By Fr. John Rausch, Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace
The U.S. Congress comprises 30 percent Catholics, and leaders of both the Republican and Democrat Parties in the House of Representatives are Catholic, as is the sitting vice-president. Yet, despite a common faith that teaches social principles like an option for the poor, solidarity and subsidiarity, these lawmakers differ significantly over how to address the current economic needs of our time. Some favor a more market driven approach with less regulation and lower taxes, while others suggest enhanced revenues and targeted programs for those in need..
Twenty-five years ago when one in four American children lived in poverty and unemployment hovered at 7 percent, the U.S. bishops issued a pastoral letter on the economy addressing those issues from the perspective of human dignity. In their pastoral, Economic Justice For All, the bishops recognized that market imperfections can skew the distribution of resources and the concentration of power in the marketplace can hamper opportunity.
At the heart of their pastoral the bishops asked three fundamental questions about the economy: “What does the economy do for people? What does it do to people? And how do people participate in it?” While Catholic lawmakers from libertarian to progressive perspectives may justify their positions in regards to these questions, the bishops seem focused about what makes Catholic social teachings concrete.
Take just one question: what does a recession do to people? When the economy contracts, there is less economic activity which leads to higher unemployment. Studies show that the unemployed experience increased incidents of hypertension, cardiovascular problems, spouse abuse, child abuse, drug abuse, alcoholism and suicide, while the children of the unemployed are sick more frequently and for a longer duration of time. Economists may track numbers and assure us that in the long run the economy will rebound, but people of faith look at the sufferings of people and the struggles of families and demand some relief in the short run. As John Maynard Keynes famously said, “In the long run we’re all dead.”
History reveals an economic ebb and flow to the market, good times followed by hard times. Economists call this the business cycle when stable prosperity for whatever reason suddenly dips and causes a reduction in trade. The business cycle is endemic to the market system itself. Originally when prices, rents and wages fell, academics labeled this an economic “crisis.” But, later as economic actors scurried to protect their interests, they chose another description: economic “panic.” In the 1930s they employed a psychologically more benign word, “depression,” till the bite of that experience begged for the lighter 1950s term, “recession.” Perhaps other words like “downturn” or “adjustment” might lower the stress, but the business cycle with all its dislocations and pain is what the market system brings.
During these downturns people suffer, so the Catholic bishops occasionally make specific recommendations for social intervention in the market. In 1919 when millions of sailors and soldiers were returning from World War I with little prospect for civilian employment, the bishops boldly proposed a “Program for Social Reconstruction.” Those returning could work on millions of acres of arid or swamp land to prepare them for development. The country could set a minimum wage and establish social insurance to guard against “illness, invalidity, unemployment and old age.” A significant portion of their ten-point plan became part of the New Deal.
Because the church’s role rests with promoting moral principles and not a specific political or economic system, it cannot call for bigger or smaller government, only appropriate government. Morally speaking, lawmakers must put people before politics.