Michael S. Joyce
Ten years ago, the pastoral letter of America's Catholic bishops, <Economic Justice for All>, was published, and though some troubling passages from earlier drafts were modified, it remained a document that failed to see clearly the limits of economic thinking. Five years later, when the Holy Father's <Centesimus Annus> arrived, it restored economics to its proper place and purpose with respect to the Church's wisdom about human life.

An essential distinction must be made between <Economic Justice for All> and <Centesimus Annus.> The Bishops' pastoral emphasized economics to the detriment of its prescriptions for the human person, and the pope's encyclical emphasized the human person to the benefit of its prescriptions for economics.

Consider John Paul II's statement, in his reference to <Rerum Novarum>, that: "The guiding principle of all the Church's social doctrine is a correct view of the human person." Both the pastoral and the encyclical call this creature by the same name-"the human person"- but each describes the dignity of this person in such radically different terms that they can hardly indicate the same being.

In the American bishops' pastoral, "an economy that truly respects persons" is envisioned, and toward that goal no fewer than three five-point programs are proposed, with measures as broad as calling for a "major new national commitment" and as specific as supporting the Targeted Jobs Tax Credit Act. The pastoral has much to say about the needy- about their pain and marginalization-but nothing to say to them. It is a message from the good, to the strong, on behalf of the weak. If the needy are to have dignity, many social systems will need to be reformed, but no action or task is proposed for the needy themselves. Calling for "national and international policies," it is to the national government of the United States that the bishops look to secure human dignity.

In contrast, the Holy Father's reflections in <Centesimus Annus> cannot be read without a palpable sense that the human person, made in the image and likeness of God, is not quite so subordinate. When the Holy Father acknowledges the need for "commitments on the political, economic, social and cultural level," he reserves his next breath to remind us:

But this is not enough! A decisive commitment must be made to the very heart of man, to the intimacy of his conscience, where he makes his personal decisions. Only on this level can the human person effect a true, deep, and positive change in himself, and that is the undeniable premise of contributing to change and the improvement of all society.

Here is a creature worthy of being spoken to, a person who is an actor and not a passive object in the realization of his own and his neighbors' human dignity. This creature, distinct from the creature depicted in the bishops' pastoral, is an appropriate audience for the Holy Father's most relentless exhortation: his call to hope.

Hope is no function of national government—nor love, nor faith. Neither is a national economy a wellspring of these virtues. Governments and economic policies properly may be employed in an effort to meet the material needs of human persons, and to do so in a manner that accommodates human nature and provides no obstruction to the pursuit of wholeness. Public policy no less than Christian social thought, are of value to us only insofar as they are based on "a correct view of the human person." If we acknowledge, with John Paul, the "transcendent dignity of the person," we will not necessarily be drawn, for example, to support AFDC or CETA, nor will we anticipate that it is within the grasp of such programs to establish "an economy that truly respects persons."

Economy and the Person

As a member of the Lay Commission on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy at the time when the pastoral was being prepared, I joined with my colleagues to provide the bishops with access to the advice of lay men and women whose practical experience in the U.S. economy was complemented by a strong grounding in Catholic teaching. The concerns I expressed then—as part of a debate at Yale University in 1985—are worth revisiting today in the light of <Centesimus Annus> and a decennium of history.

My first major objection to the bishops' argument had to do with its reification or depersonalization of the economy. In the pastoral's first paragraph, the bishops begin with an active-economy/passive-humanity perspective that leads them to misplace hope in a vessel unworthy of their aspirations. A dream inspired by overextended Keynesianism envisions a central control station for managing the results of an enormous and complicated system. There, shiny meters register the Gross National Product, industrial capacity, and the like; at the instrument panel, dials raise or lower prime rates and disposable income. And somewhere in this mechanism—or <deus ex machina>—the bishops hope to find the valve that could be turned, by means of national and international policies, to release an optimum level of human dignity. Just as historicism imagined history to be a force shaping the lives of humans—instead of the other way around—so this view of the economy imagines economics to be a force outside and above individuals.

It was a "scientific" theory of economics that under-girded the totalitarianism of this century. Its contradictions were fatal and its grip on our world has finally loosened, but it should remain forever a lesson in economics-that no science can satisfy the needs of creatures with souls. Now that the economic theory of the elites has been destroyed by bad experience, they will deftly switch to other "sciences"—social psychology, ecology on so on—as the rationale for a powerful central state, to be run by them, of course.

If conservatives also often have resorted to economics to make their point, at least the point they made was that the exercise of human creativity (so admired by the Holy Father in <Centesimus Annus>) ought not be unduly constrained by centralized authority. Government power, through economic policy and other means, does indeed have the capacity to do things to and for people, but we must not forget that people—as in Eastern Europe in 1989 and America in 1994—have the capacity to do things to and for government. There is reason to believe that some balance between the human estate and the state has been restored in the years since the bishops' pastoral, after the fact but certainly not because of the fact. The discussion of economic policy is much improved today, for virtually nowhere outside the salons of <a priori> statists do we hear of the depersonalized economy to which the bishops in 1986 addressed their appeals.

Misconstrued Subsidiarity

My second major objection to the pastoral's approach was its emphasis on a misconstrued vision of communitarianism. I am deeply and personally committed to restoring the institutional vitality of civil society, an objective often referred to under the rubric of communitarianism. I see no more urgent need, or more hopeful trend, in the world today. It is a vision inspired and supported by generations of Catholic social teaching.


At the turn of the century, the politics that flowed from the economic theory of socialism proposed a theretofore unlikely form of government, a system with all-encompassing powers—the totalitarian state. Leo XIII began the task of rendering into philosophy a tenet that previously had needed no defense: the principle of subsidiarily. Formulated succinctly in 1931 by Pius XI in <Quadragesimo Anno>, this principle is restated most emphatically in <Centesimus Annus> by the first pontiff to have direct experience with totalitarianism, or, as he puts it, "a hard-lived experience of work and oppression." John Paul II writes:

A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.

But, of course, the bishops in their pastoral did not ignore the principle of subsidiarily. No, but in their reference to it, it is not quite—as popes before and after them have proposed—a sanction <against> interfering in the internal life of local institutions. Indeed, for them, it is a moral mandate to interfere. As the bishops saw it:

In domestic economic activity, the principle of subsidiarily calls for government to intervene when the common good depends on a greater social coordination and regulation of various economic forces.

Certainly, there are bouquets of praise lavished upon "community" throughout the pastoral. It is an irony faced by advocates of civil society that the language of community is universally reverenced, often more so by those who would crush it to require "greater social coordination" than by the men and women of goodwill who are the heart of authentic civil institutions. Actively engaged citizens, in their families, in their churches, in their neighborhoods and local associations, often have little to <say> about their good works—they are preoccupied with <doing.>

Love and Locality

But these good citizens are called upon in the pastoral to take a different tack. In a large document that would be shortened ever so much if the word "interdependent" were struck from it, "social solidarity" is perceived in global terms: It would seem that citizens should reform their local and civil fixations. As distinct from local action, "collaboration and mutual responsibility on a worldwide level" are encouraged; as distinct from civil action, in the single instance where a role for local groups is proposed, it is to "form regional, state and national associations to campaign for legislation."

In this manner, praising community and citizenship, but defining the former as the universe and the latter as lobbying for government solutions, we are in effect guided to turn away from the human person in need of help and to urge on his behalf the governments of the nation and the world to do something.

Yet, no national or international economic policy, or power of government has even a fraction of the capacity to dignify the human person that is possessed by the den mothers and Little League coaches of our communities. Social service delivery systems designed by experts, funded by the wealthiest treasury that ever existed, and operated by a full-time staff of trained specialists cannot begin to match the benefits—of message or material—that a person in need can receive at a neighborhood center or local church. As the Holy Father points out: "Needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need."

The Holy Father adds, "Apart from the family, other intermediate communities, communities [that function between] the State and the marketplace, exercise primary functions." But in <Economic Justice for All>, a pastoral shot through with benedictions for community, the communities described in <Centesimus Annus> are not to be found.

The third objection I presented to the Yale conference concerns the pastoral's doctrine of economic rights. These rights are, in one paragraph, identified as food, clothing, shelter, rest, and medical care; in another paragraph, as "self-realization" through labor with "adequate remuneration," and elsewhere as "personal dignity." U.S. reluctance to "declare" such rights is attributed to "individual and group selfishness."

One would presume that if the United States were to declare economic rights nationally and internationally, a new age would dawn. In its light we might see <res novae>, the bishops' vision of "new things," which George Weigel has captured in the term, "<new> new things."

Clearly, some of the ends sought can be provided by the state-for material goods and medical care, whether they are constitutional rights or not, are things that can be bought- though public-sector goods and services, selected <for> and never <by> their recipients, are no one's delight. Others among these rights are so beyond the range of any state that even the most powerful totalitarian government cannot enforce their provision except as fictions. (Of course, when a Kim II Sung asks his people if they are happy with the state's benevolence, it turns out they are very happy indeed.)

In Milwaukee, if a person needs food and clothing, he can go to the House of Peace where Brother Booker Ashe will not form a committee or lobby the government; he will feed and clothe the person and give him some guidance no social worker is authorized to give. If a young woman needs work, she may attend Lessie Handy's Professional Receptionist Institute, where she will learn some difficult truths about the requisites of polite behavior and reliable performance. If a senior citizen is homeless, he may repair to Family House, where Cordelia Taylor will respect his dignity, and he will respect hers. If teenagers need an option to the appalling performance of urban government schools, they may enroll at Messmer High School, where Brother Bob Smith will insist they get an education that will enable them to secure their own economic rights.

Economic justice can be achieved in the world, not by the declarations of kings and presidents, but by the actions of Bob Smith, Cordelia Taylor, Lessie Handy, and Booker Ashe. These heroes of civil society are neighbors to those they help. Not one of them looks to government, perhaps because virtually every one of the persons they help has already been, well, <helped> by government.

It is wrong for a person made in the image of God to stand idly by while another-made in that same image-suffers. The once-powerful link between neighbors has been severed, for it is no longer their task to see to one another's needs. Even the bishops do not ask them to do so. We are to insist that the government take action, consult experts, establish a program. Even the bishops tell us this.

Spongy State

In isolation, a person cannot fulfill his moral duty to his family and his community. In a collective, the Holy Father writes:

The State sets itself above all values [and] cannot tolerate the affirmation of an objective criterion of good and evil beyond the will of those in power. The State tends to absorb within itself the nation, society, the family, religious groups, and individuals themselves.

As we read these words, it is sad to recall that when <Centesimus Annus> was released, the headline-writers, finding its encouraging words for the free market newsworthy, depicted it to be a treatise on economics. But the Holy Father does not present an economics doctrine, and when he speaks of rights that are to be recognized by the state, he is speaking of "the rights of human conscience." His acceptance of market economics follows from a correct view of the human person, a deep respect for institutions of civil society he refers to as "intermediate communities," and the subordination of government, as an economic and social factor, to the children of God, who are subordinate only to truth.

It is a good and necessary endeavor for American bishops to contemplate the ends of economic justice, and there is no precept requiring them to stop at the border of orthodoxy and refrain from orthopraxis. But is it not the tragedy of our time that good and learned men sit in committee and produce a program that invokes precisely the misconception of a single institution, a central government, that can guarantee, as rights, the requisites of a meaningful human life? This is the same all-powerful central government that has degraded life on earth throughout the twentieth century.

It is a most providential blessing that this tragedy is being undone. And that by a man whose prayerful instruction for the future is: "Be not afraid."

Michael S. Joyce is president and CEO of the Bradley Foundation, Inc. This articles derives from his remarks to the Acton Institute Conference <Centesimus Annus> and Human Personality at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., on May 13, 1996.

This article was taken from the November 1996 issue of "Crisis" magazine. To subscribe please write: Box 1006, Notre Dame, IN 46556 or call 1-800-852-9962. Subscriptions are $25.00 per year. Editorial correspondence should be sent to 1511 K Street, N.W., Ste. 525, Washington, D.C., 20005, 202-347-7411; E-mail:

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