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Catholic labor leaders urge church to practice what it preaches


After receiving an invitation from the US Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development, the Catholic Labor Network held five synodal listening sessions this spring with our members and friends. And if there was one theme that stood out at every meeting, it was this: The church has a beautiful social teaching on work and work issues. But too often, when the church is the employer, that teaching is not followed—and when it is not, the church’s testimony is compromised.

It’s not nothing. If you add up all the people employed in Catholic churches, schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, nursing homes, social service agencies, the media and other businesses, we estimate that over one million American workers are employed by the Catholic Church. And when we don’t follow church teaching with our own employees, people notice. This is not beautiful.

A listening session brought together Catholic trade unionists; another brought together priests who had collaborated closely with the labor movement. Others included many lay social ministry leaders, some volunteers, and others employed by church institutions. All were familiar to some degree with Catholic social teaching on labor justice. And eventually, each group came to this point: How does the church treat its own employees?

Certain elements of Catholic social teaching are perfectly clear. The right of workers to organize and form trade unions has been part of Church teaching since Pope Leo XIII issued his encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891. Leo also insisted that every worker had the right to a living wage – and Pope John Paul II in Laborem Exercens clarified that it was a salary capable of supporting a family. These principles are fundamental and no amount of mumbling about “prudential judgement” can make them go away.

If anyone wonders if these principles apply to those who work for the church, the American bishops spoke to them explicitly in their pastoral letter of 1986 Economic justice for all:

At the parish and diocesan level, through its agencies and institutions, the Church employs many people; he has investments; it has vast properties for worship and mission. All the moral principles that govern the just operation of any economic enterprise apply to the Church and its agencies and institutions; indeed, the Church should be exemplary…We Bishops are committed to the principle that those who serve the Church – laity, clergy and religious – should be provided with adequate livelihoods and social benefits provided by responsible employers in our country…. All church institutions must also fully recognize the rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively with the institution through the association or organization of their choice. (347, 351, 353)

So teaching. What is the practice?

Let’s look at the schools. Most teachers in our K-12 public schools have union representation. If “all institutions of the Church are to fully recognize the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively,” we should expect the same to apply to our Catholic schools, right? ? Yet it is the opposite, in fact. the case. Unions in Catholic schools are rare.

There is a simple explanation for this. Most states have laws protecting the rights of public school teachers to unionize and bargain collectively, and teachers generally exercise this right. But as church institutions protected by the First Amendment, Catholic schools are exempt from civil laws that would protect their teachers’ right to organize. The rights of Catholic school teachers’ unions depend entirely on whether school administrators choose to uphold Catholic social teaching on the subject – and most of them do not.

There is nothing particularly special about the school administrators. Unlike teachers in Catholic schools, employees of Catholic hospitals and nursing homes do have the right to organize under the national labor relations law – but management regularly hires anti-union consultants to fight workers who try to form unions. The dominant ethos in American business holds that preventing your employees from organizing into unions is just good management, and those who run Catholic institutions have aligned themselves with our secular culture instead of offering an alternative. based on Gospel values ​​and Catholic social teaching.

So much for the right to organize. What about living wage?

Many participants in our listening sessions were employed in a church ministry. If the testimony of these witnesses is representative, we are not doing very well either. No one enters the ministry expecting to earn a salary comparable to that of a for-profit business, but few employed at the parish level reported earning even a salary to support the family. More typically, they explained that their vocation was a luxury they could only pursue because a spouse with a more lucrative career covered household expenses.

Participants in our listening sessions clearly loved the gospel and loved the church. But they were troubled by his failure to practice the beautiful social teaching set forth in his encyclicals and letters. This had been anticipated by the bishops in Economic justice for allquoting the 1971 synod of bishops: “If the Church is bound to witness to justice, she recognizes that whoever dares to speak of justice to people must first be just in their eyes. the modes of action and goods and lifestyle found within the Church itself.”

Or as one participant in the listening session put it: “We deliberately ignore our own teaching because it is easier or more convenient. It’s frustrating because this hypocrisy is what drives people away from the Church.