ETHICS AND ECONOMICS
Gregory Baum and Duncan Cameron.
Toronto, James Lorimer, c1984.
Toronto, James Lorimer, c1984.
Volume 12 Number 6
On New Year's Day 1983, the Social Affairs Commission of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops captured the nation's attention by issuing its controversial statement, "Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis." The Commission's eight bishops, led by Victoria's Bishop Remi DeRoo, explicitly attacked contemporary capitalist orthodoxy in their statement and, thereby, provoked widespread public debate not only about the morality of current economic policies - the statement's intended aim—but also about the propriety of churchmen pronouncing upon economic matters and their competence to do so.
This volume represents an attempt to explain and defend the bishops' arguments and to place them in the broader context of Roman Catholic social teaching. The authors make no pretence to objectivity in their analyses; they are openly sympathetic to the bishops' radical critique, but they have done an excellent job of illustrating the assumptions and the sort of reasoning that lay behind the bishops' statement.
The statement itself is reproduced in the first section of the book. Proclaiming "the dignity of human work" and a "preferential option for the poor," the bishops' call their followers to be "actively supporting the poor and oppressed in their struggle to transform society." Specifically they demand that the elimination of unemployment be given priority over the fight against inflation through the public encouragement of labour-intensive industries, that a further shift of the burden of wage controls to upper-income groups be made, that social services expenditures (a concept never clearly defined) not be curtailed, and that organized labour be made a full partner in the development of an industrial strategy.
Rev. Gregory Baum, a professor of theology at the University of Toronto, examines the statement in the light of the history of Catholic social thought. He notes that over the past twelve years the Church has abandoned its traditional organic vision of society in favour of a conflictual understanding of social relations that grew out of the so-called "liberation theology" of some Latin American Catholic thinkers. Baum's essay is useful as an historical review and in pointing out that the bishops' views, which he admits are shared by only a minority of Canadian Catholics, cannot in any way bind their followers in conscience, much less in practical terms. In his defence of the bishops' arguments, how-ever, Baum exhibits the purest casuistry. If the bishops' reasoning seems naive or illogical, it is only, he maintains, because capitalist culture has warped our perspective and debilitated our critical faculties. The option for the poor is seen as a "praxis," an idea that can only be analyzed in terms of an a priori commitment to it, perhaps a modern version of the Augustinian view that truths must be believed before and in order that they may be understood. Answering the charge that the bishops' statement represents a new "clericalism of the Left," Baum suggests that the Church has a legitimate political role only when it acts as a "promoter of gospel values." Unfortunately, he fails to make the case that opposition to capitalist economics or support of the nuclear freeze movement is any more legitimate an interpretation of gospel values than those emanating from such right-wing electronic preachers as Rev. Jerry Falwell.
In a second essay, Prof. Duncan Cameron of the University of Ottawa asks if the bishops' statement makes economic sense and, not surprisingly, concludes that it does. Cameron is effective in his criticism of recent government economic policy, although to term the economic strategy of the Trudeau government "monetarist" does little justice either to the government or to the economic theorists of monetarism. Cameron, with Baum and the bishops, objects to the ways in which government has interfered in the economy but could not accept a minimalist role for the state.
Ethics and Economics will not likely convince anyone not already committed to a democratic socialist vision of Canadian society or to the view that social justice implies equality of results rather than opportunity. The book does, however, put the case for the bishops' Utopian ideal as well as it can be put and offers the reader an accurate insight into the thought of the contemporary Catholic Left in Canada.
Robert Nicholas Bérard, Dept. of Education, Dalhousie University, Halifax N. S.
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