United States Catholic bishops on economic justice: 1919--1986

Kevin Mark Caspersen, Fordham University


The history of American Catholicism reflects the tension of a dual identity. John Courtney Murray asserted the possibility of being both a good American and a loyal Catholic under the category of "believer citizen." The U.S. Catholic bishops' pastoral letters on economic justice reflect a tradition of statements by believer citizens. In 1986, the bishops released a pastoral letter entitled "Economic Justice for All," and critics challenged the bishops' competence to address economic issues. But this public stance was not unique; since their 1919 statement, "Program on Social Reconstruction," the bishops developed a tradition of pastoral letters as believer citizens. These texts show the bishops to be both religious leaders and democratic citizens. This study examines that corpus of social teaching on economic justice as the product of two traditions: the American political/social tradition and Catholic social teaching. The American Catholic identity served as a healthy dialectic as the bishops drew on both traditions in writing their pastoral letters. The thesis employs an historical method to interpret the pastoral letters on economic justice. Select themes provide criteria for a theological analysis of the documents. The "Americanist Crisis," which set the historical context for the emergence of U.S. Catholic social teaching, offered two ways of analyzing social issues within the broader framework of assimilation in American culture. The moral methodology of the bishops' documents presents another reflection of the American Catholic framework in the blending of natural law and scriptural traditions. Between 1919 and 1986 theological developments from Vatican Council II and political and economic problems in American society served to bring social ministries to greater prominence on the bishops' agenda. The bishops' commitment to the poor was sustained and strengthened in their pastoral letters over this period as the prelates adopted the categories of reading "the signs of the times" and making an "option for the poor." A concrete sign of this option is given in the Campaign for Human Development which funds broad-based community organizations in an effort to transform American public life according to a biblical vision of justice and a civic tradition of democracy. The bishops' social teaching from 1919 to 1986 represents a positive contribution to Catholic social thought and to American public life.

Subject Area

Theology|Economic history|Political science

Recommended Citation

Caspersen, Kevin Mark, "United States Catholic bishops on economic justice: 1919--1986" (1994). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9425188.