Catholic bishops fail to agree on statement on the economy

BALTIMORE (RNS) A divided Catholic hierarchy on Tuesday (Nov. 13) failed to agree on a statement about the economy after a debate that revealed sharp differences over the kind of social justice issues that were once a hallmark of the bishops’ public profile.

The defeat of the document, titled “The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Economic Times,” followed an hour of unusually intense debate among the 230 bishops gathered here for their annual meeting. It left many of them openly frustrated that the prelates have not made a joint statement about the nation’s economic woes four years after the recession hit.

“This document is dead,” New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said with obvious disappointment as he brought the gavel down on the debate after it failed to secure the two-thirds majority needed for passage.

The failure of the bishops to pass the statement was extraordinary; in June, the bishops had authorized a special committee to write a brief reflection for consideration at this meeting, and the conference rarely rejects something produced by one of its committees.

But the bishops did not receive the draft until they arrived for the meeting, and what they found was something that pleased almost no one. The document was long, coming in at 14 pages, and many said it was dominated by spiritual terminology that ignored the roots of the economic crisis and did not suggest solutions provided by Catholic social teaching.

The first draft gave short shrift to a century of social justice encyclicals from the popes, including those of Benedict XVI, and did not even mention the USCCB’s landmark 1986 pastoral letter, “Economic Justice for All,” which has been hailed for challenging economic injustice in the U.S.

Moreover, there was criticism that the document repeatedly highlighted the church’s opposition to gay marriage and abortion and its support for school vouchers in ways that distracted from the economic issues that were supposed to be at the heart of the message.

The bishops also complained that the document overlooked issues of tax fairness, budget cuts to the safety net, the economic plight of the middle class, regulation of the financial sector, and greed and criminality in the lending industry.

“I think people will look at this document and say it’s a real ‘churchy’ document, they will say it’s in a language that is too abstract, and they will say that it is unrelated to their experience,” said Bishop Joseph Sullivan, a retired auxiliary bishop from Brooklyn, N.Y.

The theme of the document was hope, but Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., the USCCB’s point man on domestic policy, said that didn’t come through. “Several bishops came up to me and said, ‘I read your letter and I’m depressed,'” Blaire said.

That criticism was echoed by a range of other bishops. “My problem is that there is no sting and no bite,” said Bishop Peter Rosazza, retired auxiliary bishop of Hartford, Conn. Added Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Wash.: “I don’t see that I would share this (document) with anyone or that it would make any difference.”

Yet in a sign of the growing generational and ideological split among the bishops, some of the younger and more conservative bishops wanted to kill the statement because they believe the hierarchy should largely restrict their statements to matters of faith. They also view traditional Catholic social teaching with suspicion, and say the church should emphasize private charity rather than government action to cure social ills.

“I think the best thing we can do is to scrap the document and go home and find some tangible and practical ways to help the poor,” said Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., who dismissed the document as irrelevant.

But many bishops, led by Dolan, pressed the bishops on the urgency of saying something about the economy. They proposed a raft of amendments to try to make the statement more specific and relevant to impending economic decisions, like the “fiscal cliff” budget negotiations in Congress.

Those efforts proved fruitless. Despite a willingness of some bishops to vote for the statement to salvage something from the effort, it failed to garner the 152 votes needed, losing with a vote of 134 in favor, 85 against passage, and nine abstentions.

Dolan said he did not foresee any effort to revive the statement or draft another one in the coming year.


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • “[S]ome of the younger and more conservative bishops… view traditional Catholic social teaching with suspicion, and say the church should emphasize private charity rather than government action to cure social ills.”


    They don’t think that what passes for “social justice” these days is actually the “traditional” understanding of Catholic social teaching. For anybody who is interested, look up the Jesuit Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio, one of the main influence’s behind Rerum Novarum. Here are some good introductory articles:

    I would also recommend people actually READ the Papal Encyclicals having to do with social teaching, starting with Pope Leo XIII. Untrammeled wealth redistribution and state ownership of everything from education to health-care are not concepts that stick out in these documents.


  • Dear Bishops, please stick to your divinely written job description and help the poor rather than writing vacuous puff pieces. All Roman Catholics in America should breathe a sigh of relief that this thing is DOA. Stick to the deposit of faith and you can’t go wrong.

  • Jesus Christ provided for a 10% flat-tax when He set up the Nation of Ancient Israel. The nation was also suppose to be >God centered. All Bishops legally avoid paying taxes whenever possible.
    Authentic Catholic teaching on governments is found in God’s view of taxes. No one has a better idea than Jesus Christ.
    It’s in the Bible, anyone that doesn’t help the poor is headed to Hell. We are to support Holy Mother the Church & the poor with our Time, Talent & Treasure.
    The good thief on the cross cried out for Mercy as he was dying. Our Church teaches it’s dangerous to live a sinful live & count on God’s Mercy at death. Holy Mother the Church instructs us to become >living saints now.
    (We are personally obligated to help the poor & support our Church.)

  • Thank you Lord for the internet and blogosphere. Back in the day established media like David Gibson would get to define what “traditional Catholic social teaching” was, and we’d all just go along or sit scratching our heads. But now we can access whatever original source documents we want and put the lie to the test. Deo gratias!

  • I heard the initial comments on this document the other day…”subsidiarity” came to mind. I’m glad this document is DOA…but sad that the subject will not be revisited. I’m also sad and troubled that the current WH occupant received such a majority of Catholic votes…we need more RIGID catechesis, fewer (accepted) blasphemous politicians in the public square, and the USCCB to take leadership roles….not politically correct roles.

  • Remember….
    Christ said that the ‘poor” would inherit paradise for their suffering here. He admonished his followers to indeed be charitable towards the poor. He never told his followers to be so charitable with SOMEONE ELSE”S MONEY – which is the way govt. operates, and why it is so ineffective in curing ANY of the social ills.

    Catholicism/Christianity faces the same govt. now which has over-reached and over taxed. It has challenged private charity – Christian charity and Christian social work (Education, healthcare and welfare) – and operates from a different perspective. The Christain asks the question of “am I my brother’s keeper” and of course the answer is yes. St. Paul admonishes believers that the issue isn’t settled there – the problem is the keeper and the kept. He insists that the “kept” must not just rely on such charity – the other side ( the recieving side of charity) is responsibilty and accountability. This is the side of the equation which govt. charity doesn’t even approach since it could cost votes and power. The politicans and the govt. institutions which administer govt. charity then become the real opponents of the poor and disadvantaged.

    This is the real war today and it is constantly forcing the Christian/Catholic out of both the marketplace and the arena of public opinion. this is why the issue of Subsidiarity is so important.

  • There were NO economists consulted by the Bishops in the drafting of this documents. In all fairness, few if any of the Bishops have the academic credentials to address the economics of taxation, etc. They should stick to the biggest issue, why Catholics do not come to Mass and why did they vote, en masse, for a man like Obama and his sidekick, “solid Catholic” Joe Biden? Quit fiddling with what they do not know.

  • What a relief that: “some of the younger and more conservative bishops wanted to kill the statement because they believe the hierarchy should largely restrict their statements to matters of faith. They also view traditional Catholic social teaching with suspicion, and say the church should emphasize private charity rather than government action to cure social ills.”

    Also what a relief that most of the comments here seem to agree. I guess there’s hope, after all, that our Holy Church will be saved from the non-traditionalists within it.

  • I’m sure there were a good many USCCB staffers who said ok, our little tiff with the Obama administration is over! It’s time to get back to advocating high taxes and wealth distribution and to helping our real friends the ardent socialists. Perhaps we are all starting to wake up!

  • The wonderful and prophetic pastoral Economic Justice For All that our bishops issued November 18, 1986 still stands as the church’s teaching, not to be watered down by the current hierarchy. God bless Dorothy Day and the bishops who voted against the current document. Certainly, Dorothy would have voted with the minority or she would have abstained. Dorothy, pray for our church and help us return to the radical Gospel of Social Justice.

  • I really doubt whether anyone would have given credence to the bishops’ collective notion of “tax fairness”, when the insitution they support pays no taxes whatsoever, has billions of dollars of property holding, and should instead be focusing on paying the settlements and legal fees of their sexual misconduct travesty. The taxpayer-funded court system is having to prosecute them with taxpayer money, yet they don’t support that system financially. Maybe we should read their idea of tax fairness, because I’ll wager it’s a lot different from mine.

  • Christians need to go a lot further than abortion and same-sex marriage. The Obama/Dem agenda is institutionalized envy, jealousy, covetousness, bitterness and theft. Christians look at the lefts agenda of envy/jealousy/covetousness/bitterness and fall for the lie that it is all love and light. They weigh abortion against the “great charitable heart” of Democrats and come out for Dems. The Dems compound sin with sin, evil with evil. There is no trade off. Do Christians even bother to ask how is it even possible for politicians who are such ardent advocates of abortion and sodomy to be paragons of virtue on other issues.
    Today’s Christians would rewrite Jesus’ parable of the golden talents and take away the talents from the man who had five and redistribute them to those with fewer or none.
    The Catholic bishops are the biggest supporters of the destructive, larcenous welfare state from hell. And thus leftist politicians. Come election time they tell their flock not to vote for abortion. Too late, bishops. You’ve already sold folks on the party of death.
    Envy is a sin. Jealousy is a sin. Demanding even more of other people’s money is greed. Looking to the government to meet your needs and solve your problems is idolatry, the worst of all.

  • So much for clearly distinguishing principles from any set of technoid and admittedly difficult pronouncements about “the economy”. (I do remember reading pieces by others on the Ryan budget proposal as a genuine effort toward Solidarity/Subsidiarity, and yet as also inviting of rigorous Catholic debate under the additional social principle of Participation.) From the economic perspective was the Family, another principle, anlywhere in the draft? And the paired principles of Freedom/Responsibility? A successful draft is not inconceivable. . . .

    Is there a different bishops’ document on the New Evangelization, hopefully with a year-long agenda of practical commitments and suggestions?

  • It is beginning to become clear that the Catholic Church’s support for economic justice and worker rights was something temporary, provisional, and only put forward as a tactic to combat Communism. Now that the threat of Communism is gone, so is the Church’s concern for workers.

    The evidence is not only with its abandonment of everything the Church has said in the past about worker rights but its pastoral abandonment of working class families. The white working class in the USA has gone from the most Catholic element of society to the most secular. You can cite a lot of factors for this, but the Church’s disinterest in their evangelization is a big factor.

    In recent decades, a review of parish closings and parish openings finds they are closed in working class parishes and opened in white collar areas. The assignment of priests (measured by both quantity and quality) is skewed to white collar parishes. Significant resources are put into college chaplaincies without a dime or thought to the 75% of Catholics who do not go to college. Industrial chaplaincies are staffed by tired, old priests leftover from another era and will not be replaced when they die off. My diocesan program for young adults is advertized as for “Catholic young professionals.” There is no program for working class young adults.

    Bishops spend little to no time with working class Catholics and much time with their affluent donors and potential donors.

    Pius XI cried that the Church in the 19th century abandoned the European working class. The American Church waited another century until it did the same.

  • US Bishops should not be divided. Some probably have not read the “CATECHISM of the CATHOLIC CHURCH, Second Edition” in years).

    All Catholic social teaching must be taken in entirety, not picking and choosing based upon a political philosophy.
    1) SOLIDARITY (teaches against Obama’s Class Warfare);
    2) SUBSIDIARITY (teaches that each of us we are responsibile to help those in need; then Local, then State, then the Federal Government should only be involved as a last resort.)
    3) COMMUTATIVE JUSTICE *without which no other form of justice is possible” – states we must all pay our bills, and governments must pay their debts as well. (This Church teaching is left out of USCCB statements.)

    4) UNIONS – people have the right to join unions. But they should not be forced to for employment. Most people in the USA do not wish to join UNIONS in today’s society – and have their dues spent to promote a particular political party or candidate especially when the union violates their religious beliefs and freedom. (Note: The SEIU, AFLO-CIO, UAW,
    AFSCME, and some others have taken the public position that they support ABORTION and SODOMY (homosexual marriage). Yet at least one Bishop wanted to include unions in the statement.

    Bishop Blaire was one of the Bishops who incorrectly wrote against the Ryan Draft Budget on the USCCB web site. He needs to be re-educated in the Faith, rather than his own opinnions and misquotes from documents.

    For those who want more info on the “Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition” and that this book contains the TRUTH of the FAITH not mis-interpretations go to: or search ” What Catholics REALLY Believe SOURCE”.

    Some Bishops need to re-read the CCC in entirety. They can not teach what they do not know.

  • Bishops have no expertise in economics. I’m glad the document failed.

    They need to get out of politics because their uneducated statements will only be used as political fodder to make a laughing stock of our Church – again.

    The USCCB interferes in the public sector where prudential judgement of the Laity is to be used – far too much. The Bishops do not limit themselves as required according to the CCC: 2245 & 2246.
    They should get rid of 50% of the Staff and 50% of the Committees at the bureaucratic USCCB.

    Btw the USCCB is not the Church Magisterium, and carries no weight with the Laity who know their Faith. Individual Bishops do have authority as long as they teach according to the CCC – not their own opinions.

    The above poster is correct. For the TRUTH of what the Church teaches without human error, on the internet search:
    ” What Catholics REALLY Believe SOURCE “.

    If they want to give people hope, they should teach the “Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition” in entirety.

  • Bishops have no clue how to CREATE private sector JOBS – (not government jobs where people are on the public dole and create more government debt.)
    When BISHOPS figure that out, I will be more than happy to hear from them.

    Dignity and hope demand that all able bodied people be able to work.
    The Bishops need to teach that those who refuse to work – – – 2 THESS 3:6 & 3:10

    When are Bishops going to address personal responsibility in working in any job available;
    and in not purchasing what we can not afford – “Commutative Justice”. CCC 2411.
    The Bishops need to teach PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY.
    At death we will be judged on our own actions and inactions.

  • Sorry, I read the article, but stopped reading with the mindset of author credibility in the first sentence, where the “divided Catholic hierarchy” was erroneously described. Sying the Catholic hierarchy disagreed on this document is different than saying the Catholic hierarchy is divided. I will let that sink in for a second. I get so bored with media malfeasance in writing that its hard to take it seriously. Fortunately, for an educated person, I know how to go back the the cited material and figure it out for myself. This author is unimpressive.

  • Are the Older Bishops interested in teaching the faith or merely following the money –
    It was announced at the USCCB conf. that 70% of Catholic Charities money comes from the government.
    This is why they still give $ to organizations at odds with our faith, and never teach EVERYTHING as required in the CCC.
    They cling to the old Cardinal Bernardin false seamless garment theory.

    Haven’t you ever wondered why many US Bishops have never encouraged the Laity to read the “Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition”?
    I would like to know their excuse.
    “….the Catechism has raised throughout the world, even among non-Christians, and confirms its purpose of being presented as a full, complete exposition of Catholic doctrine, enabling everyone to know what the Church professes, celebrates, lives, and prays in her daily life.” – Pope John Paul II (pg xiv)

  • Proteios1, if you watched the USCCB Conf on EWTN, there would be no question that the US Bishops were divided.
    And it was very clear which ones do not know or understand the “Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition” in entirety including but not limited to: Subsidiarity,
    Commutative Justice, Solidarity, and the role of Bishops in society vs the role of the Laity.

  • “Yet in a sign of the growing generational and ideological split among the bishops, some of the younger and more conservative bishops wanted to kill the statement because they believe the hierarchy should largely restrict their statements to matters of faith. They also view traditional Catholic social teaching with suspicion, and say the church should emphasize private charity rather than government action to cure social ills.”

    Does Gibson have any proof to support that statement?

  • The Catholic Church must never abandon the poor to Holy Mother the State.”

    — Servant of God Dorothy Day

  • The US Bishops are going through some growing pains. They have undermined the church for 50 years. After NY has rolled over to the gay agenda our leader Cardinal Dolan is ruminating on meatless Fridays. In two words – totally pathetic.

  • Nov. 14th: I stand with the younger Bishops. I believe that some older Bishops have become too political; we should triy to get away from funding from the government for Catholic institutions. It makes the Church beholden to the Government. By the way, Cardinal Dolan’s plan to impose ‘meatless Fridays’ on Catholics is, imho, not the way to go. It’s better to ‘propose’ than to ‘impose’ – even Pope Benedict has pleaded with us not to present the Church or the faith as do’s and dont’s…we need to lead people into a closer relationship with Christ and His Church; why would anyone want to ‘give up meat’ for Someone they barely know – Jesus Christ. And, imho, I believe that, rather than abstaining from meat on Fridays, why not encourage people to do something good for another – an act of charity. “Whatever you do for one of the least of Mine, you do for Me.”…help people to understand that this is the core of our faith…”love one another as I have loved you.”…love will lead us to acts of charity for others…at this point, with so many having no clue about the faith, ordering people to not eat meat on Friday is useless…rather than ‘not’ doing something, why not ‘do’ something for another…if the good Cardinal chooses to fast and abstain on Friday, then good for him. I try not to eat meat on Wednesdays and Fridays…but I would not impose that on others…