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This Catholic Update looks at ways in which the U.S. bishops' pastoral letter Economic Justice for All is still relevant 25 years after it was published.

Economic Justice for All: 25th Anniversary, Wisdom for Today
By: Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J.

Each issue carries an imprimatur from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited

“Tough economic times” is a lament we have heard and probably used many times in recent years. First, the recession that began in 2007 brought bankruptcies and bailouts, losses of homes and jobs. More recently, polarizing budget battles have captured the headlines, and rising prices for food and oil have caused stress and frustration. The very poor in the world, who must struggle just to stay alive, have suffered the most.

Does faith have some role to play in these difficult days? Absolutely! The pastoral letter of the U.S. bishops, Economic Justice for All, published in November 1986, still offers insight, challenge and hope. Although some parts of the letter are dated (“globalization” was not yet a popular term), the scriptural foundations and key ethical themes remain essential for addressing today’s tough economic times.

This Catholic Update will summarize the context and content of the letter, especially the Christian vision of economic life. Then we will consider how ethics and economics mix in today’s real world and our role.

But first, a brief, yet serious examination of consciousness can help us hear what the pastoral letter has to say. Given political rhetoric, advertising, talk shows and other influences on us, we may approach economic issues mostly from political or cultural perspectives.

For example, do we consider these issues primarily in terms of Republican or Democratic commitments? Are our values based on gender or class rather than the gospel? Are these values, often unexamined, actually more influential than our Christian faith? Are our minds made up before we hear what our religious tradition says?

The 1980s

During the early 1980s, when Economic Justice for All was written, there were growing deficits, cutbacks in domestic programs, new tax cuts, increased defense spending; and worldwide—severe debt and inflation in the developing world, millions of starving people, and a growing gap between rich and poor. Many similar issues are even worse today.

In a simple sentence that may surprise—even stun—many people, the bishops proclaim that economic life is one of the “chief areas where we live out our faith, love our neighbor” and “fulfill God’s creative design” (#6).

Economic decisions affect the quality of people’s lives, even to the point of determining whether people live or die. In response to such massive problems as unemployment, poverty and starvation, the bishops offer a Christian vision of the economic life.

The basic criterion against which all aspects of economic life must be measured is the dignity of the person, along with the community and solidarity that are essential to this dignity. Economic Justice for All first turns to Scripture for this foundation. 

Creation, covenant, community

From the Hebrew Scriptures the pastoral letter highlights the themes of creation, covenant and community. The first chapters of Genesis declare that man and woman are created in God’s own image. In the human, by each person’s very existence, there are dignity and sacredness.

Genesis describes another dimension of human existence: sinfulness. Sin alienates people from God and from one another. Genesis also speaks about humans and their relationship with the rest of the created world. We have come to realize that fragile and limited resources demand faithful stewardship.

Exodus describes the story of the Hebrews’ slavery and God’s deliverance, a story of covenant and commitment. God establishes a special bond with the Hebrew people, and they promise
to follow faithfully God’s law. This law shows special concern for the vulnerable persons in the community, the widows and orphans and the strangers in the land.

“Biblical faith in general, and prophetic faith especially, insist that fidelity to the covenant joins obedience to God with reverence and concern for the neighbor.... The biblical understanding of justice [harmony rooted in right relationships so all can thrive] gives a fundamental perspective to our reflections on social and economic justice” (#37).

Jesus and discipleship

Turning to the New Testament, Economic Justice for All describes Jesus’ proclamation of the Reign of God in word and deed: “What Jesus proclaims by word, he enacts in his ministry” (#42).

The letter highlights his trust in God, his works of healing and his care for the alienated. In developing the biblical theme of discipleship, Economic Justice for All explains the contemporary phrase “preferential option for the poor.”

The bishops point out that in the New Testament salvation is extended to all people. At the same time, Jesus takes the side of those most in need, physically and spiritually. Contemporary followers of Jesus, then, are challenged to take on this perspective: to see things from the side of the poor, to assess public policies in terms of their impact on the poor, to experience God’s power in the midst of poverty and powerlessness (#48-52).

Major issues and the issue

Following the tradition of Catholic social teaching, Economic Justice for All considers the economy from the perspective of human dignity, justice and the common good. The letter addresses four issues in great detail: employment, poverty, food and agriculture, and the developing nations.

Is “an unfettered free-market economy” to be affirmed or is the capitalist system “inherently inequitable”(#128)? The bishops note that Catholic social teaching has generally rejected both extremes, while acknowledging positives and negatives in both capitalism and socialism.

Any critique of capitalism may surprise people in the developed world (see Pope John Paul II’s On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum, or Pope Benedict XVI’s Charity in Truth). But our recent popes have taught us that we need to be critical. Perhaps, without even being aware of it, many people have internalized the market values of their society.

Gospel values, as developed and applied by the social teachings, may seem idealistic and out of touch with reality—or simply be rejected as some form of communism or socialism. Economic Justice for All and the papal encyclicals, then, offer serious content for the prayerful examination of our convictions and our follow-up actions.

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Six moral principles

Based on the scriptural foundations, the bishops offer six moral principles that remain relevant for today’s tough economic times.

1. People have dignity. “Every economic decision and institution must be judged in light of whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person” (#13 in the pastoral message). Created in the image of God, every person is sacred, whatever one’s achievements or economic status. The economy, then, must serve people and not just profit.

2. We live together. “Human dignity can be realized and protected only in community” (#14 in the pastoral message) is the second principle. Here the pastoral message focuses on the social dimension of human existence.

We are all connected to the common good, described by Pope John XXIII as all those conditions of society that enable people more fully to achieve their own perfection as human beings. A just economy serves all people and not just the privileged few. Love of neighbor must include this social
commitment, so the bishops ask: “Does economic life enhance or threaten our life together as a community?” (#14).

3. Everyone participates. “All people have a right to participate in the economic life of society” (#15 in the pastoral message). This third principle seems so simple and direct, yet has such profound implications. More and more, the Church’s social teachings have emphasized the importance of participation, that is, people having the opportunity to shape their own destiny. While it is good to protect workers and the poor, it is even better for these people to be empowered through employment to “meet their material needs, exercise their talents, and...contribute to the larger community” (#15).

4. Protect the poor. “All members of society have a special obligation to the poor and vulnerable” (#16 in the pastoral message). In this section the bishops call on all
disciples of Jesus “to speak for the voiceless, to defend the defenseless, to assess lifestyles, policies, and social institutions in terms of their impact on the poor” (#16).

5. Protect human rights. “Human rights are the minimum conditions for life in community” (#17). Catholic social teaching has specified these rights. They include the right to life, food, shelter, medical care, education and employment. Clearly these rights include economic rights along with civil and political ones.

6. Government has a role. Catholic social teaching has consistently emphasized government’s essential responsibility in safeguarding human rights. “Society as a whole, acting through public and private institutions, has the moral responsibility to enhance human dignity and protect human rights” (#18).

Actions for tough economic times

What everyday actions embodying these six moral principles are possible for ordinary people? These action steps range from the reflective to the practical to the political.

1. Read prayerfully #28-60 of Economic Justice for All. This section contains many references to Scripture that can be a wonderful source of prayer, especially on the dignity that comes from being created in God’s image.

Another part of this step would be to read #64-67 in the pastoral letter and then Chapter Five (#53-67) in Pope Benedict’s Charity in Truth. These passages will deepen our sense of global community and solidarity.

2. Perform an examination of consciousness. Honestly pay attention to the assumptions that shape our moral perceptions and judgments.

A way to bring these assumptions to light would be to imagine, again prayerfully, particular people or groups, especially those who are very different or difficult. About whom do you have strong negative feelings—terrorists, undocumented immigrants, politicians? The possibilities are almost endless. Ask how well or poorly these feelings (and the comments and actions flowing from them) embody Scripture’s conviction about human dignity.

Reflecting on the pastoral letter’s questions about our economic system would be another way to uncover these assumptions: “Does our economic system place more emphasis on maximizing profits than on meeting human needs and fostering human dignity? Does it promote excessive materialism and individualism? Does it adequately protect the environment and the nation’s natural resources? Does it direct too many scarce resources to military purposes?” (#132 in Economic Justice for All).

3. Expand our horizons. Learn about “the bottom billion”—the billion women, men and children who live in extreme poverty without sufficient food, clean water and other basic necessities of life. An excellent place to start is “Catholics Confront Global Poverty” at

This new awareness could lead to very practical elements in our daily lives—clothes, chocolate or coffee, for example. Read about the exploitation of poor persons, especially women and children, in the making of our clothes in sweatshops and the picking of cocoa and coffee beans. Learn the huge difference between free-trade and fair-trade products. Consider consuming less in order to pay the often higher prices for fair-trade goods so that the workers, members of our human community, receive a just wage.

Discover local needs as well. Helping to organize a parish discussion on key themes of the pastoral letter is a great place to start. Social-justice committees, St. Vincent de Paul groups, Catholic Charities and other similar organizations can offer concrete ways to help create conditions so that others can participate more fully in life. Participating in these groups also offers support for one’s own living a faith-filled, counter-cultural lifestyle.

4. Discern carefully the “wisdom sources” we use to gather information. What are the underlying values and commitments of the person or organization or media? Is it profit or power or people?

Does a particular political/economic stance color even a religion-based author or journal? The consistent ethic of life, a contemporary expression of biblical morality, provides a helpful guide for this discernment.

5. Follow up with informed voting. Economic Justice for All and the papal encyclicals remind us of the intimate connection between ethics, economics, and politics. To take the “special obligation to the poor” seriously implies consideration of immigration policies, budget battles, Medicare and Medicaid, tax breaks, and a host of other emotion-filled topics. Politicians and policies make a difference. Choosing the best candidates can help create economic justice for all.



Tertio Millennio Adveniente

The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace's 2011 document Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority

Day of Reflection, dialogue and prayer for peace and justice in the world--Assisi 2011

Kenneth R. Overberg, S,J. , is professor of theology at Xavier University, Cincinnati. He holds a Ph.D. in social ethics from the University of Southern California and is the author of numerous articles and books,including Into the Abyss of Suffering, A Catholic View (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

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Mark: Most of what we know about Mark comes directly from the New Testament. He is usually identified with the Mark of Acts 12:12. (When Peter escaped from prison, he went to the home of Mark's mother.) 
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