Back in 1990, in preparation for the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, the U.S. Catholic Bishops published a pastoral message entitled, A Century of Social Teaching: A Common Heritage, A Continuing Challenge. The pastoral was an attempt to distill 100 years of Catholic Social Teaching into a handful of broad principles that articulate the core of the teaching and the spirit that animated it.
While the original six principles were well-stated, there seemed to me to be some important omissions. One omission was the document’s silence on environmental issues. This was later corrected by the bishops with the addition of a seventh principle – “Care for Creation.”
But the other principle missing from the U.S. Bishops’ list was the principle of the universal destination of the goods of the earth–or as it is sometimes spoke of, distributive justice. As it relates to private property, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The right to private property, acquired by work or received from others by inheritance or gift, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of [human]kind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.”
While the U.S. Bishops do not include the universal destination of goods as one of its principles of Catholic Social Teaching, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, lists it as its third principle, right after the principle of the common good. While the compendium was published 13 years after the U.S. bishops’ statement, both the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace had access to the same 100 years of Catholic Social Teaching. Why did our bishops not consider the universal destination of goods of the earth important enough to include in their articulation of the principles of Catholic Social Teaching?
One reason might be that by the 1990s progressive bishop members of the USCCB (those appointed in the years after the Vatican II Council and during the reign of Archbishop Jean Jadot, apostolic delegate to the United States from 1973 to 1980) lost their influence to the more conservative bishops appoint by Pope John Paul II. This new cadre of bishops would never again address the morality of our economic system in the way it was addressed in the 1986 pastoral, Economic Justice for All.
Instead, the USCCB would embrace the politics of the culture wars while making alliance with the conservative politics of the Republican Party. And because economic justice–especially moral concepts like distributive justice and the universal destination of the goods of this earth–do not fit the political discourse of trickle-down economics or the ideology of unfettered free market capitalism of the Republican Party, economic justice was soft-peddled by the USCCB.
Speaking about the option for the poor and the call to solidarity in their distilled principles of Catholic Social Teaching fits more comfortably with the ethos of individualism that holds sway in conservative economic ideology. The option for the poor and the call to solidarity can be met through acts of charity and individual initiative. One can debate the right level of government action on behalf of the poor, but any structural analysis of income inequality or the maldistribution of the goods of the earth is not on the agenda of the USCCB.
How many Catholic Bishops spoke out in support of the fundamental analysis of the Occupy Wall Street movement which was rooted in the principles of distributive justice and the universal destination of the goods of the earth? On the other hand, Cardinal Peter Turkson, the Cardinal President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, was quoted saying that “the basic sentiment behind the protests [the ‘occupy; protests] is in line with Catholic social teaching.”
In light of the growing gap between the rich and the poor (both inside the U.S. and around the world), the concept of distributive justice and the principle of the universal destination of the goods of the earth should be in the forefront of Catholic social thought. In 1983 the poorest 47% of America owned $750 billion dollars, $15,000 per family, 2.5 percent of the nation’s wealth. In 2009 the poorest 47% of America owned ZERO PERCENT of the nation’s wealth (their debt exceeds their assets). At the other extreme, the 400 wealthiest Americans own as much wealth as 80 million families — 62% of America. Out of 141 countries, the U.S. has the 4th-highest degree of wealth inequality  in the world, trailing only Russia, Ukraine, and Lebanon.
The election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as Pope Francis may signal a reason for hope that this first pope of the Global South might challenge his brother bishops of the north (particularly in the United States) to make economic justice a centerpiece of Catholic Social Teaching. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, in the midst of a wrenching economic crisis in Argentina, Francis publicly questioned the nation’s free-market policies and blamed them for increasing poverty.
More recently, during a 2007 address to Latin American bishops, Francis is quoted as saying that their ministries were in “the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least. The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.” Although he has been critical of liberation theology, he has been a strong voice against structural poverty and the negative effects of globalization in underdeveloped countries in Latin America and Africa.
When Pope Francis eventually makes his way to the United States, will he challenge his brother bishops to make distributive justice and the universal destination of the goods of the earth fundamental principles of Catholic Social Teaching in this country? Or will his message of economic justice be sidelined by the current leadership of the USCCB and their allies in the Vatican in favor of a new crusade in the culture wars? Only time will tell.