Place the needs of the poor ahead of the claims of the wealthy


Joe Gunn

February 11, 2013

Do you celebrate birthdays? Catholic teaching certainly holds anniversaries in high regard. After 1891's Rerum Novarum, important encyclicals like Quadragesimo Anno, Octogesima Adveniens and Centesimus Annus recognized and deepened the social thought that preceded them. As well, witness the many articles written in this paper to comment on the 50th anniversary of Vatican II.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) used to release annual Labour Day statements on social themes. When I worked in a diocesan social action office, we would anxiously await these letters and organize church basement gatherings and discussion circles among Catholics hungry for sustenance in social ministries.

These tracts, however, were often received with little fanfare and were almost never referred to in sermons. But that wasn't the case 30 years ago, when the bishops released a bombshell reflection that resonated with Canadians like never before.

"No other Church document in Canadian history ever created an equivalent reaction," opined Bishop Remi De Roo in the CCCB's 1999 unofficial history of the bishops' social thought.

The document, called Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis, was released early in 1983 and became a front-page story. Within the first week, 18 editorials debated its contents (11 in favour, six opposed), 16 public affairs programs on radio dissected it, and 23 columnists wrote commentaries.

The statement received international coverage in The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Time and Newsweek. In the days before fax and electronic mail, over 200,000 copies were sold and the text was eventually translated into seven languages. (The CCCB history and the 1983 statement are not available on the CCCB's website.)


Ethical Reflections, published at a time of high unemployment and inflation, urged people to place the needs of the poor and oppressed ahead of the financial ambitions of the rich. It called for government policies that would place worker rights ahead of profit and would invite marginalized groups to participate in political and economic systems that were excluding them.

Ethical Reflections was not a radical departure from the previous teaching of the bishops, but it was written in understandable moral language that echoed the social and economic angst of that time.

The final lines of the statement still inspire me: "As Christians, we are called to become involved in struggles for economic justice and to participate in building a new society based on Gospel values."


With 1.5 million Canadians out of work at the time, and government policy more focused on defeating inflation than unemployment, Ethical Reflections explicitly highlighted two fundamental Catholic social principles: "the preferential option for the poor" and "the value and dignity of labour."

Tony Clarke, a CCCB staffer (and one of the authors of Ethical Reflections) recounted a poignant anecdote: A West Coast friend called Clarke to say that he was greeted that morning on the dock by a group of unemployed workers who yelled out: "Have you heard the news? The bishops are on our side!"

Last month when I posted a note on my Facebook page that recalled this anniversary, I was surprised that three trade union leaders sent comments. The leader of Toronto's Labour Council recalled how construction workers asked him to give them a talk on the bishops' letter. A trade union economist recounted that last week he had his university class read Ethical Reflections: "Still a very powerful piece, . . . it was written at the start of the neo-liberal era and very much saw where we were headed."


Another major explanation for the incredible media buzz the statement generated was that some prominent Catholics publicly disagreed with the message, among them Cardinal Gerald Emmett Carter, businessman Conrad Black and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

In late 2012 Radio Ville-Marie reported that a draft of a pastoral letter focusing on the global financial crisis was rejected for publication by the bishops. Montreal's Catholic station suggested that the letter of the Commission for Justice and Peace was shelved in September 2011 by the CCCB executive because it would have "little impact," given that it was "obscure" and "old news."

One hopes Catholic colleges and universities will commemorate, debate and deepen the message of Ethical Reflections on the 30th anniversary of its publication. More importantly, will the Catholic hierarchy and laypeople take up the challenge to make Catholic social thought - and action – come alive today?

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)