Given the state of the economy and the mood of the nation, a letter of hope during economic dark times seemed like a good idea when the U.S. bishops voted by a wide margin to draft a message on work and the economy during their June meeting in Atlanta. But after the draft of that resulting document was discussed by the bishops during their fall meeting in Baltimore yesterday, it became quickly clear that the statement was unexpectedly in trouble. Today the document, titled "The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Economic Times," was shot down, failing to achieve the two-thirds needed for passage. The vote was 134, yes, 84 no, with nine abstentions.
Written by a drafting committee headed by Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit, under some guidelines laid out by the bishops at their June meeting in Atlanta, the document had been challenged by Spokane's Blaise Cupich and retired Retired Archbishop and one-time conference president Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston. According to the USCCB twitter feed from the meeting yesterday, Archbishop Fiorenza quickly criticized the document following its introduction by Archbishop Vigneron. "Why don't we address the growing gulf between the haves and the have nots?" he asked.
Archbishop Fiorenza said, "I have very serious questions about this," adding he had only received the draft for review three days earlier. "I am very disappointed, and I fear that this draft, if not changed in a major way," will harm the U.S. bishops' record on Catholic social teaching. He observed that the subtitle is about work: "A pastoral message on work, poverty and the economy," yet he said the document includes just one short reference on the right of workers to unionize.
"One sentence," he added. "It's almost like it was an afterthought. But when you look at the compendium of the social teachings of the church, there are three long paragraphs on the right to organize, the right to collective bargaining, and the right to strike." He asked why "Hope of the Gospel" includes no reference, "not even a footnote," about the U.S. bishops' 1986 pastoral letter on the economy, "Economic Justice for All," which he noted was the product of several years of work.
Retired Auxiliary Bishop Peter A. Rosazza of Hartford, Conn., asked whether the drafting committee had consulted with an economist, which he said was one of the recommendations of the bishops in June.
They had not, Archbishop Vigneron told him. According to Vigneron, the document relied on encyclicals from popes JPII and Benedict XVI.
Retired Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan of Brooklyn, N.Y., said the document "doesn't address in any way the major shift in the American economy." He also said it ought to reference the 1986 document "to show the continuity of what we said then."
After a day of review, the statement took more hits during floor debate today from a number of other bishops who complained that it did not properly connect to past Catholic social teaching, particularly the aforementioned pastoral "Economic Justice," was not suitably critical of the forces that brought the country to its economic knees in 2008 and had nothing too little to say about the role of unions.
Bishop Rosazza complained that the document has "no sting, no bite" and doesn't address cuts to government programs that help the poor. Albany's Bishop Howard Hubbard said the statement did not adequately address causes of economic collapse, the role of government, the decline of labor and Catholic social teaching. The document doesn't offer comfort or hope to anyone, complained Bishop Cupich, it speaks of market forces but not deregulation and immoral behavior that created the financial crisis.
Galveston's Cadinal Daniel DiNardo defended the statement, arguing Archbishop Vigneron did what he was asked; the problem may be that bishops' expectations for the statement were unreasonably high.
Having failed to pass in the conference, the document was effectively D.O.A. but elements within it may appear in future statements.
Have moderates in the conference finally decided to push back against the conference's conservative drift? Hard to say, (especially when your "insight" is based on a twitter feed!) but as many of the objectors here appear to be retired, non-voting members, there does not appear to be too much cause for celebration among Catholic progressives.