Comments on “Economic Justice for All”

Pastoral Letter of the Catholic Bishops of the United States

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.

A Meditation on Isaiah 58: The Right and Wrong Kinds of Fasting

“Thou art Dust and unto Dust Thou Shalt Return”

The Wrong Kind of Fasting (vv. 1-5)

Yahweh, the Lord, instructs the prophet Isaiah to declare to his people their sin of separating religion from morality (vv. 1-2). First, Isaiah describes the wrong kind of fasting. Outwardly, the people were fasting, giving the appearance that they were devout, religious (vv. 3a, 5). But inwardly, they were not right with God, because their morality, the way they lived their lives, treating others unjustly, contradicted their religion. As the prophet says,

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high” (vv. 3b-4, NIV).

Human Exploitation

It is morally wrong, according to Isaiah, for employers to exploit their employees, that is, treating human beings as merely a means to the employers’ ends; using humans, reducing their value to a function of a tool or instrument, only to advance the employers’ purposes; treating employees as things, objects, not persons.

Another aspect of the exploitation of workers is not paying them for their labor and even arguing and entering to fights with them. The laborer has basic human needs, especially the need to care for his or her family. As the Torah, the revealed Law of God to the Jewish people, says,

“14 Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. 15 Pay them their wages … , because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15, NIV).

Exposing Hypocrisy

Isaiah is exposing the people’s double lives, their hypocrisy, living one way before God and another before others. The people’s morality negated the value of their religious practices, so that God did not answer their prayers (cf. vv. 3, 4b). Thus, it is entirely possible, according to the “spirit” of Isaiah, for a religious community to be orthodox theologically; to have places of worship which are, architecturally, awe-inspiring; to practice correctly all the ceremonies of public worship; to be beautiful liturgically, having the finest vestments and gold-plated sacred vessels; but not be pleasing to God; because the form, that is, the outward display of worship, does not correspond with the content, that is, what is in the worshiper’s heart.

The Right Kind of Fasting (vv. 6-12)

Second, the prophet proceeds to describe the right kind of fasting, which is not only directed to oneself but also to others. In other words, fasting or religion pertains to both internal and external acts of devotion to God. Externally, fasting pertains to social justice, that is, opposing injustice and caring for the bodily needs of the economically disadvantaged. In the words of the prophet,

“6 Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (vv. 6-7, NIV).

Social Justice

Isaiah is teaching that religion must be profane, which comes from two Latin words: pro, meaning “outside,” and fanus, meaning “temple.” In other words, religion should be taken outside the confines of a building, whether it be a temple or church building, and related to issues of social justice, the right relationships between human beings (v. 6). Issues of social justice are finite reflections of God’s very nature, for he himself is just and delights in just dealings between humans. As Scripture says, “the Lord is righteous, he loves justice” (Psalm 11:7, NIV).

Corporal Works of Mercy

Isaiah is also teaching that religion pertains to corporal works of mercy, which means meeting the body’s needs of human beings (v. 7). Isaiah mentions three of the corporal works of mercy: giving food to the hungry, providing shelter to the homeless and giving clothes to those who need them. Similarly, Jesus identifies himself with the economically distressed, saying,

“‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me’” (Matthew 25:35-36, NIV).

It is, then, for the prophet Isaiah, neither a “liberal” nor a “conservative” issue to help people in need. Rather, it is a human issue and a biblical mandate.

The Blessing for Practicing the Right Kind of Religion

After Isaiah rebukes his people, the prophet emphasizes that God wants to bless them for their right relationships with him and with others. For example, Isaiah writes,

“9b If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, 10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. 11 The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. 12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” (vv. 9b-12, NIV).

Similarly, the prophet Micah, a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah, declares,

“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, NIV).

Micah summarizes the fundamental religious requirements of human beings. He refers to human beings’ relationships with each other in the phrase “To act justly and to love mercy” and, of course, their relationship with God in the words “to walk humbly with your God.” Because God is just and merciful and human beings are made in his image, they, too, are meant to reflect that image in being just and merciful. Micah’s lesson is the same as Isaiah’s, which is that right religion, one that is acceptable to God, cannot be divorced from morality.