and to explore common ground. What emerged from the conference was recognition of a set of economic-justice themes shared by the churches. Among the common themes are:

  • “Economic rights” are essential to human dignity, and government has a positive role to play in protecting such rights.
  • Those who possess wealth and power have a responsibility to relieve poverty through private charity as well as changes in economic structures.
  • Churches should avoid allying themselves with any particular economic system.
  • A need exists for “personal action, conversions and change in lifestyle.”
  • Churches need to practice what they preach in their own stewardship of resources and dealings with employees.

Reactions to the pastoral letter from evangelical Protestant leaders were mixed. Bill Kallio, executive director of Evangelicals for Social Action, praised the document, saying, “It’s exciting to see the bishops attempt to take the biblical data, do social analysis, and draw conclusions.”

A Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) official welcomed the bishops’ effort to fashion a Christian vision of economic life, while distancing himself from specific stands taken in the pastoral letter. “I admire the intent of this document, whether or not the solutions are sound,” said Eugene Linse, LCMS director of social ministries. He said the letter “lays a good foundation” for examining the economy from an ethical perspective, adding that he plans to distribute copies of it to regional social-ministries officials.

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Billy Melvin, executive director of the National Association of Evangelicals, was less supportive of the bishops’ letter. “In responding to the needs of the poor, it is not the role of the church leadership to dictate specific public-policy prescriptions as was done by the Catholic bishops,” Melvin said. “Church leaders should not politicize the church but instead urge church members to respond in practical ways to the needs of the poor in keeping with biblical principles.”

Reaching The Masses

To reach the widest possible audience, the Catholic bishops have set up a Washington office, with a $500,000 budget, to help stir to action the myriad agencies and institutions that make up the Catholic church in the United States. Last month, the bishops brought together representatives of most U.S. dioceses to discuss ways of filtering the letter into a wide range of activities, including social action, family life and parenting, worship services, and RENEW, the nationwide Catholic spiritual renewal program.

Maryland’s nine Catholic bishops launched the first statewide effort to put the letter’s principles into practice by issuing a set of public-policy recommendations. The effort caught the attention of the Baltimore Evening Sun, which wrote: “The enduring values of our common religious traditions, especially its strong concern for social justice, provide an essential balance to the driving energy of capitalism. As the [Maryland] bishops rightly point out, how well those values operate in the business of the country is, ultimately, everybody’s business.”

By William Bole.

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