WASHINGTON — The nation's Roman Catholic bishops, capping a six-year project, voted overwhelmingly Thursday to adopt a lengthy and controversial letter that calls for changes in the U.S. economy to guarantee "minimum conditions of human dignity in the economic sphere for every person."
Titled "Economic Justice for All," the letter indicts the American economy for failing millions and says "that so many people are poor in a nation as rich as ours is a social and moral scandal that we cannot ignore. . . . Full employment is the foundation of a just economy."
While the document makes no detailed recommendations for redistribution of the nation's wealth, it says "the concentration of privilege that exists today results far more from institutional relationships that distribute power and wealth inequitably than from differences in talent or lack of desire to work.
'Most Urgent Claim'
" . . . The obligation to provide justice for all means that the poor have the single most urgent claim on the conscience of the nation. As individuals and as a nation, therefore, we are called to make a fundamental 'option for the poor.'. . . Deprivation and powerlessness of the poor wounds the whole community."
While the 53,000-word letter, revised by the prelates through three drafts since 1984, will not be binding on the nation's 52.5 million Catholics, it will serve as a basis for Catholic teaching on economic matters in parishes and Catholic schools.
The letter is framed as an "economic challenge" to the nation.
"The economic challenge of today has many parallels with the political challenge that confronted the founders of our nation," it says. "In order to create a new form of political democracy they were compelled to develop ways of thinking and political institutions that had never existed before. . . .
"We believe the time has come for a similar experiment in securing economic rights: the creation of an order that guarantees the minimum conditions of human dignity in the economic sphere for every person."
Adopted by a vote of 225 to 9 at the closing session of the bishops' four-day conference here, the letter deplores increasing poverty in the United States, emphasizes government intervention to aid the poor, declares that every American has a right to a job, "healthful working conditions" and "a standard of living in keeping with human dignity," and calls for a federal job-creation program.
'Government Must Act'
"The market alone will not automatically produce full employment," the document states. "Therefore, the government must act to ensure that this goal is achieved by coordinating general economic policies, by job-creation programs and by other appropriate policy measures."
Such passages place the bishops in clear conflict with the free market economic philosophy espoused by the Reagan Administration.
Although the Administration has not openly criticized the letter, Catholic conservatives such as former Treasury Secretary William Simon and Catholic lay theologian Michael Novak have repeatedly taken it to task.
The letter, they said in a report released by the Lay Commission on Catholic Teaching and the U.S. Economy a week before the bishops' meeting here, places "far too much faith" in government intervention as a way to help the poor and not enough trust in capitalism. The poor will benefit only if the free enterprise system is allowed to thrive, thus producing jobs, goods and services, the commission statement said.
'Head in the Sand'
Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, who chaired the five-bishop committee that drafted the letter, defended the insistence on the need for government regulation of the economy. He accused Simon of economic "libertarianism" and said Novak "has his head in the sand" for trying to "Christianize all aspects of capitalism. . . . There will always be a tension between the two.
"All people have a right to participate in the economic life of society," Weakland said in a summary of the letter. "If persons or groups are denied an opportunity to share in the economic life of society, an injustice is being done."
"Clearly, it's a critique of the U.S. economy," said Bishop James W. Malone, outgoing president of the 300-member National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It asks: 'What does the economy do to and for the people?' We offer some suggestions."
The draft given final approval Thursday was released last spring and was changed little during debate here.
It includes new material added since the second draft was considered by the bishops a year ago and places a greater emphasis on several subjects, including family life, education and international economic issues.