The Common Good or Exclusion: A Choice for Canadians

Thursday, February 01 2001
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New Millennium, New Government, New Resolve?

1. On November 27, 2000, Canadians elected a majority Liberal government to lead the country into the new millennium. Four other political parties will also be represented in the House of Commons. While electoral campaigns should be privileged opportunities for all citizens to reflect on their most deeply held social values,1  the heat of partisan electoral contests seldom contributes more than meagre light on major issues. Election day witnessed reduced levels of voter turnout, suggesting that many Canadians are less than enamoured with either the process or the proffered options. But in spite of the perceived shortcomings of partisan electoral campaigns, Canadians generally approach such opportunities to express both their democratic fervour and civic responsibility with an admirable seriousness.

2. Engagement in the political process remains a constant civic duty. This cannot be taken into account only during electoral campaigns, anymore than the living out of religious values can be practised only one day a week. As members of the Social Affairs Commission of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), we have chosen to release this open letter at an appropriately reflective moment: as the new government and opposition parties take office. We do so in the hope of assisting all Members of Parliament to reflect on how to lead the country into a better future. As the guiding priority of political and legislative commitments, we call upon all federal politicians to work for the common good and toward ending economic exclusion.

A Growing Problem: Economic Exclusion

3. In Canada, macroeconomic indicators have been very positive over the last few years. Canada has become the 11th country in the world whose Gross Domestic Product is larger than $1 trillion. Real after-tax per-capita income, following a lost decade of growth, was finally back to where it had left off in 1990 when the latest recession began.2  Even with some worries about an economic slowdown, forecasters think Canada’s economy will grow faster in 2001 than that of any other nation in the G-7 group of major industrial economies.3  But why are all Canadians not sharing in this bounty?

4. On November 23, 1999, Canadians commemorated the 10th anniversary of the 1989 unanimous House of Commons resolution to eliminate poverty among Canadian children by the year 2000. At events held in more than 100 locations across the country (including the vigil on Parliament Hill attended by all the members of our Commission), Canadians learned that, over the decade, rather than reducing child poverty, more children had become poor.4  Most recently, during the election campaign, the latest figures reported that 1,338,000 Canadian children, or one out of every five, still lived in poverty.5  Such negative performance cries out to heaven for redress.

5. For 1998, the latest year for which figures are available, many of the poverty rates in Canada decreased slightly. We realize that measuring poverty levels is complex, and that there are many dimensions of poverty and the suffering associated with it. Still, we rejoice that for the first time since 1994, fewer than five million children, women and men in Canada were living in poverty. However, this reduction must be seen in perspective. We share the concerns of the National Council of Welfare that this small drop in poverty to 16.4 percent “was a dismal showing for a wealthy country in its seventh consecutive year of economic growth.” The Council goes on to conclude:

It has become obvious that people on the low end of the income scale are cut off from the ongoing economic growth that most Canadians are enjoying. It is also obvious that in these times of economic prosperity and government surpluses that most governments are not yet prepared to address these problems seriously, nor are they prepared to ensure a reasonable level of support for low-income people either inside or outside of the paid labour force.6

6. We are also concerned that, according to another recent study,

In the 1990s, it appears that economic growth has become increasingly unlinked from poverty reduction. In other words, we can no longer make the assumption that workers will share in the benefits of economic growth. Some will, to be sure, but the evidence is clear that a growing number of working class Canadians are not seeing their living standards rise. Indeed, living standards are dropping for many working class families. Poverty is structural in Canada now…. 7

7. Whereas the growing gap in incomes is also evidenced by differences in living conditions and increased difficulty in accessing social services, we are alarmed at the growing gap between rich and poor in Canada. In 1973, the top 10 percent of Canadian families with children under 18 took in 21 times the market income of the poorest 10 percent. By 1996, the top 10 percent made 314 times the market income of the poorest 10 percent.8 Since the 1990s (especially the latter years of the decade) were “economic boom times”, this growing gap between rich and poor points to a squandered opportunity for social justice.

8. In its 1996 Pastoral Letter on the Eradication of Poverty, the CCCB Social Affairs Commission noted particular concern that four groups in Canadian society, namely, women, the indigenous, newcomers and children, were being marginalized by poverty.9  In 1998, the Social Affairs Commission noted that the rising tide of economic growth in Canada had not “lifted all boats”. 10  Today, we fear that rather than being “marginalized,” these groups are even being excluded. What is new and dramatic is that large numbers of Canadians are being shoved into a situation of permanent injustice from which they may never be able to emerge.

9. This current situation of expanding and deepening exclusion challenges the most profoundly held vision of faith communities concerning how to understand relationships among human beings and with God. In the Jubilee year 2000 we reflected on the Hebrew scriptures where the call was for rest, release, return and restoration. Indeed, in Leviticus we read, “If any who are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as slaves...they shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. Then they, and their children with them shall be free…” 11  This call for the release of even the children of those excluded leads to the realization that this biblical liberation was not a one-time call for individual generosity. Rather, for later generations to also be released, clearly the goal had to be the restoration of just social and economic systems so there could no longer be exclusion.

10. This quest to renew personal attitudes and social structures was also evident in both Jesus' actions (healing) and words (teaching). When he began his ministry by "proclaiming the year of the Lord's favour" (in the tradition of a jubilee year), it was because he was “anointed to bring good news for the poor.”12  His time was spent in the company of the excluded (the sick, widows, prostitutes, tax collectors). Inspired by Jesus, the first Christian communities struggled to ensure that “there was not a needy person among them.”13  These passages speak eloquently of the Christian vision of the inclusion of all within the community, and the preferential option for the poor. The goods of the world are meant for everyone, with no one having the right to take more than they need at the expense of others. This is an important part of the Christian vision of the common good.

The Common Good

11. The Church's social teaching invites humanity to resist temptations to view growing gaps between rich and poor as natural and inevitable. On the basis of the principles of solidarity and concern for the common good, the Church also invites society to reject economic agendas which promote growing exclusion.14 Solidarity is a virtue, manifested in the distribution of goods, just remuneration for work, and efforts to create a more just social order. Concern for the common good is the opposite of accepting exclusion. True respect for the dignity of the person means that everyone’s talents and contributions are needed in order to make the larger community all that it can be. Inclusion of all persons in the life of society, access to the benefits of creation and ability to participate in the effort to improve the world are what the common good should be all about.  
Solidarity...is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people (but)...a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and to each individual, because we are all really responsible for all. – Pope John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, December 1987, #38.
 
12. The principle of the common good should also lead to increased care for creation, understood as the sustenance and flourishing of life for all beings and for future generations. If global output of goods and services grew by US$5 trillion between 1990 and 1997, matching growth from the beginning of civilization to 1950, how long will it be before the planet's limits to production and the sustenance of life will be reached?15 With one in 10 species of birds, one in four species of mammals and over half of all species of primates on the planet threatened with extinction, the “common good” takes on entirely new meaning. Since current production and consumption are so highly concentrated among the wealthy, the present model of development not only excludes the majority of this and future generations, but is exploitative and destructive of many forms of life on earth. The earth is not only a set of resources for human benefit in need of good stewardship. Thomas Aquinas remarked that the goodness of God is communicated to all creatures and is represented by them. He wrote: “Hence the whole universe together participates in the divine goodness more perfectly and represents it better than any single creature whatever."16 The principle of the common good must today be enlarged not only to accept the stewardship of the earth, but to include all forms of creation.

Toward a Global Common Good

13. Globalization is said to be shrinking space, shrinking time and disappearing borders. Yet the prevailing model of globalization often referred to as “neoliberalism” (driven by the competitive expansion of global markets) has outpaced governance models and is having increasingly negative impacts on greater numbers of people as well as the environment. For example, the economic crisis in Southeast Asia in 1997 resulted in the unemployment of over 13 million people as well as the reduction of global output by as much as $2 trillion. This economic crisis was not restricted to Asia. Surely, in an increasingly globalized world, the common good too must become increasingly global.

14. This global economy has, in conventional economic terms, experienced tremendous growth and integration. Yet, worldwide, as in Canada, millions of persons and indeed entire regions of the global South are excluded from a just benefit. The 1999 Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme points out that 60 countries have been getting poorer since 1980, and more than 80 countries still have per capita incomes lower than they were a decade or more ago.17  The 1990s witnessed increased concentrations of income, resources and wealth among certain people, corporations and countries. The Human Development Report's most striking statistic was the astounding claim that “the assets of the top three billionaires are more than the combined GNP of all least developed countries and their 600 million people.”18 If inequality is not new, what is new is that the "new economy" is promoting greater inequality faster than ever before.

An Agenda for Change

15. The growing gap between rich and poor and the destruction of the ecology challenge the deepest spiritual values of persons of all faiths. Experience shows that exclusion in Canadian and in global societies will not be remedied by merely waiting for the next business cycle to improve the situation. Markets are social constructions. Like all human creations they are flawed and can be transformed. Left to their own devices, markets will not automatically include all persons in the benefits of economic life.19  Will politicians agree with Church leaders that the current neo-liberal economic model is at fault and must be changed? 
The very fact that humanity, called to form a single family, is still tragically split in two by poverty - at the beginning of the 21st century, more than a billion four hundred million people are living in a situation of dire poverty - means that there is urgent need to reconsider the models which inspire development policies. – Pope John Paul II, Message for World Day of Peace, 1 January 2000, #17, emphasis in the original.
 
16. Church leaders and numerous theologians insist that globalization can be either positive or negative, but that “if globalization is ruled merely by the laws of the market applied to suit the powerful, the consequences cannot but be negative.”20  One response to the problem of the increasingly negative effects of globalization is to call for “the globalization of solidarity,”21 by defending individual and collective human rights, increasing democratization, cancelling international debts, eliminating poverty and caring for creation. Governments, as privileged agents of the common good, have crucial roles to play to supplement private and local efforts to order the global society justly. Have their recent efforts been encouraging?

17. The past year of the Jubilee witnessed many high-level international gatherings where important  governmental commitments were made. The United Nations Millennium Summit (September 6-8, 2000) for example, agreed to grant trade preferences to the world’s poorest countries, ensure that all children have access to primary education by 2005 and reduce extreme poverty by one-half in every part of the world by 2015.22  Five years after the UN Summit on Social Development, held in Copenhagen in 1995, where Canada signed the plan of action to end poverty, meagre progress has been achieved toward a standstill on multilateral debt payments for poor countries and the need for international financial transaction taxes.23  As well, Canada’s failure to cut greenhouse gas emissions in compliance with the Rio Treaty, coupled with avoidance of concrete plans to comply in the future, caused our country international embarrassment in Belgium in November. The sufficient political will to comply with internationally agreed-upon commitments has yet to be mobilized. We invite all Members of Parliament to encourage the quick development and implementation of policies that will allow Canada to meet these goals to which this country is already formally committed.

18. On several occasions over the past months and years, Canada's Catholic bishops have encouraged those persons who, from the convictions of their faith, struggle to address the causes as well as the symptoms of exclusionary structures. For example, we have spoken in favour of the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative's petitions to cancel the international debts of the countries of the South, participated in Campaign 2000's efforts to eradicate child poverty, lauded the Quebec groups working to pass La loi sur 'élimination de la pauvreté, and supported the goals of ending poverty and violence against women that were the basic principles of the Global March of Women 2000. Are the proposals of these campaigns, which reflect a spirit of Jubilee justice, peace and the integrity of creation, also high priorities for Members of Parliament?

19. The tax system can be an important bulwark against rising inequality. But rarely have the siren calls for tax cuts for corporations as well as individuals been accompanied by strategies to avoid the socially harmful increases in exclusion that have plagued Canadian society in the 1990s. Surveys show that Canadians support social spending, rather than tax cuts, when that spending is well-designed and delivered to important and universal programs such as health care. A large majority of Canadians continue to worry about moving toward a more divided society of haves and have-nots.24   Whereas tax cuts are of greater benefit to those higher income earners who pay more taxes, the more vulnerable members of society (who often have little taxable income) are logically more dependent on social programs to prevent their families from economic deprivation. The defence of priority social programs can be an important strategy toward the construction of an inclusive society.

To Promote the Common Good More Effectively

20. What are some ways that Members of Parliament can make the promotion of the common good the focus of their future policies?

21. The members of the Social Affairs Commission release this reflection in the hope that these suggestions will be enhanced by public debate and discussion. We also welcome feedback from all the Canadian community.27  We are also interested in meeting those Members of Parliament who are willing to deepen their reflection and broaden their dialogue on this topic. For our part, we will increase our own efforts to mirror in our own ministry, personal lives and economic decisions that same inclusiveness that Jesus’ life modelled. 
The Church in America must incarnate in her pastoral initiatives the solidarity of the universal Church toward the poor and the outcast of every kind. Her attitude needs to be one of assistance, promotion, liberation and fraternal openness. The goal of the Church is to ensure that no one is marginalized. – Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia in America, 1999, #58.4
 
22. For over 25 years, an important site for the development of research and analysis into many of our concerns has been ecumenically based, through coalitions of Churches and community groups working for social justice. We reiterate our commitment to these ecumenical and, at times, interfaith endeavours. We would also invite Members of Parliament to give serious and open-minded consideration to the representations of such groups on important issues affecting the common good.

23. To make the end of exclusion a possibility, to encourage a renewed respect for the common good, to rejuvenate our solidarity with all living beings and the earth is to do no less than make Jubilee justice a permanent practice in our homes, our Church and our society. There could be no better way to initiate a new Canadian Parliament.


1 See the pastoral reflection of the CCCB Commission for Social Affairs, prepared for the 2000 federal election, entitled Discerning Electoral Options, November 2000, www.cccb.ca.
2 Bruce Little, "A trillion dollar economy, " The Globe and Mail, June 1, 2000, p. B1, 4.
3 Bruce Little, "Canada sets pace for G7 growth," The Globe and Mail, November 27, 2000, p. B2.
4 Campaign 2000, Report Card on Child Poverty in Canada, 1989-1999, p. 1 (figures are for 1997), see www.campaign2000.ca.
5 Campaign 2000, Child Poverty in Canada: Report Card 2000, p. 5 (latest figures are for 1998).
6 National Council of Welfare, Poverty Profile, 1998, Autumn 2000 (released December 15, 2000), p. 1.
7 Andrew Jackson et al., Falling behind:The State of Working Canada, 2000, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Ottawa, 2000, p. 133.
8 Centre for Social Justice, The Growing Gap: A Report on Growing Inequality Between the Rich and the Poor in Canada, Toronto, October, 1998, also referred to in Mel Hurtig, Pay the Rent or Feed the Kids? The Tragedy and Disgrace of Poverty in Canada, Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1999, p. 95.
9 CCCB Social Affairs Commission, The Struggle to Eradicate Poverty: A Sign of Hope for our World, October 17, 1996.
10 Statement of the CCCB Commission for Social Affairs concerning the Eradication of Poverty, October 17, 1998, #3; see: www.cccb.ca.
11 Leviticus 25:39 41.
12 Luke 4:18-19.
13 Acts 4:34.
14 The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “By the common good is to be understood the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (#1906). The common good consists of three essential elements: respect for the person, social well-being and development of the group itself, and peace (see #1907-9).
15 Lester Brown, The State of the World Report, W.W. Norton and Co., New York, 1998, p. 11.
16 Summa Theologica, part 1, question 47, article 1.
17 United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 1999, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999, pp. v and 2.
18 Ibid., p. 3. While child poverty grew in Canada, so did the number of Canadian billionaires. The country had only three billionaires in 1997, yet that number tripled by 1999 and again almost doubled to 17 last year. See Janet McFarland, "Canadian billionaire parade almost doubles in a year," The Globe and Mail, June 19, 2000, p. A1 (quoting the rankings from Forbes Magazine).
19 "Distribution has worsened significantly, if not dramatically, in most countries undertaking market-friendly economic reforms…the close association between adoption of market-friendly economic reforms and accentuation of inequality is a cause for serious concern." – Albert Berry, "The income distribution threat in Latin America," Latin America Research Review, Vol. 32 no. 2, 1997, p. 31.
20 John Paul II, Ecclesia in America,1999,  #19.
21 Ibid., #55.
22 Final Report of the UN Millennium Summit, We the People: The Role of the UN in the 21stCentury.
23 The CCCB Social Affairs Commission congratulated the federal finance minister for recognizing the need to call a moratorium on bilateral debt payments for some poor countries. However, the Commission also recognized the need for much firmer Canadian action at the level of multilateral agencies where debt relief has been minimal and where insistence on structural adjustment conditions still blocks major progress. See letter of Commission Chairman Archbishop James Weisgerber to Finance Minister Paul Martin, October 3, 2000, http://www.cccb.ca/content/view/26/1001/.
24 Ekos Research Associates Inc., Rethinking Government IV, Final Report, September 1998,p. 64.
25 Climate change campaign.
26 See the call to reflection from leaders of Christian Churches on aboriginal land claims, “Aboriginal Land Rights: A Jubilee Challenge Facing Canada,” September 25, 2000, The Aboriginal Rights Coalition.
27 Feedback should be addressed to the Commission for Social Affairs, Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, 90 Parent Ave., Ottawa, ON, K1N 7B1, or sent by e-mail to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
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