Staleness marks the Catholic bishops' second draft of a pastoral letter on church teaching and the U.S. economy. Last year, when the first draft was issued, the bishops appeared to be properly fired up about the economic abuses suffered by America's 60 million poor people and the world's 800 million destitute.
It was asked then, why shouldn't the bishops take notice and be upset? A world of poverty and pain appears daily at the doors of the Catholic Church -- its parish social-service programs, the offices of Catholic charities and the programs of the Campaign for Human Development. Millions of people are served. As much as any nongovernmental organization, the church has committed itself to this mission.
Now, a year later, the second draft uses 40,000 words to repeat what is already known -- that poor people are hurting, that a disproportionate number of the nation's jobless are black, Hispanic, young or female and that spending $300 billion a year on the military is a devastation to the economy. Identifying problems is an easy kind of vigil, needing only a wide eye for the obvious.
Re-identifying problems becomes a way of ducking them. Eighteen years ago, the church talked economics to the world in the encyclical of Pope Paul VI, "The Development of People." He spoke in 1967 with a boldness that is lacking in the American bishops' letter of 1985. Paul VI expressed suspicions and doubts about capitalism: "Private property does not constitute for anyone an absolute and unconditional right. No one is justified in keeping for his exclusive use what he does not need, when others lack necessities."
This was the pope who, when speaking of the effects of capitalism on the poor, said, "There must be something radically wrong with a system that gives rise to such social injustice."
The challenge for the American bishops -- which they aren't meeting -- is to move beyond the identification of problems and to say loudly that structural reforms are needed and here are some of the structures we think should be reformed. That would make their pastoral letter more than just another topic of pleasant conversation. It would be a source of unpleasant but necessary demands.
The hairshirt for the bishops is how to criticize an economic system that their own institution has long blessed and often prospered by. In America Catholicism is not an outsider church. The occasional rebel priest or nun who does take the gospel to heart by open rebellion against the government seldom is supported by the institution. At least a dozen priests and nuns are now in prison for their civil disobedience against the government's military policies. The overarming of America affects the economy, but the dissenters are not mentioned in the bishops' letter.
More noticeable than this is the hierarchy's timidity in criticizing the military. The letter repeats what even Sen. Barry Goldwater has been grumbling of late -- that waste and mismanagement are out of hand. Then, in discussing the $300 billion military budget, the bishops say that "some of these expenditures are necessary for the defense of the nation." That isn't the statement of an international church, much less a peace church. Nor is it a line used by Christianity's great teachers of nonviolence who taught -- or tried to -- that more effective ways of self-defense exist than arms.
Unless a final draft -- a bolder and more risk-taking draft -- offers the kind of radicalism that is called for, the bishops won't be offering the kind of alternative voice that is needed. The American church is weak on economics by choice. Seminaries do not teach economics as a required subject. Future priests are well-grounded in theology, Bible study and such arcana as patristics, while the study of current domestic and international economics is ignored.
If any modern economist deserves to be taught in the church's seminaries and schools, it is E. F. Schumacher, the author of "Small Is Beautiful." His theories, which were a blend of Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism, offered the kind of restructuring of the world's economy that the bishops should be advocating. Schumacher wrote that "man's urgent task is to discover a nonviolent way in his economic as well as his political life. . . . Present-day economics, while claiming to be ethically neutral, in fact propagates a philosophy of unlimited expansionism without regard to the true and genuine needs of man which are limited."
Compared with other churchmen speaking out on public issues, the Catholic bishops teem with wisdom. It's against the bishops' own past leaders -- a Paul VI -- and their natural intellectual allies -- a Schumacher -- that they pale.
The bishops say that their letter "proposes a Christian vision of economic responsibilities." The first response ought to be the ideals of the Christian religion. If its earthly goal is social justice, economic justice is the way to get it.