Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis

Michael McBane & Tony Clarke were involved in drafting Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis which was released in January 1983

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.

Please note: This post was revised on Feburary 4, 2022

“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 had been released in 1981.


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 in 2013 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.”

Bishop Re Roo died on February 1, 2022 at the age of 97.

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 remained active in social and political issues. Clarke was 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 was national coordinator of the Canadian Health Coalition, a public advocacy organization dedicated to the preservation and improvement of Medicare.

6 thoughts on “Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis

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  1. A nice write-up. Thanks for taking the time. I was there, and thought your summary of their comments was an accurate reflection of what had been said.


  2. I remember that day very clearly. I was working off-schedule in the newsroom when the story came in. As it was New Year’s Day, we were limiting our news casts, so I had ample opportunity to study the information. I thought it was a amazing document then, and I still do.


  3. In his last World Day of Peace speech, out-going Pope Benedict XVI listed what he saw as the top threats to world peace in our time. The ‘number one threat to world peace’ according to Benedict was “unregulated financial capitalism,” ahead of both terrorism and international crime. Meanwhile, in Canada, our bishops are doing their best to cozy up to a federal government that proclaims the gospel of ‘unregulated financial capitalism.’ Our shepherds have truly gone astray, and the sheep suffer for it.

    For the last few years, the Canadian Bishops have all but disappeared from the social justice stage. They have shelved the Catholic Church’s so-called ‘preferential option for the poor’ in all but hollow words. They have become, as Ezekiel put it, ‘fat and sleek.’ These days it seems the CCCB is more concerned about having a seat of honor at the public banquets than about justice.

    One prays that someday soon our bishops will again find the courage to proclaim the gospel and let the chips fall where they may. But that day is not here yet. No doubt Jesus feels compassion for his Canadian sheep because they are harassed and, apart from individual exceptions, have been abandoned by their shepherds who now court Caesar’s favor. It is to weep!


  4. I remember that report, Dennis, and actually had a copy which I lent to someone, but, like many “lendings,” it was never returned. It was an amazing report and I fear that nothing of that calibre (or the debate that accompanied it) is possible at the present time because the leadership of the Catholic Church (and the leadership within the various shades of Protestantism) have become enamoured too much with the “Christian” leanings of our Prime Minister, many of his cabinet members and regular MPs. A “Christianity” that has little to do with the teachings of Jesus Christ or the early pre-Constintinian church.


  5. Hi Thomas:

    The ‘Christian leanings’ of our PM and other politicians of his ilk are ‘attractive’ to many (Protestants and Catholics alike) because they have succeeded in domesticating Jesus and his gospel. It’s much easier to turn Jesus into a plush toy we’re comfortable with than to undertake the radical personal and societal transformation he demanded.

    For these Christians, including, I fear, the current leadership of the CCCB, Jesus no longer proclaims liberation for all and justice for the poor. Instead they have made the Messiah a champion of the status quo and all its structural sins. There are many examples of how these ‘Christian leanings,’ when put in practice, turn out to be a kind of Gospel of Gospel that is tailor-made for those seeking a new, easier to swallow ‘Christianity light.’

    For example, the Harper government is spending billions on fighter jets and robotic ‘assassination drones’ while millions of Canadian children languish in poverty. I am sure Jesus would cheer wildly to see Canada ignoring children in hunger and poverty so we can increase our ability to kill more people and at a great distance as well. Then there’s the fact that our federal government kicked Christian churches out of its overseas development programs, and turned those ‘development programs’ over to Canadian mining companies who have long been among the worst human rights abusers around. Jesus would just love kicking the poor in other countries off their land so the wealthy here in Canada can be even richer. Nothing like making ‘easy money’ by killing the poor for profit! How about the indiscriminate destruction of environmental protections designed to protect and nurture the creation? Sure, God said creation was “good” and we are to exercise stewardship over it, but the new, tame Jesus of the Status Quo is here to tell us God didn’t really mean it, and one can destroy the creation because more profit for the wealthy is what really counts. How about cutting programs for the poor in order to pay for corporate tax cuts? Yup, the new, neutered Jesus thinks that’s just fine too!

    The new Jesus that is so attractive to so many Christian leaders in Canada is quite a character. No longer are ‘justice and mercy and faith’ the weightier matters of law (Matt 23:23). The new, domestic Jesus proclaims profit, dividends and a preferential option for the rich. No longer are the two great commandments love of God and love of neighbor (Mark 12:28-31) because they have been replaced with the love of money and the elevation of greed to a virtue.

    In sizing up the ‘tame Jesus’ who likes war and exploitation of the poor, some of us old guys who have been around for awhile find the question posed by the ‘old Jesus’ in the Bible quite appropriate today for Canada generally, and for our political and Christian leaders (hello CCCB!) in particular. Jesus told his followers to deny themselves, pick up their cross, and follow him. The new Jesus tells his friends to subdivide Calvary, throw up some over-priced condos, take advantage of tax breaks and retire early. Even grumpy old men like me have to admit that’s a lot easier than the original mission of struggling for justice for all.


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