A couple of weeks after the 1984 election, America's Catholic bishops published the first draft of "Economic Justice for All," a 120-page pastoral letter that fashioned Catholic social teaching into a stiff critique of the resurgent laissez-faire capitalist ideology of the time. "Much of it reads like an assault on the Reagan Administration's economic, social, foreign aid and military policies," wrote my late father Leonard, who was then the New York Times' economics columnist. He didn't exactly disapprove of the assault, which (in language slightly toned down in the final draft) portrayed "'[c]ovetousness which is idolatry'' as shattering ''the solidarity of the human community.''
Dad calculated that the letter would strengthen congressional resolve to resist cuts in social programs that the White House was planning to introduce, and resonate beyond immediate budget battles. Whether the bishops had "written the definitive tract on the mixed economy or not, they undoubtedly have stirred the conscience of many Americans in politics and private life," he wrote. "By deliberately avoiding involvement in the election campaign, they may have a far more profound and lasting effect on national economic thinking and public policy."
I'm afraid Dad was indulging in a bit of wishful thinking. Ronald Reagan's second term proved to be no less in thrall to the "magic of the market" than his first, nor did the presidents who followed him, Democrats as well as Republicans, exactly turn out to be paladins of the poor. The American bishops themselves got pilloried as soft-headed naifs by the free-market intelligentsia and gave up writing pastorals.
And yet, and yet, they have more or less kept the economic faith--under the guidance of Rome, which has managed to maintain its traditional skepticism of the ability of unfettered markets and untrammelled wealth to create the best of all possible worlds. Now, as the bishops regain their collective voice (for worse, so far, as much as for better), they have again taken up cudgels to protect the least among us from the depredations of the free marketeers.
The USCCB's letters attacking the Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan may not have the force of "Economic Justice for All," but they nevertheless landed on congressional doorsteps with a resounding thump this week, and Ryan's own effort to suggest that they don't reflect the bishops' common view has been nicely swatted down by a USCCB spokesman. Still, the proof of the commitment will be in what individual bishops have to say in their own dioceses. If they are only half as vehement about the GOP war on the poor as the they are about what they see as the Obama Administration's threats to religious liberty, they may even return the national conversation to where the Occupy movement left it just a few months ago.