Letter to U.S. Senate on North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), November 8, 1993

Year Published
  • 2014
  • English

November 8, 1993

Dear Senator:

I write on behalf of the U.S. Catholic Conference, the social action agency of the nation's Roman Catholic bishops, with respect to the North American Free Trade Agreement. In particular, I would like to reiterate the criteria which we believe a just and lasting international economic compact should meet. In addition, we wish to share our concerns regarding the possible impact of such a far.reaching trade agreement on the people who may be most affected .. the poor and vulnerable, and the ordinary workers and their families.

Our Conference has sought throughout this debate to focus on the moral and human dimensions of a debate too often dominated by partisan, ideological and special interest concerns. As religious leaders, we are deeply involved in the communities and with the families that could gain or lose because of this agreement. We have a special concern for the poor and workers who are likely to experience the impact of this agreement most directly. As part of an international Church, we also have strong ties to the Church and peoples of Mexico and Canada.

Basic Criteria

Over the last few years, we have outlined our basic criteria for this agreement in letters, testimony and meetings with both the Bush and Clinton Administrations. We continue to insist the moral test of any agreement would be whether it:

  • enhances the life and dignity of our three peoples, lessens economic injustice, reduces disparities in our economies, and builds bridges of commerce and sustainable economic development between our country, Canada and Mexico;
  • offers decent work for just wages and in decent conditions;
  • addresses the serious problems of unemployment and underemployment in all three societies;
  • stabilizes immigration flow by discouraging illegal immigration and offering more employment opportunities;
  • respects the right of workers to organize and exercise their rights.

We believe these objectives are not peripheral issues, but rather key criteria in determining whether this agreement will achieve the hopes of its advocates or realize the fears of its opponents.

We recognize that applying these criteria to an agreement as sweeping and complicated as the NAFTA is extraordinarily difficult. We know people of good will can come to differing conclusions on specific judgments and an overall assessment of NAFTA. In fact, there are diverse views within our own Conference on the merits of NAFTA and the consequences of its acceptance or rejection.

In the case of NAFTA, given the many specific prudential judgments required, the lack of a clearly compelling case for or against this particular agreement and the absence of strong consensus among the bishops here or in Mexico, our Conference will not take a position urging the adoption or rejection of this specific agreement. Rather, we hope to continue to raise key questions and offer criteria that can contribute to shaping the needed debate on whether this agreement advances or undermines the common good.

The essential questions are whether NAFTA advances the cause of social and economic justice, whether it helps or hurts the poor and workers, whether it builds bridges of solidarity or intensifies destructive competition. From our perspective, the central question the Congress must face is whether it will enhance or diminish the lives, dignity and rights of the peoples of North America, particularly the poor.

Some Perspectives

In articulating our perspectives and priorities on the NAFTA, we rely on traditional Catholic teaching and the concerns, expressed by key committees of our Conference .. Domestic Policy, Migration, International Policy, Hispanic Affairs, among others. These perspectives include:

  • Just Trade: Increased trade and investment can be truly beneficial if they serve the development needs, the countries involved and help to lessen, not exacerbate, inequality or injustice. Freedom of trade is fair if it is subject to the basic demands of social justice.

The Poor and Workers: Economic choices should be guided by a priority concern for the poor and by a firm commitment to the dignity of work and the rights of workers, principles central to traditional Catholic social teaching on economic justice. The primary purpose of economic exchange should be not simply mutual gain, but improvement in the living standards of the people involved, particularly poor and vulnerable workers and their families.

Equitable and Sustainable Development: Increasing the economic integration of the United States, Canada and Mexico holds potential benefits for the people of all three countries if it reflects these values. But, it should do more than simply regulate trade and investment; it should also deal with the issues of development, of external debt, and other vital matters. Trade should support the kind of development which increases self.reliance and broad participation in economic decision.making by the people of each country.

Migration: Because immigration is likely to be significantly affected, it is important to determine what impact NAFTA may have on migration, both immediately and over a longer period. Our Church has long defended the right of people to migrate when conditions in their home countries prevent them from providing for themselves and their families. Any agreement should seek to assure a reduction in the need that impels many to leave their homelands.

Displaced Workers and Communities: As pastors in this country, we are deeply concerned about the loss of jobs in our own urban and rural areas, a process that is already under way for various reasons. It is essential that the NAFTA package include effective commitments to help workers, their families and communities cope with both the social and the financial strains of dislocations which free trade might bring about. The impact of NAFTA on border areas must also be carefully assessed and addressed.

Supplemental Agreements on Environment and Workers Rights: Measures to preserve the environment and protect workers rights should be clear enough and the enforcement mechanisms strong enough to insure that a free trade agreement does not contribute to declining environmental quality and unjust treatment of workers.

  • The Consequences of Passage or Defeat: The Congressional decision on NAFTA must take into account what the final action will mean for relations among the U.S., Mexico and Canada. If the agreement is defeated, will the process be abandoned? Would the status-quo or a second agreement be better or worse for the poor and workers?

We hope sharing our criteria and concerns can be useful in helping to refocus a debate that we fear is increasingly dominated by narrow political considerations, special interest lobbying and the search for particular economic advantage.

We offer these concerns not to take a specific position, but to stimulate debate, reflection and judgment. We do not underestimate the complexity and difficulty of the choice facing the nation and the Congress. We hope the criteria we have suggested, which we believe go beyond the claims of NAFTA's advocates and the fears of its opponents, will be of use to you as you weigh the political and economic, but more especially the ethical, aspects of the agreement you must approve or reject.


Reverend Msgr. Robert Lynch
General Secretary