Catholic bishops push for welfare reform. Social issues debate heats up, along with inner church tensions

After two years of often intense controversy, the highest American organization of Roman Catholicism has approved a sweeping document for social and economic change. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops, meeting here this week, calls for ``thorough reform of the nation's welfare and income-support programs.'' It urges welfare programs with ``adequate levels of support'' and a national minimum-benefit level. It seeks ``self-help efforts among the poor [that] should be fostered by programs and policies in both the private and public sectors.''

The new proposal, the gist of which has been known for months, comes at a time of ferment between liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church in America. The disagreements cover both ecclesiastical and secular issues.

This document has drawn both praise and criticism. Support comes primarily from liberals who share its view of the need for sweeping reform in which government would play a sizable role. Criticism comes from conservatives, including a group headed by former United States Treasury Secretary William Simon. They say the bishops' proposed solutions for poverty rely too heavily on the kinds of government programs identified with liberal Democrats and that the bishops should concentrate on religious matters.

In the Washington meetings that concluded Thursday, the bishops backed Pope John Paul II in one of the most controversial of current church matters for American Catholics. They said the Pope had not overstepped his authority in his disciplining of Raymond Hunthausen, the liberal archbishop of Seattle, on grounds he had taken more liberal positions than those of the Vatican on several issues.

In their document, the bishops also hold that family farms ``should be preserved and their economic viability protected.'' They say ``the impact of national economic policies on the poor and the vulnerable is the primary criterion for judging their moral value.'' They say ``the serious distortion of national economic priorities produced by massive national spending on defense must be remedied.''

The document will be printed in final form in December as a pastoral letter; it is intended to be distributed among church members, thence to be debated and to become an important element in domestic church policy.

This social initiative follows by two years another pastoral letter by the bishops which called for an end to the arms race. That proposal was sharply criticized by Catholic conservatives, much as the current pastoral letter has been under substantial attack.

The document is released at a time of considerable ferment in Washington over proposed welfare reform. Several study groups are to provide reform proposals in the next few months, and next year's Democrat-controlled Congress is considered certain to examine the issue. (See story on US report about welfare and the family, Page 4.)

Yet welfare specialists say the main driving force behind much of today's welfare-reform effort is a desire to decrease the cost to taxpayers, rather than achieve social equity, which is a major factor in the bishops' report. Whether the American public is ready to embrace broad reform of social programs, along the lines envisioned by the bishops, is seen as much in question.

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