Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Prophetic Visions and Economic Realities: Protestants, Jews, & Catholics Confront the Bishops’ Letter on the Economy
edited by charles strain
eerdmans, 257 pages, $13.95 

Based upon its subtitle, one could imagine any of several different tacks this book might have taken. Editor Charles R. Strain assembled four teams of scholars from various fields and ostensibly wide-ranging points of view to discuss critically and produce papers about the 1986 Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter on the economy, Economic Justice for All. One could thus envision, for instance, debate about such things as the very appropriateness of the bishops writing such a letter, which in making concrete government policy suggestions clearly stretches the definition of “pastoral.” Or the reader might have rightly expected to see argument about the effectiveness of, and alternative suggestions for, the policy proposals themselves. Most importantly, a book with this sub-title should have included arguments that confront the bishops’ working presuppositions about poverty and wealth, the nature of the Christian duty to the poor, and such terms as “economic rights,” “redistribution,” and “social justice.” But, alas, in these and many other ways, the book falls woefully short.

More than just geographically, Prophetic Visions and Economic Realities suffers from a sort of parochialism that, despite the divergent traditions from which the authors work, makes each chapter sound much the same as the previous one. Nine of the sixteen scholars are from Chicago, five of them (including the editor) from DePaul University, which sponsored the project. While the reader is promised that several academic disciplines are represented, eleven of the contributors are theologians in some guise or other (including professors of “social ethics”). These things are not faults necessarily, nor do they condemn the book to failure. But if the purpose was to provide a panorama of opinions about the pastoral letter, these parochialisms may have contributed to the book’s failure to present any substantive debate.

This is not to say that all the writers are simply “yes-persons.” To be sure, there are sharp criticisms aimed at the bishops about such things as methodology, consistency, and adherence to historically Catholic social teaching. Rabbi Byron L. Sherwin, for example, says that “to the Jewish observer the pastoral letter does not seem to portray either an authentic Christian or a traditional Catholic position on economic justice.” He thinks that the bishops have abandoned traditional Catholic thought in favor of documents from the past century that better fit their own political sensibilities. One recurring criticism of the bishops is their alleged naivete both in thinking that “community” is possible in a liberal society and assuming that America has something like a common moral language.

Nor do the writers all simply agree with one another. The four Jewish contributors give four distinct notions of what constitutes Jewish ethical methodology. Some Christian writers think that poverty is a means of grace, while others warn about the danger of such a notion. Mainline Protestant Timothy F. Sedgwick asserts that serving the poor communicates to them that “they are blessed because they have a privileged opportunity to know God,” while Roman Catholic Charles R. Strain warns that we must avoid “manipulating the poor as the means for the rest of us to experience divine grace.”

But, save one notable exception, the policy prescriptions made by the bishops are either accepted uncritically or criticized for not going far enough in suggesting redistributive plans for alleviating poverty (at least two contributors explicitly advocate a socialist economy). All but one scholar think the bishops are correct in their general point that a capitalist society contains inherent contradictions which must be overcome by redistributive means if we are to achieve “social justice.” Further, these fifteen think that redistribution in some form or other really can alleviate poverty, and that this is necessary to ensure each person’s “economic rights.” (Neither of the terms “social justice” or “economic rights” is examined for its legitimacy, as one would expect in a book that is supposed to “confront” the bishops.) Finally, all but one of the writers, whether explicitly or implicitly, agree with the notion that Christian theology advocates that government demonstrate a “preferential option for the poor.” The introduction to the section by Evangelicals, for instance, chastises other Evangelicals for not spending much time “promoting ‘a preferential option for the poor.’“ Evangelical Richard J. Mouw asserts that this non-promotion in terms of policy recommendations demonstrates a “lack of sympathy for the poor.”

The lone voice of dissent is that of Evangelical political scientist Mark Amstutz, who, while praising the bishops for their concentration on Christian responses to poverty, is critical of their proposed means to end it. “While I applaud their moral vision of justice and commitment to the poor,” he explains, “as a social scientist I question the adequacy of the letter’s analysis of Third World poverty and the implied policy prescriptions for alleviating it.” In a volume containing some chapters which barely have anything to do with the bishops’ letter, Amstutz’s represents the only rigorous analysis of the policy proposals contained therein. Rather than discussing the transfer of existing wealth, explains Amstutz, the bishops might better have discussed the need to produce more” to create more wealth”and to advocate those institutions that best accomplish this.

Amstutz recognizes that, though it is toned down somewhat in the final draft, the bishops live in a zero-sum economic world in which one person’s profit is another person’s loss. Thus, “the bishops’ political economy assumes domestic and international structures to be the major impediment to economic justice.” That is, the prosperity of the West (or North) is at the expense of the poverty of the East (or South). Another problem, explains Amstutz, is that the bishops assume that sufficiency, not poverty, is the natural condition of mankind. Indeed he might have been criticizing one of his fellow contributors, mainline Protestant economist Rebecca M. Blank, whose entire chapter pursues the question of what causes poverty.

This question ”what causes poverty?” may be seen as the central question for both the bishops and the contributors to this book, which explains why both are woefully inadequate in suggesting how poverty can be substantially curtailed. When someone inquires after the cause of something, it is generally the case that that person desires the outcome about which he is asking the cause. Of course, no one thinks for a minute that the bishops want to find ways to increase poverty and suffering. Their desired economic ends are indeed noble: they want poverty to be eliminated as far as possible. But in that case the proper question to be asked is not “what causes poverty?” but rather “how can poverty, the natural state of man, be overcome?” By pursuing the wrong question, the bishops will find that the ends they seek remain elusive. And by continually advocating programs that do not in fact reduce poverty—that indeed often make things worse—they will squander their moral capital. Christian charity cannot be made to function as an economic system, and the offering of suggestions that sound very much like government-instituted charity programs will not contribute to an understanding of how poverty can be overcome. What is needed is a book by scholars of divergent points of view who confront the bishops on this point. Save for one voice in the wilderness, Prophetic Visions and Economic Realities is not that book.

Kenneth R. Craycraft, Jr. is a Bradley Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Theology at Boston College.