Introduction to the Pastoral Letter “Economic Justice for All”
In 1986, 32 years ago, the Catholic Bishops of the United States issued a pastoral letter for Catholics on the economy America, entitled “Economic Justice for All.” I, however, am convinced that the letter, because of its moral message, applies to people of all faiths or with no religion at all. The letter’s message is just as relevant today as it was back then, especially its emphasis on the problem of poverty and meeting the material needs of the economically disadvantaged. In this article, unless otherwise noted, I will be citing from various sections of “Economic Justice for All.”
Fundamental Option for the Poor
At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus states one of the purposes of his mission in reading from the prophet Isaiah at the synagogue of Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18, NIV). Pope John Paul II notes that Jesus,
“with special attention, in a true ‘preferential option,’ … turns to those who are in situations of greater weakness, and therefore in greater need” (Vita Consecrata, no.82).
In other words, although God’s love is universal, being concerned for all humanity, he is especially concerned about those who are most in need.
The poor or those living in poverty lack “sufficient material resources required for a decent life;” one that is befitting of human dignity (Ch. 3, no. 173). The government of the United States of America and its citizens have a moral obligation “to make a fundamental ‘option for the poor’” (Ch. 2, no. 87). That is to say, although every human being in the United States is equal in dignity, having equal rights under the law, the poor, by virtue of the fact that they lack the basic necessities of life, need help from those who have the material resources at their disposal.
“The way society responds to the needs of the poor through its public policies is the litmus test of its justice or injustice” (Ch. 2, no.123). The moral character of the United States, then, can be evaluated, in part, by how the economically advantaged treat the economically disadvantaged. The economy must be at the service of all Americans, “especially the poor” (Ch. 1, no. 24). The reason is that “[T]hose with the greatest needs require the greatest response” (Intro., no. 16). In short, the poor are precisely the ones most in need of government assistance.
The American Government’s Role in Securing Basic Human Rights
Morally, the government has a responsibility to protect human rights and ensure “that the minimum conditions of human dignity are met for all” (Intro., no. 18). According to Pope John XXIII, because all human beings have basic or fundamental rights, then, at a very minimum, they have a right to “‘life, food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, education, and employment’” (in Intro., no. 17). In having those rights recognized by the American government, its citizens can live in dignity and flourish personally, developing their lives with a sense of meaning and purpose.
The government, along with the private sector, also has a responsibility to find creative ways to stimulate the economy, putting the unemployed back to work. Economically, “The life and dignity of millions of men, women and children hang in the balance” (Ch. 1, no. 24). That is true for at least three reasons. First, the wide-spread unemployment in the United States takes its toll on the psyche of men and women, feeling a lack of self-worth from losing their jobs. Second, unemployment is an indirect attack on the dignity of Americans who find a sense of honor in being able to provide for their families. Third, it is an attack on the family itself, because many couples must have three, even four, jobs to make ends meet, thus taking away personal time from each other and their children. Thus, “Productivity is essential if the community is to have the resources to serve the well-being of all” (Ch. 2, no. 71).
The American Citizen’s Right to Government Assistance
In the United States, economic suffering “can be reduced if our own country, so rich in resources, chooses to increase its assistance” (Ch. 2, no. 86). The first to receive help or assistance would be “those who lack the minimum necessities of nutrition, housing, education, and health care” (Ch. 2, no. 90).
American citizens have a right, when necessary, to assistance from the government and it, in turn, has a moral obligation to come to the aid of the economically disadvantaged. As Pope John Paul II writes,
“[T]he more that individuals are defenceless within a given society, the more they require the care and concern of others, and in particular the intervention of governmental authority” ( Centesimus Annus, no. 10).
If, say, able-bodied Americans work and yet cannot meet all their needs, then they may need assistance from others or the government on the local, state or federal levels.
Using Wealth Improperly and Properly
The Christian Scriptures often criticize the wealthy for abusing or improperly using their wealth. For example, James says to the rich, “You have hoarded wealth” and “The wages you failed to pay the workmen … are crying out against you” (excerpts from James 5:1-6, NIV). It is, then, wrong to oppress the poor. That happens, for example, when members in Congress vote to keep American workers in economic conditions from which men and women cannot advance and, therefore, cannot make a better life for themselves and their families.
All Americans with material and financial resources have an obligation to the poor, especially those who are wealthy. In the words of Pope John Paul II, “The needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich” (quoted in Ch. 2, no. 94). Their needs are more important than the desires of the rich to accumulate money and possessions.
The Christian Scriptures do not teach that it is wrong to be wealthy. In fact, to the rich, the apostle Paul says “to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share” (I Timothy 6:18, NIV). However, according to Paul, a person becomes wealthy not for self-centered purposes; in other words, not only for himself or herself but also for others, to help meet their needs. The proper use of wealth, then, is to make one’s life, as well as others’ lives, better.
However, as long as the poor and economically disadvantaged continue to struggle to live, they cannot partake of the “American Dream;” nor can they realize for themselves America’s moral ideals of “liberty and justice for all.” For the American Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, the wealthy can do a lot of good to alleviate human need and suffering. Perhaps now, more than ever, their economic skills and influence are needed to bridge the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor in the United States of America.