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Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis

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Michael McBane and Tony Clarke

On New Year’s Day 1983, Canada’s Catholic bishops released their controversial report, Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis. Tony Clarke and Michael McBane worked for Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) at the time and were staff members for the bishops’ Social Affairs Commission. Thirty years later, in April 2013, the two appeared together at a Catholic church in Ottawa to talk about the report and its release in 1983.

“It was a time of high unemployment and deindustrialization,” McBane told an evening audience of 40 people at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. “There was very little sense in the country of the social ramifications of high unemployment. There was a sense of inevitability about it, almost as if it was an acceptable sign of economic progress, but the bishops named it a moral crisis.”

Ethical issue

Clarke said that in 1982 the rate of unemployment was officially about 13 per cent but that the real rate was more like 20 and even 30 per cent in some communities. Inflation was running at more than 20 per cent. “The bishops on the Social Affairs Commission started talking about this in 1982. The Trudeau government said that inflation was the biggest problem and that unemployment would more or less have to take care of itself. Pierre Trudeau was giving sermonettes on television about how we would have to adjust to the new world of global competition. The government’s emphasis was on capital and not on labour, but the bishops knew people were suffering as a result of unemployment and thought there was an ethical problem here.”

McBane said the plan was for the bishops to send a letter to the Prime Minister regarding the economy, but Clarke said that in talking to journalists staff came up with a new idea. Tom Harpur, then the religion editor at the Toronto Star, said that the days around New Year were a slow news time. The planned letter became a statement. It was provided to Harpur and a select few other journalists in advance and it ran on the front page of the Toronto Star on January 1, 1983.

Clarke said that for the bishops to describe high unemployment as a “serious ethical priority” challenged conventional wisdom. The statement focused on several key points. “One was the preferential option for the poor, which had arisen out of liberation theology. The second was that human labour and people should take priority over capital. The bishops’ statement offered a critique of the government’s existing economic strategy. We had a strong encyclical from Pope John Paul II to back us up. ” [The encyclical Laborem Exercens, or On Human Work was released in 1981].

Controversy

McBane said that “all hell broke loose” when the Toronto Star story appeared on New Year’s Day in 1983. “Everyone else in the media had to scramble to catch up.”

Cardinal Emmett Carter, the Archbishop of Toronto, soon called his own news conference to criticize the statement of his brother bishops. The Toronto archdiocese eventually produced a short and uncomplimentary book about Ethical Reflections, as did the right wing Fraser Institute, which was respectful but condescending in its approach. The bishops’ statement received strong support, however, from the Anglican, Presbyterian and United Churches, as welkl as numerous academics and many Canadians.

Prime Minister Trudeau, who was in Thailand, was informed about the document by journalists accompanying him. He replied that the bishops did not know much about the economy and would be better off not to talk about it. A plethora of other groups, media commentators and academics weighed in on one side or the other.

Media reaction

Joe Gunn, another former director of the CCCB’s Social Affairs Commission, was emcee for the evening discussion on Ethical Reflections. In an article published earlier this year he described the immediate media impact of the 1983 statement. It included 18 newspaper editorials within the first week, 23 newspaper and magazine columns, and 16 radio public affairs programs. The statement received international coverage in The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Time and Newsweek. More than 200,000 copies of the text were sold it was eventually translated into seven languages. Gunn pointed out that the document is not available on the CCCB website today, and although I was able to find extensive commentary on the internet, I was not able to find a copy of the actual document there either (please tell me if you find one).

Disagreement within

Clarke said the heart of the controversy was based on two things: “What is the church’s response to capitalism, and should bishops intervene in the debate? It was exciting, an amazing teaching moment. Ethical Reflections was talked about for years.”

Cardinal Carter claimed that the statement was the work of eight bishops on the Social Affairs Commission but not of the entire bishops’ conference. The statement had, however, been approved in principle by the CCCB executive prior to its release. Nor was it out of character with other recent statements that had been issued by the CCCB. Those included a statement on northern development in 1975, another called From Words to Action in 1976, and one called Unemployment: The Human Costs issued in 1980. It was a combination of the high rate of unemployment, the timing of the 1983 statement’s release and the defensive reaction to it that made it so explosive.

Clarke said that the bishops on the Social Affairs commission decided that Bishops Remi De Roo and the late Adolphe Proulx would take the public lead in speaking to Ethical Reflections. “The bishops knew there would be a price to pay but they wanted to stir up discussion and open up their church community to debate over this, including their fellow bishops. They knew that there was a struggle going on among the bishops themselves on these questions.”

Silent church

Clarke and McBane agree that there is nothing approaching a similar debate occurring in the Canadian church today. McBane said, “We are losing the tension between the church and the state in Canada. The government has seduced the hierarchy to provide a blessing for their policies. The leadership has been silenced and refuses to challenge the established order.”

Both Clarke and McBane described the events surrounding the release of Ethical Reflections as being among the most exciting times of their professional lives. They both left the CCCB years ago but remain active in social and political issues. Clarke is executive director of the Polaris Institute, which works with citizen movements to prepare them to work for democratic social change in an age of corporate driven globalization. McBane is national coordinator of the Canadian Health Coalition, a public advocacy organization dedicated to the preservation and improvement of Medicare. Both groups accept and need donations.

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