The Bishops & the Poor
To the Editor:
In “Can the Bishops Help the Poor?” [February], Peter L. Berger listed pretty clearly most of the objections a great many people have expressed about the first draft of the Catholic bishops’ “Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy.” I agree with him on the proposition that both the bishops’ letter and the letter of the Lay Commission on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy, of which William Simon was Chairman and I was Vice Chairman, are, in a sense, too politically concrete. Although the lay commission tried assiduously to recommend a broad range of policy options rather than to endorse any one of them, and to speak for all Americans, not one faction only, it would be wrong to suppose that all Catholics ought to be bound by its interpretation. Confusions of transcendent faith with political philosophy ought to be avoided.
On one point, however, I believe Mr. Berger went too far. Although the composition of our lay commission leaned heavily to the Republican side, the Democrats in the group fought hard to keep the document, in substance and in tone, genuinely bipartisan. This effort seems to have been successful, as praise from Governor Mario Cuomo and other Democrats indicates. This is as it should be. Our aim was to describe the American system, in which both major parties play legitimate and important roles, to show by our argument why both approaches are legitimate as checks upon each other. I believe our justifications for the political side of “political economy”—and for labor unions—are among the best succinct statements to this effect in print. Lane Kirkland kindly telephoned to thank us for our strong support of labor unions, and Monsignor George Higgins (“the labor priest”) of the bishops’ staff, to his credit, wrote a column lauding our treatment of unions as one of the best of its sort he had seen in his lifetime.
Still, the most profound issue raised by the bishops’ first draft has not yet moved to the center of public attention: the call for “a new American experiment” to match that of the Founding Fathers. This “experiment” would consist in building “a new consensus” for giving equal “pride of place” (along with political and civil rights) to “economic rights” (to jobs, income, decent living conditions, etc.). And it would thus place the nation upon a new foundation, “economic democracy.” This is a most ambitious claim, invoking as it does equal standing with the Founding Fathers and pretending to their wisdom. It would be a mistake, one of the bishops’ staff told the New York Times, not to see the radical nature of this claim.
Socialists have certainly not overlooked it. Gar Alperovitz has been very close to the U.S. bishops’ conference ever since he and Staughton Lynd worked with Bishop Malone of Youngstown (now president of the United States Catholic Conference) and the Carter administration in a failed attempt to bring about worker-ownership of Youngstown Sheet and Tube. Alperovitz, whose first book assigned blame for the cold war not to the USSR but to Harry Truman, and whose 1970 book, with Staughton Lynd, laid out a blueprint for American socialists in the new era, is said to be the economist on whom the drafting committee relied most heavily. His former colleague at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), Derek Shearer, has written a political manifesto for socialists under the title Economic Democracy. Under the sponsorship of the Harvard Divinity School, IPS will hold a conference later this spring to which it has invited the five drafting bishops. Such evidence of attentions from the socialist Left may be multiplied. One of the speakers at a recent convention of the Democratic Socialists of America chastised them because, he said, the Catholic bishops were now to their Left, but, he told them, the bishops had provided the DSA with a marvelous opportunity which must be seized. In the bishops’ first draft, it is precisely the euphemism “economic democracy” (meaning political control of economic decisions) and the claims for “economic rights” (co-equal with political and civil rights) that the socialists, for obvious reasons, value most.
While this rhetorical and symbolic struggle to capture the moral authority of the bishops for socialism is terribly important, it is not the most significant aspect of this debate; what is most significant is the proposed recasting of the American philosophy of rights.
What are “economic rights”? In what are they grounded? There is, in fact, one economic right deeply rooted in the U.S. Constitution: the right to private property. For a variety of reasons, this is the essential and fundamental human right, more radical even than the right to liberty of conscience. (The latter, after all, has been maintained inviolate even in concentration camps.) Property rights hold the state back behind specified boundaries, limit the state, and afford the means through which conscience may express itself independently of the state, even in opposition to a particular regime. Property rights are to liberty of conscience what the body is to the soul: they give it worldly efficacy.
The bishops’ first draft, as many observers have written, is far from clear, and perhaps even confused, in its use of the word “rights.” Almost certainly, the bishops do not want amendments to the Constitution (a “Bill of Economic Rights”). Nevertheless, the context conveys a hint of that. Almost certainly, they do not mean legal entitlements actionable in the courts. What then is the meaning they intend for the word “rights”?
Without detailed argument, the first draft cites the clear embrace of human rights by Pope John XXIII in Pacem in Terris. But in that document Pope John XXIII does not speak as a philosopher of human rights, his treatment is extremely brief and its tone is quite different from that of the bishops’ first draft. John XXIII insists upon duty, responsibility, initiative, work, and ownership as expressions of human dignity. Then, when he does—in one sentence—allow for the “right” to the means of subsistence for those who “through no fault of their own” lack such, it does not sound so much like a declaration of “human-rights standards” (as the bishops’ draft puts it) as compassion for those rendered helpless by the misfortunes of life. To erect a doctrine of “economic rights” on this brief passage in Pacem in Terris is quite imaginative, to say the least.
Furthermore, to speak, as John XXIII does, of a “right” to the means of subsistence for a life compatible with human dignity can scarcely be interpreted as denying dignity to all those human beings who may have lower standards of living than the fortunate citizens of recently developed societies. “Means necessary for living in human dignity,” even in shorthand, is obviously a very loose way of speaking. Standards of decent conditions vary enormously, perhaps nowhere more so than in using the U.S. Census Bureau definition of poverty ($10,600 for a non-farm family of four in 1984) in an international context in which such a sum, far from designating poverty, would designate privilege.
There are further difficulties. If “economic rights” inhere in a person through the simple fact of his being human, there would appear to be no obligations of self-reliance and personal responsibility on the part of human beings. In that case, one’s mere existence, without any attempt to help oneself, would entitle one to a decent level of economic welfare. But this is absurd. Clearly, economic rights, if they exist, are strictly conditioned—first by the prior moral efforts of the person claiming them, second by the capacity of others (yet unspecified) to make up for any deficiencies.
At another point, the first draft appears to ground economic rights in a “new consensus.” Is it then the case that economic rights do not exist if they are not recognized to exist? It can hardly be said that everyone has a right to be kept in comfortable dignity by others, and that such rights are God-given and inalienable. Nor is it clear from the first draft that the state must guarantee such rights (although there are some suggestions in this direction). Perhaps, then, all that is intended is a “moral right.” That is, American consciences ought to be sensitized to the “human dignity” of the needy and grant them what they require, by right rather than by charity. This is a much-diminished sense of “right.” It does not quite ring true, but is hardly “radical” or “revolutionary.” It entails no “new American experiment.” Still, it is not quite on target.
That human beings, qua human beings, make a claim on one another which goes beyond charity—this proposition I certainly accept. But the leap from a person’s “need” to a person’s “right” is a very large one. The concept of “need” is infinite. The concept of “right” is both terribly precious and subject by casual use to cheapening.
I hope that, in their second or third draft, the drafting committee thinks through very carefully the philosophy of rights to which our national history owes so much; gazes steadily all the way down the “slippery slope” of possible abuses, conflicts, and contradictions involved in a swift declaration of new rights; studies the abuses committed in the name of “economic rights” in those societies (such as the USSR, Poland, Cuba, and the rest) in which they have long since been invoked; and reflects again on the classic Catholic understandings of the relation of justice to charity.
Let me note, in conclusion, that although most press attention has concentrated on the practical political and programmatic recommendations of the last part of the first draft, the draft’s most serious problems lie in the scriptural and philosophical premises of Part I. These problems are especially acute in paragraphs 79-104 on “economic rights.” To say the least, the thinking behind this section seems not to be mature. There are a great many mountains to scale, and valleys to explore, before Americans can, or should, say of such propositions: “We hold these truths. . . .”
Peter L. Berger writes:
Most of Michael Novak’s letter deals with the notion of “economic rights” and its implications. I fully agree with Mr. Novak’s view of this matter. It is at the heart of the social-democratic “Swedish” ideology running through the bishops’ draft and it deserves much fuller discussion than I could give it. There is one point in Mr. Novak’s letter, however, where my article is misunderstood: I did not blame the lay commission for being too politically concrete; I only blamed the bishops. It seems to me that a very sharp distinction should be drawn between a body purporting to speak authoritatively in the name of the entire Catholic community and a voluntary association of Catholic people. The distinction is crucial, both politically and theologically.