By James J. Bacik
In this 2020 election, we are electing candidates in the middle of an economic crisis with millions of jobs lost and an unemployment rate around 8% due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Back in 1986, the American bishops published a pastoral letter, “Economic Justice for All,” that proposes some general principles that are still relevant for us as we inform our conscience on this important issue. The Pastoral Letter, which was the product of years of study, hearings and multiple drafts, clarifies the role Christian perspectives can play in helping citizens make informed economic decisions. The bishops recognize that their letter is not “a blueprint for the American economy.” It does not “embrace any particular theory of how the economy works nor does it attempt to resolve the disputes between different schools of economic thought.” It does turn to “Scripture and to the social teaching of the Church” to discover “what our economic life must serve, what standards it must meet.”
According to the moral vision of the bishops, economic policies and institutions must protect the God-given dignity of every citizen and enhance the “capacity of individuals to grow in community.” “All people have a right to participate in the economic life of society, especially through employment that enables individuals and families to “meet their material needs, exercise their talents, contribute to the larger community and join in God’s creative activity.” As Christians, we are called to follow the example of Jesus who came to preach the good news to the poor (Luke: 4:18) and identified himself with those in need (Matt 25:32-45). We practice this “option for the poor” not by “pitting one group against another” but by assisting those who are most vulnerable and supporting policies that empower the poor to take hold of their own lives, which strengthens the whole community.” Society as a whole must respect the human rights of all citizens that include not only civil and political rights, such as the right to vote, but also economic rights, such as the right to “life, food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, education and employment.”
In the 2020 version of their document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the American bishops draw on the principles of Catholic Social Teaching to make some concrete recommendations. Economic policies should “foster the creation of jobs for all who can work with decent working conditions and just wages.” Women have a right to equal pay and employment opportunities. Workers have a right to join a union and bargain collectively without reprisal. Individuals have a right to private property and economic freedom. Workers and owners have a “corresponding responsibility to create decent jobs, build a more just economy and advance the common good.” Welfare policies should help “families leave poverty,” and “provide a safety net for those who cannot work.” Expressing growing concern over “excessive social and economic inequalities” and the “shrinking middle class,” the bishops advocate for “renewed commitment” to increase the supply of safe and affordable housing and support social security that provides adequate income for retired workers.
In forming our conscience on economic justice, we can attend to many voices: for example, business and labor leaders, poor persons and social activists. The American bishops, however, are especially helpful in presenting a moral vision for our consideration as we decide which candidates are best qualified to deal with our economic crisis.
What aspect of the bishops’ teaching offers the biggest challenge to my personal views?