Joe Gunn

Joe Gunn

Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, He is a past Director of the Office of Social Affairs at the CCCB.

OTTAWA - When I was a teen, Bob Carty asked me if I could drive his standard-transmission blue Corolla. “It’s a long way to Mexico,” he said, “and we’ll have to drive hard to get there as fast as the others going down by bus.” 

Imagine crawling to the bathroom 15 times a day with painful rectal cramping, bloody diarrhea and in searing pain from swollen joints. Then, when you make it to the hospital’s emergency room, you’re finally rolled into, wait for it… a psychiatric ward storage room.

Catholic social teaching holds anniversaries in high regard. Witness the many conferences and papers written in 2012 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, while the Quebec bishops chose May 1 for their annual releases. 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 without much fuss in our parishes and garnered only polite commentary in minor media. But that wasn’t the case 30 years ago this month, when the bishops released a bombshell reflection that resonated with the Canadian public 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. (You cannot find the CCCB history or the statements themselves on the CCCB’s web site, but Ethical Reflections is available on the Internet.)

The document, 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 released at a specific moment in understandable moral language that echoed the social and economic angst of that time. The final lines of the statement inspire me to this day: “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 at the time (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!”

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

That brings us to 2013. Last month, Radio Ville-Marie reported that in September 2011, a draft of a pastoral letter focusing on the global financial crisis which began in October 2008 was rejected for publication by the CCCB. Montreal’s Catholic station suggested that the letter, prepared by the bishops of the Commission for Justice and Peace, was shelved (according to the CCCB Executive) because it would have “little impact,” given that it was “obscure” and “old news.”

Papal encyclicals often begin with recognition of the writing that has been inherited from predecessor statements. After 1891’s Rerum Novarum, important documents like Quadragesimo Anno, Octogesima Adveniens and Centesimus Annus recognize and deepen the social thought that preceded them.

One hopes that 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?