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We have been here before: a debate about capitalism between clerics and capitalists occurred during preparation of a bishops’ pastoral letter on the economy in America almost four decades ago. The lay letter on the economy warrants serious re-examination, given the new debates into which its concepts should be re-introduced.

This article originally appeared in RealClearReligion on February 7, 2019.


Invoking the moral authority derivative of their vocation, prominent Roman Catholic clerics and their emboldened allies are getting a lot of attention for criticizing the capitalist economic system, sometimes quite pointedly. In particular, they are harshly critiquing capitalism in seemingly failing to deliver for the most materially needy among us, as well for the negative effects spiritually for both the needy and those who materially benefit from it. Those lay faithful and their allies who disagree—and would normally be inclined to introduce the many positive aspects of free-market economics into public discourse—feel as if they are on quite the defensive.

This has all become a familiar state of affairs now, but it was the 1980s. We have been here before: a debate about capitalism between clerics and capitalists occurred during preparation of a bishops’ pastoral letter on the economy in America almost four decades ago. This debate presaged the ongoing global debates about what is essentially the same subject. A high-quality, intellectually serious “lay letter” was prepared as part of the 1980s debate in the U.S. The lay letter, along with the way it came about and was presented, all warrant serious re-examination given the new debates into which the lay letter’s concepts should be re-introduced.

Bishops and economics

The idea of an American bishops’ letter on the economy was first proposed at a meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in November 1980, just after Ronald Reagan was elected President. A committee to draft the letter was appointed in January 1981. It was to be chaired by Milwaukee’s then-Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland. Well-staffed and with the help of many external consultants, the committee publicly presented and discussed three drafts before submitting its final draft in November 1986 to the national conference’s full membership, which voted to formally adopt it, 225 to 9.

“Some people argue that an unfettered free-market economy, where owners, workers, and consumers pursue their enlightened self-interest, provides the greatest possible liberty, material welfare, and equity,” according to the final draft, Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy. “The policy implication of this view is to intervene in the economy as little as possible because it is such a delicate mechanism that any attempt to improve it is likely to have the opposite effect.”

On the other hand, “Others argue that the capitalist system is inherently inequitable and therefore contradictory to the demands of Christian morality, for it is based on acquisitiveness, competition, and self-centered individualism,” the bishops’ letter continues. “They assert that capitalism is fatally flawed and must be replaced by a radically different system that abolishes private property, the profit motive, and the free market.”

The 90-page pastoral attempted to even-handedly place itself between these positions. “Catholic social teaching has traditionally rejected these ideological extremes because they are likely to produce results contrary to human dignity and economic justice,” it says. “In short, the Church is not bound to any particular economic, political, or social system.”

“When the U.S. bishops published ‘Economic Justice for All’ in 1986, some thinkers on the political right urged them to leave economics to the economists and focus on the purely ‘religious’ realm,” according to Catholic Bishops in the United States: Church Leadership in the Third Millennium, by four scholars at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. “The political left has been perhaps equally vociferous in its critiques of the bishops, except the problem in this case is that the church’s leaders have remained too silent.”

The lay faithful on the right inclined to defend capitalism in the 1980s, of course, did not consider themselves on any “ideological extreme.” They still do not, though current papal and papally inspired pronouncements in various forms seem even more dismissive of them and their ideas. Quoting a fourth-century bishop during remarks in His native Latin America, Pope Francis called unfettered capitalism “the dung of the devil.” That was in 2015.

Philosophically, the 1986 American prelates’ pastoral could be evidence of that which Daniel J. Mahoney considers the Christian acceptance of “the religion of humanity” in his new The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity. In the book, Mahoney laments that Christianity “becomes an instrument for promoting egalitarian social justice, usually in the name of an ideological conception of the poor (clearly, Pope Francis increasingly fits into this category).”

Regarding policy, the 1986 pastoral actually made several specific proposals that would have increased governmental “interven[tion] in the economy” and had the opposite effect of economic improvement, just as some of the supposed extremists feared. The letter included economic-policy recommendations, for example, on fiscal and monetary policy, employment programs, the minimum wage, the tax system, education policy, welfare and income-support programs, the viability of family farms, aid to developing nations, and international trade and finance. His present Holiness, one can plausibly presume, would endorse them.

In short, Weakland really did not “leave economics to the economists,” just as the bishops’ attention-getting 1983 pastoral on nuclear weapons did not leave national security and foreign policy to national-security and foreign-policy experts. Rather, the bishops’ letters on nuclear weapons and the economy were and are plausibly considered by many on the left to constitute something of a model framework for social-justice policy advocacy—and a morally bolstered, if not outright blessed, one.

It was considered such in the 1980s, and it still is in 2019.

Another model

There is another, helpful model of contributing to public discourse from the 1980s. A Lay Commission on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy was formed in 1984 to bring its expertise and analysis to bear on discourse surrounding preparation of the economic letter by Weakland and his the bishops, who always invited such dialogue. In several ways, the Lay Commission should be considered a model too—substantively and stylistically, and procedurally—perhaps particularly now.

The commission was philanthropically supported by the Olin and Scaife Foundations, among others, with grants to the American Catholic Committee. It was quintessentially good grantmaking by those foundations. The commission’s letter, “Toward the Future: Catholic Social Thought and the U.S. Economy,” was completed and released in November 1984, before the bishops’ first public draft later that year.

The 29-member Lay Commission’s chairman was successful businessman and philanthropist William E. Simon, a former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and, at the time, Olin’s president. Simon was assisted in the task by Olin program staffer Michael S. Joyce, who went on to become president of the Bradley Foundation.

William E. Simon (Wikimedia Commons)

The commission’s vice chair and principal author of the lay letter was “Reagan Democrat” theologian Michael Novak—author of 1982’s seminal The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, editor of Crisis Magazine and a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). A November 2018 tweet from National Review senior editor Jay Nordlinger asked, and answered, “You know what the conservative movement could use today? A team of Michael Novaks. People who will defend the morality of capitalism and explain how a free economy benefits ordinary men and women.”

The commission’s other distinguished members included Mary Ellen Bork, wealthy industrialist J. Peter Grace, former U.S. Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Clare Booth Luce, Conservative Party of New York founder and future federal Court of Appeals Judge J. Daniel Mahoney, former CBS Television president and future U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Frank Shakespeare, and eminent political scientist James Q. Wilson.

“We lay men and lay women, in addressing our reflections on the future to all our fellow citizens, recognize that Christianity cannot be identified with any one earthly system, political party, or partisan purpose,” the 106-page letter began, before offering what seems to have been a gentle chide of the bishops. “We recognize, too, that Christian Scripture does not offer programmatic guidance for the concrete institutions of political economy.”

A “sense of balance is sometimes lacking in the language of those who either choose individual liberty over all other concerns, and hence a kind of radical individualism,” according the lay letter, or, on the other hand, “seek to enlarge the power and scope of government, and hence embrace a kind of statist meddlesomeness.”

The lay letter has three parts. Its first part well-surveys the principles of Catholic social thought, and examines the great significance of the American experience in particular. By its own terms and implying at least some moral authority derivative of the laity’s own vocation, its second part reflects “on the lay vocation of co-creation, especially as it is now being lived by millions of lay persons in economic activities.” Co-creation in this context is defined as “bringing forth from each part of creation the economic possibilities with which the Creator unequally endowed each,” as the letter puts it.

One strongly senses here the Novak for whom Nordlinger now pines by tweet. The lay letter argues, in-depth and with evidence, that “political economies should liberate the creative energies of each human person within them. This liberal democracies set out to do.” Specifically, “Catholic social thought needs to examine more carefully the institutional causes of economic creativity. Creativity does not just happen; in world economies, it is relatively rare,” according to the lay faithful. Presaging St. John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus annusthe lay letter holds that, properly understood and practiced, liberal democratic capitalism allows for and even encourages that creation—with other notable benefits to boot.

“[T]he record of capitalist societies in providing personal liberties, a creative economy, high wages, and unprecedented standards of living for the formerly poor is beyond dispute,” the 1984 lay letter continues. “The aim of capitalism has been to overcome the tyranny of poverty not solely for the few (who did not need such liberation), but for all, and not solely in one nation, but in all nations.”

An au courant term for this kind of beneficial co-creation might be “human flourishing,” about the proper degree of economic and policy emphasis on which some within the right are intelligently arguing. This is a healthy debate implicitly occasioned in part by Oren Cass’s new The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America. Earlier, conservative skepticism of capitalism’s effect on politics, culture, and society was well-catalogued by Peter Kolozi’s Conservatives Against Capitalism: From the Industrial Revolution to Globalization. More-recent cutting commentary from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson is consistent.

The 1984 lay letter’s third and final part makes several proposals, including many on policy that would, for the most part, decrease governmental intervention in the economy. The recommendations are regarding the family, poverty and welfare, job creation, free trade and global interdependence, and “social cooperation and providence.”

In December 1986, Simon and Novak released a separate report on the final draft of the “Economic Justice for All” pastoral letter, thanking the bishops for their invitation to engage in dialogue, complimenting some parts of the pastoral, continuing to critique other parts, and urging that the larger discussion remain ongoing.

Simon’s and Novak’s 1986 report specifically credited the bishops with ensuring that language regarding the importance of the family was added to their letter. Under Joyce, the Bradley Foundation was just beginning its philanthropic investments in the family and welfare reform, including with a major joint project of AEI and Marquette University on the relationship between the two topics led by Novak. The effort laid the intellectual foundation for successful welfare reform in Wisconsin, which envisioned a renewal of work and which in turn ultimately led to similarly successful federal work-based welfare reform in 1996.

A model in other ways, as well

It was the mid-1980s, but the Lay Commission on Catholic Social Teaching and its Toward the Future letter should be considered a model in other ways as well—again, perhaps particularly now. In addition to its substantive arguments, the tone of the commission’s activities and the letter was always respectful and engaging. The letter civilly cited concepts and tried to fairly apply them to historical and contemporary factual situations, relying on actual evidence. It was making an argument, yes, but on the merits of the issues; it was not personal.

The replicability of the privately funded “lay-commission” vehicle should perhaps be explored, too, whether it be in the discourse about the economy, the environment, or any of the other myriad difficult and sometimes-embarrassing issues facing the church and its laity.

Given the substance and nature of current episcopal and public discourse surrounding capitalism and free markets, the Lay Commission is probably an idea whose time has come again. This discourse is occurring between Weakland’s successors on the left, including at the Vatican, and those defenders of capitalism properly understood on the right. It is also happening among those on the right itself, about that which should be the proper understanding of capitalism. While easily revisable with updated facts, figures, and communications techniques, many of the themes of and thoughts in 1984’s Toward the Future may be even more relevant in 2019.

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