U.S. Bishops’ Pastoral Letter: Economic Justice for All After 25 Years, 2012

Reference: Roman Catholic Diocese of Scranton

By Bishop Joseph C. Bambera
Bishop of Scranton 

September 6, 2012 


President MacDowell, Dr. Kearney: thank you for the invitation to be a part of this symposium and to offer my thoughts on the U.S. Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, Economic Justice for All.  It is a privilege for me to be here at Misericordia University this evening.  It is also an honor for me to have been introduced by President MacDowell as he begins his final academic year leading this great university after having served it so well for 15 years.  Thank you Dr. MacDowell.

As we begin this evening to reflect upon the twenty-five year milestone of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter Economic Justice for All, we can come to a better understanding of it when we consider its subtitle: Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy. This 1986 pastoral letter was never intended to stand alone. It is but a part of what is now more than a century of modern-day Catholic social teaching that began with Pope Leo XIII’s landmark encyclical of 1891, Rerum Novarum. In the last century the popes have written more on social ethics than on any other single topic.

The Catholic bishops of the United States, too, have addressed numerous issues relative to social ethics in various policy statements and pastoral letters, beginning particularly after the First World War in 1919 as the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC).  For close to a century, the bishops have written on war and peace, racism, immigration, welfare, education, health, agriculture, the economy and other social concerns. Today, by means of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) we continue to develop and issue specific policy statements for the guidance of individual citizens and policy makers. All of these statements are grounded in the social doctrine of the Church, including papal encyclicals, the Second Vatican Council, Roman Synods, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Yet unfortunately, most American Catholics remain largely unfamiliar with this vast body of official Church teaching. It was this lack of appreciation for such Church teaching that the U.S. bishops specifically wanted to address in drafting their two pastoral letters of the 1980’s – The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response (1983), and Economic Justice for All: Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy (1986).

My remarks this evening will be situated in three areas:  (1) The context of the pastoral letter; (2) The letter itself: Economic Justice for All; and (3) The impact and aftermath of the pastoral letter, followed by a few concluding observations. 


Even though modern Catholic social teaching can trace its beginning to Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, beginning with the pontificate of Pope John XXIII in the early 1960’s and the Second Vatican Council, Catholic social teaching underwent a significant transformation as it sought to interpret and speak to “the signs of the time.” It is most appropriate for us to note this as next month, on October 11th, we will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of that Council.

The teaching of Vatican II exhibits significant anthropological and ecclesiological shifts.  As Cardinal Avery Dulles pointed out, “Beginning with Gaudium et Spes, one notices a much more empirical methodology, which includes a careful phenomenology of the present situation.”[i] Thus, there is now the recognition that Catholic social teaching must be adapted to the various situations in different parts of the world.

Marking the anthropological shift in the documents of Vatican II, the person becomes the focal point of the Church’s mission and ministry. In the area of ecclesiology, Vatican II’s understanding of the Church itself moved away from the classical concept of a “perfect society” alongside the secular state, to a vision of a Church which takes its form and function from its relationship to the Kingdom of God. Biblical and symbolic images are used to describe this vision of the Church, rather than juridical, hierarchical definitions.

Very significantly, the Council also spoke of the essential communal character of the human vocation.  Created in the likeness of God, who is a Trinity of persons, human beings are called to live according to the first and greatest commandment of love of God and one’s neighbor (GS 24). Life in society is thus seen not as an accessory but as something essential for the development of our talents and for arriving at our destiny through mutual service, through human interaction and dialogue (GS 25). These shifts at Vatican II, indeed, paved the way for the U.S. Bishops’ pastoral letters of the 1980’s.

In 1971, on the eightieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, Pope Paul VI published his encyclical letter Octogesima Adveniens (given the English title “Call to Action”) in which he emphasized that action for justice is the responsibility of every Christian and that it was up to Christian communities to analyze the situation proper to their own country in the light of the gospel.

At the same time in 1971, the Synod of Bishops meeting in Rome published a document entitled “Justice in the World,” in which after “scrutinizing the signs of the times” they identified and condemned the structures of injustice in the world and pleaded the plight of the poor, the powerless, migrants, refugees, political prisoners, etc. The Synod, furthermore, linked the work of justice with the Church’s primary mission of evangelization, stating that “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.”

Encouraged by Pope Paul VI’s Octogesima Adveniens to take up their own initiative, the U.S. Bishops at their November 1980 meeting accepted proposals to prepare two pastoral letters – one on war and peace, the other on capitalism. Because of the then pressing debate on SALT II and limiting nuclear weapons, it was decided that the committee on nuclear weapons would go through the drafting process first. In the summer of 1981, at the first meeting of the committee formed to draft the second pastoral, the decision was made that this letter would not be on capitalism but on the wider topic of the U.S. economy.

What helped enormously in the process of writing Economic Justice for All was the experience gained in the writing of the first letter, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response. That process introduced a strong consultative approach, wherein experts and others knowledgeable in the field of war and peace were heard. Hearings for the pastoral letter on the economy were then organized throughout the United States and involved professors of economics, bankers, entrepreneurs, farmers, labor union leaders and members, community organizers and others who work with the poor. The writing of the economic pastoral involved more consultation than any other writing endeavor of the U.S. bishops up to that point in time.


After going through some five years of preparation and three drafts Economic Justice for All: Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy was adopted by the U.S. Bishops on November 13, 1986 by a vote of 225 to 9. They introduce their letter by stating that “Every perspective on economic life that is human, moral and Christian must be shaped by three questions: What does the economy do for people? What does it do to people? And how do people participate in it?” (no. 1). The bishops then briefly describe the “signs of hope” and the failures that were currently evident in the nation’s economy at the time when the letter was written.

The second chapter of the letter outlines the Christian vision of economic life based upon “the fundamental conviction of our faith . . . that human life is fulfilled in the knowledge and love of the living God in communion with others” (no. 30). They turn to the Scriptures to show how this vision flows out of the Old Testament focal points of creation, covenant and community, as well as from Jesus’ proclamation of the reign of God and his teaching of the dual command of love.

The pastoral letter next presents the moral principles involved including respect for human dignity, the common good, solidarity, the preferential option for the poor, active participation and subsidiarity. The traditional categories of commutative, distributive and social justice are defined. But then, we see presented a new dimension of justice, justice as participation. The letter states, indeed emphasizes that, “Basic justice demands the establishment of minimal levels of participation in the life of the human community for all persons” (no. 77). What the letter is actually doing at this point is incorporating the words of the 1971 Rome Synod of Bishops: “Participation constitutes a right which is to be applied in the economic and in the social and political field” (“Justice in the World,” 18).

In chapter two, with its scriptural roots and Catholic principles we really find the heart of the letter. Although the media coverage at the time focused on the policy directions presented in chapter three, ten years later in November 1995, in their pastoral message A Decade After “Economic Justice for All:” Continuing Principles, Changing Context, New Challenges, the Bishops noted, “The greatest contribution of our economic pastoral was to remind us that the pursuit of economic justice is a work of faith and an imperative of the Gospel. For some Catholics this message was an affirmation of long-held principle. For others, it was a jarring exposure to part of the Catholic tradition they had never encountered. The call to economic justice is not a political preference or ideological choice, but a response to the Scriptures and a requirement of Catholic teaching.”

The third chapter – often the most discussed and criticized chapter of the letter – attempts to analyze some selected aspects of the U.S. economy: employment, poverty, food and agriculture, and the U.S. role in the global economy. The bishops seemed to anticipate potential criticism as they prefaced this section by stating,

Our judgments and recommendations on specific economic issues . . . do not carry the same moral authority as our statements of universal moral principles and formal church teaching; the former are related to circumstances which can change or which can be interpreted differently by people of good will. We expect and welcome debate on our specific policy recommendations. Nevertheless, we want our statements on these matters to be given serious consideration by Catholics as they determine whether their own moral judgments are consistent with the Gospel and with Catholic social teaching (no. 135).

The pastoral letter concludes in the fourth and last chapter by outlining plans for a “new American experiment” that would replace competition with partnership and teamwork in all areas of the economy. Finally, with reference once again to the 1971 Rome Synod of Bishops’ document “Justice in the World”, the letter affirms that “all the moral principles that govern the just operation of any economic endeavor apply to the church and its agencies; indeed the church should be exemplary” (no. 347).


According to Archbishop Weakland, who chaired the Bishops’ committee that prepared the pastoral, the business community did not know how to deal with the letter, as they had not been accustomed to reflect on the relationship between a free market economy and the values of society. Economists were also divided and most were hesitant to discuss moral issues. There was also a division among the media; most of those newspapers and periodicals that specialize in economic and business affairs were negative, such as Forbes, Fortune, and the Wall Street Journal. General newspapers were more positive. The Archbishop was disappointed by the lack of strong support from departments of economics in many Catholic universities. For the most part, he says, the strongest support came from secular universities. At Harvard, for example, the pastoral letter became part of the required reading for incoming freshmen.

Ten years after the pastoral was written, the bishops reflected upon its impact and summarized the central message of the letter in five points:

  1. “The economy exists to serve the human person, not the other way around.
  2. Economic life should be shaped by moral principles and ethical norms.
  3. Economic choices should be measured by whether they enhance or threaten human life, human dignity and human rights.
  4. A fundamental concern must be support for the family and the well-being of children.
  5. The moral measure of any economy is how the weakest are faring.”

This tenth anniversary message, furthermore, speaks of Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus, noting that, “This encyclical offers particular challenges for U.S. Catholics. While it recognizes the vital contributions of democratic values and market economics, it insists that these be guided by the common good and be at the service of human dignity and human rights.” It then added that Pope John Paul II “reviewed the failed and empty promises of communism, as he warned against a capitalism which neglects the human and moral dimensions of economic life.”

After twenty-five years, the biblical and moral principles set forth in Economic Justice for All have been given greater attention and development in recent Catholic social teachingCatholic social teaching today continues to seek to apply a Christian moral vision to the complexities of present-day economic, social and political situations.

While criticism of the bishops’ letter on the economy twenty-five years ago came from both the “right” and the “left,” it is important to note that the U.S. Bishops’ pastoral letter and Catholic social teaching in general do not fit neatly into either of these perspectives. The Catholic theological tradition is fundamentally communitarian and participatory. It flows from our belief in God as a Trinity of persons – a belief in God as Love. As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states: “‘To be human means to be called to interpersonal communion’, because the image and likeness of the Trinitarian God are the basis of the whole of ‘human “ethos”, which reaches its apex in the commandment of love’. The modern cultural, social, economic and political phenomenon of interdependence…accentuates once more, in the light of Revelation, ‘a new model of the unity of the human race, which must ultimately inspire our solidarity’” (no. 33).

Such a communitarian worldview, as proclaimed by the Church, shuns individualism.  Instead, it emphasizes a commitment to the common good and the importance of respect for every person, made in the image and likeness of God. It affirms a preferential option for the poor and the right of workers to form associations. In his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), Pope Benedict XVI continues to develop this tradition as he offers an ethical analysis of the current global economic crisis and an essential moral framework on how to move forward as one human family.

In this encyclical, the Pope makes a connection between charity and the common good. He states, “The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbors, the more effectively we love them. Every Christian is called to practice this charity . . . This is the institutional path — we might also call it the political path — of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbor directly” (no. 7). After maintaining, “The poor are not to be considered a ‘burden’, but a resource, even from the purely economic point of view” (no. 35), Pope Benedict XVI adds, “The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly — not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centered” (no. 45).  


In conclusion, twenty-five years after the publication of Economic Justice for All, the first part of the letter with its quite thorough presentation of the biblical and moral principles on which the social teachings of the Church are based remains truly valid. However, the situations to which these ethical principles would be applied today have changed in many ways. As Pope Benedict XVI contends in Caritas in Veritate, governments, businesses, unions, as well as individuals, all need to address the current global economic crisis in the light of traditional moral values. The Holy Father then cites such critical issues as poverty and unemployment, globalization, immigration, technology and biotechnology, along with the pressing concerns of human and environmental ecologies, energy resources, and our understanding of authentic human development.

In September 2011, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, as President of the United States Conference of Bishops, wrote his brother bishops about “the terrible toll the current economic turmoil is taking on families and communities.” He points out that the dismal unemployment figures leave 46 million people (15%) living in poverty in the United States, and he calls upon individuals and families, faith-based and community groups, businesses and labor, and government at every level to work together and find effective ways to promote the common good. Archbishop Dolan adds,

For us, each of these persons is a child of God with innate human dignity and rights that deserve respect.  These numbers bring home to us the human costs and moral consequences of a broken economy that cannot fully utilize the talents, energy and work of all our people…. Sixteen million of our children (almost one out of four) are growing up poor….   Immigrant workers are especially vulnerable to exploitation and unfair treatment.  These realities contradict our national pledge of “liberty and justice for all.”  They also contradict the consistent teaching of our Church.  Our Catholic tradition begins with respect for the life and dignity of all, requires a priority concern for poor and vulnerable people, reflects the ties and bonds of solidarity, respects the mutual relationships of subsidiarity, and promotes the dignity of work and protection for workers.

At our June meeting in Atlanta this year, the U.S. bishops once again approved a proposal to draft a statement on work and the economy. Titled “Catholic Reflections on Work, Poverty and a Broken Economy,” the message will build upon the 1986 pastoral letter Economic Justice for All. The statement will focus on specific challenges that have emerged since the economic downturn began in late 2007, once again sharing and applying Catholic teaching on economic life, work and poverty, particularly pointing to Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclicals on charity Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”) and Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”).

In the end, we can now see that the publication of the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter Economic Justice for All: Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy twenty-five years ago marked a new beginning in our way of addressing and analyzing the pressing social issues of justice and human development in our own place and time. In so doing, we have truly come to understand the words of Blessed John Paul II in his encyclical Centesimus Annus [marking the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum]: “The “new evangelization”, which the modern world urgently needs and which I have emphasized many times, must include among its essential elements a proclamation of the Church’s social doctrine. As in the days of Pope Leo XIII, this doctrine is still suitable for indicating the right way to respond to the great challenges of today” (no. 5). 

[i] Avery Dulles, S.J., “The Gospel, the Church, and Politics,” Origins 16 (1987): p. 641.

[ii] Interview with Archbishop Rembert Weakland, OSB, March 30, 2006, referred to by Most Reverend Ricardo Ramírez, C.S.B. in “The U.S. Bishops’ Pastoral Letter ‘Economic Justice For All’ Twenty Years After” at the Third Annual University of St. Thomas Summer Institute, June 2, 2006. (Bishop Ramírez was a member of the committee.)

[iii] Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, “Letter To Bishops on Economic Situation” (USCCB, September 15, 2011).

[iv] See Denis Sadowski, “Bishops Agree to Prepare Message on Work and the Economy,” (Catholic News Service, June 13 and 14, 2012).