President Reagan "welcomes" the draft pastoral letter of the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops stating that the United States has a moral responsibility to see that no one is hungry, homeless or unemployed, and he shares "the bishops' concern for the poor," White House spokesman Larry Speakes said yesterday.
Reagan's economic policies have helped the poor, Speakes said. "Important gains have been made in the past four years to reduce inflation, generate economic growth and drop the rate of unemployment. More than 6 million people have gotten jobs in the last 22 months, and the unemployment rate has dropped from over 10 percent to 7.3 percent," he said.
Nevertheless, the poverty rate has increased during the Reagan administration from about 13 percent to 15.2 percent in 1983.
The bishops' proposed letter, which called for government job-creation programs and liberalized welfare to try to reduce the inequality in the distribution of wealth in the nation appears to contradict the major themes of Reagan's presidency.
Speakes turned aside questions as to whether the draft pastoral letter implies criticism of the administration, saying, "I don't think it would serve the purpose of dialogue within the church or between the administration and the church to address that."
Meanwhile, one of Reagan's staunchest supporters, the Rev. Jerry L. Falwell, leader of the Moral Majority, blasted the bishops' letter as an endorsement of socialism.
"While the bishops don't advocate redistributing the nation's wealth, they come close to it, and that's socialism, which isn't any more than shared poverty," Falwell said in Springfield, Mo., where he addressed a conference of evangelical clergymen.
The pastoral letter, drafted for consideration by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, denounces the level of economic inequality in the country as "morally unacceptable." It proposes government jobs programs to drive the unemployment rate down to 3 to 4 percent. It now is 7.3 percent.
"We are working to drive that number even lower," Speakes said. "The president has said -- and I can reiterate today -- that this administration will not be satisfied until every American who wants a job has one . . . . In the many other areas mentioned in the letter, including free trade, help for developing nations, housing and job training, we are generally supportive of these same goals.