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.