Morton and Weinfeld. Who Speaks for Canada. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1998




Religion in post-war Canada has fought a losing battle with materialism and secularism. Furthermore, its voice has often been identified with reaction against changes most Canadians have accepted and even welcomed - equality for women, greater ethnic diversity, freedom of sexual preference - and emptying pews have made some church leaders seek allies among the wealthy. Yet in 1983, as Canada's third major post-war recession left a million and a half people without work, the Social Affairs Commission of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) struck a new note. Reflecting on the state of Canadian society against the background of the social teachings of the Catholic Church, the commission issued the document AEthical Reflections on the Economic Crisis,@ which suggested that unemployment was a more serious problem than inflation.

The bishops urged the faithful to reflect on Athe preferential option for the poor, the afflicted and the oppressed,@ an option simply described as favouring the needs of the poor over the wishes of the rich. The gospels also supported Athe special value and dignity of work in God's plan.@ In contrast, the bishops noted, governments and corporations valued profitability and competitiveness over job creation, while the threat of joblessness forced workers to accept salary cutbacks.

The bishops and their Apreferential option@ provoked predictable outrage from governments and corporate leaders, most of whom questioned whether religious leaders understood economics, global markets, or the stress of meeting a payroll. Indeed, the outrage from national leaders, including Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, probably did more to publicize the bishops' statement than anything they themselves could have done.



As the New Year begins, we wish to share some ethical reflections on the critical issues facing the Canadian economy.

In recent years, the Catholic church has become increasingly concerned about the scourge of unemployment that plagues our society today and the corresponding struggles of workers in this country. A number of pastoral statements and social projects have been launched by church groups in national, regional, and local communities as a response to various aspects of the emerging economic crisis. On this occasion, we wish to make some brief comments on the immediate economic and social problems followed by some brief observations on the deeper social and ethical issues at stake in developing future economic strategies.

As pastors, our concerns about the economy are not based on any specific political options. Instead, they are inspired by the gospel message of Jesus Christ. In particular, we cite two fundamental gospel principles that underlie our concerns.

The first principle has to do with the preferential option for the poor, the afflicted, and the oppressed. In the tradition of the prophets, Jesus dedicated his ministry to bringing Agood news to the poor" and Aliberty to the oppressed." As Christians, we are called to follow Jesus by identifying with the victims of injustice, by analyzing the dominant attitudes and structures that cause human suffering, and by actively supporting the poor and oppressed in their struggles to transform society. For, as Jesus declared, "when you did it unto these, the least of my brethren, you did it unto me."

The second principle concerns the special value and dignity of human work in God's plan for Creation. it is through the activity of work that people are able to exercise their creative spirit, realize their human dignity, and share in Creation. By interacting with fellow workers in a common task, men and women have an opportunity to further develop their personalities and sense of self-worth. In so doing, people participate in the development of their society and give meaning to their existence as human beings. Indeed, the importance of human labor is illustrated in the life of Jesus who was himself a worker, "a craftsman like Joseph of Nazareth."

It is from the perspective of these basic gospel principles that we wish to share our reflections on the current economic crisis. Along with most people in Canada today, we realize that our economy is in serious trouble. In our own regions, we have seen the economic realities of plant shutdowns, massive layoffs of workers, wage restraint programs, and suspension of collective bargaining rights for public sector workers. At the same time, we have seen the social realities of abandoned one-industry towns, depleting unemployment insurance benefits, cut-backs in health and social services, and line-ups at local soup kitchens. And, we have also witnessed, first hand, the results of a troubled economy: personal tragedies, emotional strain, loss of human dignity, family breakdown, and even suicide.

Indeed, we recognize that serious economic challenges lie ahead for this country. If our society is going to face up to these challenges, people must meet and work together as a "true community" with vision and courage. In developing strategies for economic recovery, we firmly believe that first priority must be given to the real victims of the current recession, namely - the unemployed, the welfare poor, the working poor - pensioners, native peoples, women, young people - and small farmers, fishermen, some factory workers, and some small business men and women. This option calls for economic policies which realize that the needs of the poor have priority over the wants of the rich; that the rights of workers are more important than the maximization of profits; that the participation of marginalized groups takes precedence over the preservation of a system which excludes them.

In response to current economic problems, we suggest that priority be given to the following short-term strategies by both government and business.

First, unemployment rather than inflation, should be recognized as the number one problem to be tackled in overcoming the present crisis. The fact that some 1.5 million people are jobless constitutes a serious moral as well as economic crisis in this country. While efforts should continually be made to curb wasteful spending, it is imperative that primary emphasis be placed on combating unemployment.

Second, an industrial strategy should be developed to create permanent and meaningful jobs for people in local communities. To be effective, such a strategy should be designed at both national and regional levels. It should include emphasis on increased production, creation of new labor intensive industries for basic needs. and measures to ensure job security for workers.

Third, a more balanced and equitable program should be developed for reducing and stemming the rate of inflation. This requires shifting the burden for wage controls to upper income earners and introducing controls on prices and new forms of taxes on investment income (e.g., dividends, interest).

Fourth, greater emphasis should be given to the goal of social responsibility in the current recession. This means that every effort must be made to curtail cut-backs in social services, maintain adequate health care and social security benefits, and above all, guarantee special assistance for the unemployed, welfare recipients, the working poor and one-industry towns suffering from plant shut-downs.

Fifth, labor unions should be asked to play a more decisive and responsible role in developing strategies for economic recovery and unemployment. This requires the restoration of collective bargaining rights where they have been suspended, collaboration between unions and the unemployed and unorganized workers, and assurances that labor unions will have an effective role in developing economic policies.

Furthermore, all peoples of goodwill in local and regional communities throughout the country must be encouraged to coordinate their efforts to develop and implement such strategies. As a step in this direction, we again call on local Christian communities to become actively involved in the six-point plan of action outlined in the message of the Canadian bishops on Unemployment: The Human Costs.

We recognize that these proposals run counter to some current policies or strategies advanced by both governments and corporations. We are also aware of the limited perspectives and excessive demands of some labor unions. To be certain, the issues are complex; there are no simple or magical solutions. Yet, from the stand-point of the church=s social teachings, we firmly believe that present economic realities reveal a Amoral disorder@ in our society. As pastors, we have a responsibility to raise some of the fundamental social and ethical issues pertaining to the economic order. In so doing, we expect that there will be considerable discussion and debate within the Christian community itself on these issues. Indeed, we hope that the following reflections will help to explain our concerns and contribute to the current public debate about the economy.

Source: Social Affairs Commission of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Some Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis (Toronto, 1983), 68-71.

 Copyright 2000 Melissa Humphries.
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Last updated: September 12, 2000.