in the US Bishops' 1986 Pastoral Letter
"Economic Justice for All"

Gerald Darring

Numbers in parentheses refer to articles in the pastoral letter.

1. The Nature of Poverty

The bishops acknowledge spiritual as well as material forms of poverty (86, 173), but they use the term poverty in their letter to refer to the lack of sufficient material resources required for a decent life (173). They choose to use the government's official definition of poverty, although they recognize its limits (173).

At the same time that poverty involves lack of material goods, it also means dependence and powerlessness (49). Poverty is not merely the lack of adequate financial resources. It entails a more profound kind of deprivation, a denial of full participation in the economic, social, and political life of society and an inability to influence decisions that affect one's life. It means being powerless in a way that assaults not only one's pocketbook but also one's fundamental human dignity (188). This means that the poor are, by definition, not powerful (260), for poverty is fundamentally a problem of powerlessness and marginalization (203).

Poverty, then, means not having sufficient material resources; it also means being left behind (177) and abandoned as second-class citizens (85).

2. The Causes of Poverty

The bishops do not attempt to systematically list the causes of poverty. They do point out that poverty is caused not so much by differences in talent or lack of desire to work as by institutional relationships that distribute power and wealth inequitably (76). By referring to people who fall victim to a downward cycle of poverty generated by economic forces they are powerless to influence (77) and to many in the lower middle class who fear becoming victims of economic forces over which they have no control (85), they imply that poverty is caused to a large extent by social conditions rather than by character traits or decisions of the poor.

Poverty is intimately linked to the issue of employment (196), so the bishops see high unemployment as a cause of increased poverty (196).

The causes of poverty among women are listed as: women raising children alone (178), inadequate income following divorce, widowhood, or retirement (178), discrimination in wages, salaries, job classifications, promotions (179), and childrearing responsibilities (180). The causes of poverty among minorities are listed as discriminatory practices in labor markets, in educational systems, and in electoral politics (182). None of these causes can be considered the responsibility of the poor people involved.

The bishops reject the notion that large families contribute to the amount of poverty (193). They do not believe that people are poor and hungry primarily because they have large families (286). They also reject the notion that laziness is a significant factor in the creation of poverty, pointing out that research has consistently demonstrated that people who are poor have the same strong desire to work that characterizes the rest of the population (193).

3. The Social Effects of Poverty

The deprivation and powerlessness of the poor wounds the whole community by showing how far we are from being a true community of persons (88). But there is a practical side effect of poverty as well: the persistence of poverty harms the larger society because the depressed purchasing power of the poor contributes to the periodic cycles of stagnation in the economy (196). The economic costs of unemployment alone are staggering (142).

4. Seriousness of the Problem

The bishops use strong terms to describe poverty as a problem in our country: That so many people are poor in a nation as rich as ours is a social and moral scandal that we cannot ignore (16). They assert that the increase in poverty should be cause for alarm and the increase in poor women and children is disturbing (16). The tragic fact that children are the largest group of poor seriously threatens the nation's future (16). Many people live dangerously close to poverty (17), and this calls for examination of U.S. economic arrangements (19).

5. The Ethics of Dealing with Poverty

So serious a problem is poverty that dealing with poverty is not a luxury to which our nation can attend when it finds the time and resources. Rather, it is a moral imperative of the highest priority (170). Notice the term moral imperative: the bishops consider their letter a challenge to do something out of moral outrage at the moral scandal (16) of poverty.

The fundamental moral criterion for all economic decisions, policies, and institutions is this: They must be at the service of all people, especially the poor (24). Instead of this ideal, what we actually have in our country are economic arrangements that leave large numbers of people impoverished (74). Since this is the case, the poor have the single most urgent economic claim on the conscience of the nation (86).

This claim on our conscience places certain obligations on our society. The first concerns our public decision-making: Decisions must be judged in light of what they do for the poor, what they do to the poor, and what they enable the poor to do for themselves (24). To ignore the impact of our policies on the poor and the vulnerable is the primary criterion for judging their moral value (319). Because the quality of the national discussion about our economic future will affect the poor most of all (24), it is essential that we keep the poor at the center of our discussion.

There are personal responsibilities imposed. Everyone has special duties toward the poor (85). The first of these duties involves direct aid to the poor: All who have more than they need must come to the aid of the poor. People with professional or technical skills needed to enhance the lives of others have a duty to share them (119).

But charity is not enough. Let no one attempt with small gifts of charity to exempt himself from the great duties imposed by justice (120, quoting Pius XI). Justice is to be achieved through community effort: It is the responsibility of all citizens, acting through their government, to assist and empower the poor (123). So strong is the social obligation to respond to poverty that it forms the basis for the moral evaluation of a society: The way society responds to the needs of the poor through its public policies is the litmus test of its justice or injustice (123).

The policies we establish as a society must reflect a hierarchy of values in which the needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich (94, quoting John Paul II). This same priority imposes a personal obligation: All of us must examine our way of living in light of the needs of the poor (75).

6. The Christian Response to Poverty

American Christians have a double reason to be especially committed to the poor, because both Christian conviction and the American promise of liberty and justice for all give the poor and the vulnerable a special claim on the nation's concern (19). But there is a special claim on the Christian conscience which is so strong that no one may claim the name Christian and be comfortable in the face of the hunger, homelessness, insecurity, and injustice found in this country and the world (27). One reason for this is the example of Jesus, who lived as a poor man and took the side of the poor (49). More than that, Jesus is hidden in those most in need, so that to reject them is to reject God made manifest in history (44). The church has always believed that Christian communities that commit themselves to solidarity with those suffering and to confrontation with those attitudes and ways of acting which institutionalize injustice, will themselves experience the power and presence of Christ (55).

The poor have always had a special place in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Since they are neither blinded by wealth nor make it into an idol, the poor can be open to God's presence; throughout Israel's history and in early Christianity the poor are agents of God's transforming power (49). The poor are the object of God's special love (51) to whom God reveals what was hidden from the wise (50). With their openness to God (50), they are the beneficiaries of God's mercy and justice (50). To express this special Christian commitment to the poor, the bishops use the term preferential option for the poor. They describe this concept in terms of challenges to the contemporary Church, which are listed as the following: 1) to speak for those who have no one to speak for them, to be a defender of the defenseless, who in biblical terms are the poor; 2) to see things from the side of the poor and powerless; 3) to assess lifestyle, policies, and social institutions in terms of their impact on the poor; 4) to help people experience the liberating power of God in their own lives so that they may respond to the Gospel in freedom and in dignity; 5) it calls for an emptying of self, both individually and corporately, that allows the Church to experience the power of God in the midst of poverty and powerlessness (52).

The heart of the fundamental option for the poor is the obligation to evaluate social and economic activity from the viewpoint of the poor and the powerless (87). This is an important obligation, because it leads to understanding and solutions: At times we will be called as individuals, as families, as parishes, as Church, to identify more closely with the poor in their struggle for participation and to close the gap of understanding between them and the affluent. By sharing the perspectives of those who are suffering, we can come to understand economic and social problems in a deeper way, thus leading us to seek more durable solutions (335).

The object of this special commitment is not to pit one class against another (88); its purpose is rather to enable the poor to become active participants in the life of society (88).

Because of the special Christian commitment to the poor, the bishops encourage the use of empty or partially used church buildings to serve the needs of the poor (355).

7. Combating Poverty

The bishops reject the notion that poverty is an impossible problem to tackle: the economy has been created by human beings and can be changed by them (129). They therefore call for urgent action to deal with poverty: Increasing active participation in economic life by those who are presently excluded or vulnerable is a high social priority (91). Human dignity and the preferential option for the poor compel us to confront the issue of poverty with a real sense of urgency (186).

Before we do anything else, we need to see that the poor are cared for: The fulfillment of the basic needs of the poor is of the highest priority (90). This is why the bishops insist that welfare programs should provide recipients with adequate levels of support. Those receiving public assistance should not face the prospect of hunger at the end of the month, homelessness, sending children to school in ragged clothing, or inadequate medical care (212).

But the bishops speak of more than just giving to the poor. They say that personal decisions, policies of private and public bodies, and power relationships must all be evaluated by their effects on those who lack the minimum necessities of nutrition, housing, education, and health care (90). They are convinced that basic justice calls for more then providing help to the poor (91). To combat poverty we must have individual charitable giving as well as a more systematic approach (76). The bishops feel very strongly about this dual approach: As individuals, all citizens have a duty to assist the poor through acts of charity and personal commitment. But private charity and voluntary action are not sufficient. We also carry out our moral responsibility to assist and empower the poor by working collectively through government to establish just and effective public policies (189).

In our collective effort to deal with poverty, the fundamental principle is that the poor must be empowered (201). The bishops repeat this principle in different forms: --The most appropriate and fundamental solutions to poverty will be those that enable people to take control of their own lives (188). --We should seek solutions that enable the poor to help themselves through such means as employment. Paternalistic programs which do too much for and too little with the poor are to be avoided (188). --We believe that an effective way to attack poverty is through programs that are small in scale, locally based, and oriented toward empowering the poor to become self-sufficient (200).

Because they believe in empowering the poor to become self-sufficient, the bishops assert that employment forms the first line of defense against poverty (137). If we are really serious about helping the poor, then we will do all in our power to provide them with work: The first line of attack against poverty must be to build and sustain a healthy economy that provides employment opportunities at just wages for all adults who are able to work (196).

The bishops base several of their specific proposals to deal with poverty on the principle of empowering the poor through employment. Since jobs are so important, vigorous action should be undertaken to remove barriers to full and equal employment for women and minorities (199), and concerted efforts must be made through job training, affirmative action, and other means to assist those now prevented from obtaining more lucrative jobs (199). Our other ways of helping the poor must be adjusted to fit the goal of employment: Public assistance programs should be designed to assist recipients, wherever possible, to become self-sufficient through gainful employment (211).

The bishops do not hesitate to call for a commitment to eradicate poverty in our midst (192), but they want to see this goal achieved by increasing active participation in economic life (91). The key to preparing the poor for this active participation is education, and therefore any long-term solution to poverty in this country must pay serious attention to education, public and private, in school and out of school (203). The bishops call on all of society to make a much stronger commitment to education for the poor (203). With this same goal of self-sufficiency and active participation in mind, the bishops call for efforts that enable the poor to participate in the ownership and control of economic resources (200).

The bishops see a role for society at large in empowering the poor, but they also believe that the poor can help themselves (201). And indeed they must do so: Grassroots efforts by the poor themselves, helped by community support, are indispensable (357). The poor can begin to take charge of their own futures and become responsible for their own economic advancement by taking advantage of opportunities for education, employment, and training, and by working together for change (201). The 'working together' is especially important: the bishops tell the poor that they have an obligation to work together as individuals and families to build up their communities by acts of social solidarity and justice (119).

The bishops realize that alleviating poverty will require fundamental changes in social and economic structures (187), and they do not hesitate to call for those changes: Where programs have failed, we should discard them, learn from our mistakes, and fashion a better alternative. Where programs have succeeded, we should acknowledge that fact and build on those successes (192). But they see these changes as having a positive effect on society: The process of change should be one that draws together all citizens, whatever their economic status, into one community (187).

This will happen only if we care for the poor as our brothers and sisters, if our justice is both a manifestation of love and a condition for love to grow (39). But true charity leads to advocacy (356), so if we are really dedicated to eradicate poverty in our midst and to guarantee all Americans their right to share in the blessings of our land (192), then we will speak out for the poor. We will, for example, work to see that the investment of wealth, talent, and human energy is specially directed to benefit those who are poor or economically insecure (92).

We will also work to see that the tax system is continually evaluated in terms of its impact on the poor. This evaluation should be guided by three principles. First, the tax system should raise adequate revenues to pay for the public needs of society, especially to meet the basic needs of the poor. Secondly, the tax system should be structured according to the principle of progressivity, so that those with relatively greater financial resources pay a higher rate of taxation. Thirdly, families below the official poverty line should not be required to pay income taxes (202).

8. Attitudes to the Poor

Perhaps the first step that needs to be taken in dealing with poverty is to change some of our attitudes to the poor. Negligence is a terrible foe of the poor, and the bishops warn that our wealth can easily blind us to the poverty that exists in this nation (75). The prosperous had better not be blind to the great poverty that exists beside great wealth, the bishops tell us, as they remind us of the fate of the rich man who was blind to the suffering of the poor man, Lazarus (48).

The bishops are critical of the belief which persists in this country that the poor are poor by choice or through laziness, that anyone can escape poverty by hard work, and that welfare programs make it easier for people to avoid work (194). They call on us not to be so negative about the poor and they ask everyone to refrain from actions, words, or attitudes that stigmatize the poor, that exaggerate the benefits received by the poor, and that inflate the amount of fraud in welfare payments. These are symptoms of a punitive attitude towards the poor (194).