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November 7th, 2013

Rediscovering the Richness of Catholic Social Thought


A man panhandling holds an American flag in San Francisco’s financial district. (CNS photo/Robert Galbraith, Reuters)

A man panhandling holds an American flag in San Francisco’s financial district. (CNS photo/Robert Galbraith, Reuters)

I had the pleasure of rereading Economic Justice for All earlier this week as I was researching another writing project. The first time I encountered this pastoral letter, written in 1986 by U.S. bishops, I was a senior in college, some time in 2007, completing an assignment for a Catholic social justice class. I remember being blown away, moved by the unequivocal words of support for the poor and middle class. This document stirred my passion for using politics for good, as a way to lift up the disenfranchised. It would not be an exaggeration to credit Economic Justice for All with inspiring me to work in the Catholic sector, seeking ways to tell the stories of those who feel left out.

The pastoral letter, written a year before I was born, was shockingly relevant to me even 20 years later. As I soaked it in again this week, it still reads like something that could be written today. On the one hand, it’s encouraging that the words have stood the test of time. Kudos to the bishops for their foresight. But in reality, given that they tried to address growing inequality, poverty, low wages, and high unemployment, perhaps, that the letter still spoke to me should cause a hint of sadness, too.

As I read and highlighted, a few items stood out to me as particularly relevant to today.

In the section on employment, the bishops state clearly that all people have a right to work. “Employment is a basic right,” they say, “a right which protects the freedom of all to participate in the economic life of society.” They go on to condemn discrimination in the workplace, writing that “Discrimination in job opportunities or income levels on the basis of race, sex, or other arbitrary standards can never be justified. It is a scandal that such discrimination continues in the United States today. Where the effects of past discrimination persist, society has the obligation to take positive steps to overcome the legacy of injustice.”

Someone should send that passage to Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Catholic, who this week came out against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).

The advocacy group Freedom to Work explains that ENDA “will make it illegal throughout the entire country for an employer to fire, refuse to hire, refuse to promote, or severely harass an employee simply based on his or her sexual orientation or gender identity.” Some Catholic leaders have expressed fear that the bill would infringe on religious liberty by making it unlawful to discriminate against gay, lesbian, or transgendered people. But Freedom to Work disagrees, saying, “ENDA exempts churches, religious organizations and religious schools.”

Then there’s the piece on labor unions.

“The Church fully supports the rights of workers to form unions or other associations to secure their rights to fair wages and working conditions,” they write. “No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself. Therefore, we firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably now seen in this country, to break existing unions and prevent workers from organizing.” Their “today” was 1986, but little has changed since then.

In 24 states, conservative lawmakers have passed misnamed “right to work” laws which make it more difficult for unions to organize workers. Studies show that these laws decrease wages for employees and generally harm the economic advances labor unions have gained both for their members and the middle class in general. But just this week, the Huffington Post reported, Republicans in the U.S. Senate are trying to pass right-to-work laws at the federal level, which will further widen the gap between the rich and poor.

More broadly, the bishops seemed to anticipate the sweeping anti-government sentiment ushered in over the past few years by the Tea Party. The bishops rejected the idea that government is a problem, something that gets in the way of free market bliss. Rather, they insist that “government has a moral function: protecting human rights and securing basic justice for all members of the commonwealth.” They call a society’s public policy “the litmus test of its justice or injustice” and call on governments “to assist and empower the poor, the disadvantaged, the handicapped, and the unemployed.”

How did the recent government shutdown serve the poor and disadvantaged? Does a just society slash safety net programs and undermine programs designed to bring health insurance to the poor? When partisans push the country to the brink for political one-upmanship, who loses?

That U.S. bishops wrote such a powerful social justice letter in 1986 is not surprising. After all, this was at the height of the Catholic social justice movement under Chicago’s great Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. He coined the famous seamless garment of life image, holding up the many threats to life as worthy of attention. Some, like Pope Francis, have argued that the Church has veered away from its focus on the poor. Luckily, we need not look back too far for inspiration.

The Author : Michael O'Loughlin
Mike O'Loughlin is a writer living in Washington, D.C., covering religion, politics, and culture. In addition to Busted Halo, his writing appears in the Advocate, National Catholic Reporter, Foreign Policy, Religion & Politics, and America. He's also appeared on Fox News and MSNBC. Follow him on twitter at @mikeoloughlin.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • George

    Interesting that anyone would focus on the religious aspects of a law like ENDA. The real issue is freedom. Laws cost jobs. Always. There are costs to meeting laws and addressing them. To filling in the paperwork and dealing with the issues. And who will pay? The people at the bottom who cannot get a job. The teen who may be from a racial or ethnic minority who can not work at the fast food chain who realize the costs of hiring when there are so many mandates. Mandated health care for healthy young people (a pyramid scam directed to get the healthy young to pay for their elders, often ones who did not care for themselves) or phony mandated “equality” messages to protect groups that do not need protecting. All the data suggest that gay people, men and women, are better educated, better employed, wealthier and more successful. We should all be so discriminated against.
    We should focus our laws on people who are actually marginalized if we need laws at all. We need a pro jobs, pro business view. Not because we want business to win, but because capitalism, with all it’s faults, is still the single greatest engine to allow people to rise from the bottom and succeed. I believe a true and just God would support it despite the idea that those at the top get a lot. For the very reason that it helps those at the bottom.
    We do not have a big discrimination problem, although we have one. We just have a bigger freedom problem. Just one Catholic’s view.

  • MommaChaves

    I’m wondering why you felt the need to mention John Boehner – especially with regard to ENDA? We Catholics need to stop dividing ourselves up by political party, or we will never be able to advance any kind of ideas for bettering our society.
    The USCCB is worried about the language of ENDA because it does not distinguish between identity and action. Are you pitting the Bishops of 1986 against the Bishops of 2013? Is that workable?
    Peace to you.

    • Robin Hazen

      I believe there is a big difference between making a comment about three members of the USCCB who sent a letter to congress, and a teaching document that was approved and published on behalf of the entire USCCB in 1986. I do not think that Mr. O’laughlin was dividing or pitting the Bishops of today against the Bishops of 1986. His only comment was “some Catholic leaders…” The article is a comparison to 1986 and 2013 regarding economic justice. I agree with you that we need to work together and stop dividing ourselves, so that we can have a country where all people have dignity, respect, and a living wage. We should not worry about wording that that is only a sentance within the entire the article.

      • MommaChaves

        It’s true that a letter is not equal to a teaching document. However, the letter was released by the Bishop’s Conference – not by separate Bishops speaking on their own. And, it is consistent with previous statements regarding marriage and family issues.
        I find it fascinating that we Catholics haven’t discovered among ourselves a way to talk about how our changing societal views of family and the human person do affect social justice issues at their root.
        Personally, I am finding it more and more distasteful to mix in political language and actors with these topics – it’s sets people off into the same old arguments and accusations (i.e. “Pro-lifers only care about babies before their born!”) dividing (and perhaps conquering) Catholics into artificial factions. We’ve got to do better.
        I like Busted Halo – I’m not just picking out one sentence for no reason. His encouragement to study the 86 document is good; I was disappointed to see a dig at Boehner that will probably discourage some readers from doing exactly that.

      • YaraGreyjoy

        You know, MommaChaves, I bet you and me – both Catholics that I suspect sit on opposite sides of the church so to speak – can talk through our differences in such a way as for it to bear fruit. It’s one of our strengths as Catholics, I do believe. I choose to believe in you as a woman who – were we to parlay our differences – would speak with an open heart, from the heart, as would I & I would treat you with respect for it. I believe from your post that that is what you desire & are willing to give too. The worst thing we can do is suspect the other party of acting in bad faith for there is nothing to be gained from such an interaction.

        To be honest though, American politicians are so far gone – morally speaking I can’t see how the author’s mere mentioning of a fact about the policies one politician supports could make folks care one way or the other. I guarantee that their agenda is not yours or not mine – which makes the idea of them holding sway over genuinely concerned people like ourselves unfathomable to me. Which is all the more reason our loss of our past voting unity (“lunch-pail” Catholics aka Catholics :) voted solid blue until the Reagan era & the introduction of the wedge issues of sex & sex related regulation by law was thrown in & voila! We Catholics, despite our numbers, ceased to be a political force anymore for the near exclusive & in Francis’s words “obsessive” focus on these deliberately divisive issues – this not only divided us & puled our strings but rendered us all but useless on a political level.

        For me, I felt I had no place in a church that said in so many ways that it didn’t want me & that I was not a “real Catholic” – that is until recently when Pope Francis came in and blew the cobwebs away and started in on the hard work of rebuilding the church I remember, the one that raised me – the merciful, relevant, Vatican II church that had been eliminated all but in name by the past 2 popes (each for different reasons I believe, but that is a whole ‘nother story), folks in my wing of the Church felt unwelcome to say the least, unwanted and profoundly marginalized by the Magisterium and our conservative Catholic brethren who wanted no dialogue with us & told us directly & indirectly to “get out” & that we were “cafeteria Catholics” (at best) and that the church would be “smaller but stronger” without us as it turned more and more inward to the conservative emphasis on matters sexual to the exclusion of all else, save for only the most token gestures to “the other side.”

        I think dialogue must start with the acknowledgement that there is indeed now 2 separate pillars that now make up Catholicism – largely created in the past 30 years: one is liberal, the other is conservative – each believing in different ideas about what the Church’s role should be and where it’s priorities should lie. A religion like ours – grand, ancient, multicultural, living & magnificent because of it’s mercy – is bound to have varying flavors of parishioners – clergy too… perhaps what we have to do is engage in the sophisticated, nuanced debate we as Catholics are known for. We don’t sloganeer, and our beliefs & faith don’t come cheap – how can we not find some clever way to come together & be a force again.

      • Robin Hazen

        Our religion is, as you said grand, ancient, multicultural, merciful, and LIVING. As a living faith; dialogue,prayer, and action are how we continue to be living and not static or fading. Dialogue can feel very personal, especially when someone feels marginalized, or judged. As far as politics are concerned I have always felt that one party or the other has never got it completely right in light of my faith. However, I do know that as a follower of Christ living a life that follows a way of being that reflects the Beatitudes is the simplest method of attempting to guide my conscience and my actions as a disciple of Christ. I hope too that we can find a way to dialogue on a level that is true to the teachings of Christ in our Sunday readings rather than the ways of the talk shows on Sunday mornings.

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