Notice

A Question of Rights:

Catholic Hierarchy Fails Catholic Workers

By James E. Biechler

I don't understand why ARCC's "Charter of Rights" has to include No. 23 about the right of employees to decent working conditions, wages and job security. The church has been in the forefront of the labor movement, and canon law itself is clear on this right. Why your pious posturing about defending the rights of workers? In this you are just riding the coattails of some great bishops and popes.

--WLB, Franklin, TN

Yes, you're right. We are riding on the coattails of some great bishops and popes. But as we look around we can't seem to find many bishops and priests with us on those coattails. ARCC is actually trying to do something to defend the rights of workers-■especially those in Catholic institutions because we really cannot do much about others■-but we, and others in the same ministry, are opposed by Catholic authorities at every turn.

And yes, again. We do hear bishops repeating the call for justice in society and we are not ungrateful for that voice. We have no lack of beautiful rhetoric on social issues and justice for workers. This is the tenth anniversary of the famous pastoral letter "Economic Justice for All," issued by the American bishops on November 27, 1986. This is a comprehensive, broad-based and thoroughly researched presentation of the church's position on the economic aspects of American society. Gospel ideals and the church's modern explication of those ideals could hardly find a better American expression.

The letter is particularly eloquent on the responsibility of the church itself: "All the principles that govern the just operation of any economic endeavor apply to the church and its agencies and institutions; indeed the church should be exemplary." It then repeats the admonition of the 1971 Synod of Bishops: "While the church is bound to give witness to justice, she recognizes that anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes. Hence we must undertake an examination of the modes of acting and of the possessions and lifestyle found within the church herself."

We are not here concerned to recount those areas in which the church and its institutions have actually embodied its own ideals of justice. It is the glaring and scandalous failures of the American church in the area of labor relations which continue to pain Catholic workers and their supporters.

The March issue of U.S. Catholic has an editorial column, "The Examined Life," which urged readers "Let's practice what the bishops preach." "The demise of labor unions in the United States is a sad chapter in the story of dwindling adherence to the social teachings of the popes and bishops," the columnist, Robert. E. Burns, stated. The column had nothing to say about the labor movement as it found application among those employed by Catholic institutions. Had that aspect of life been examined, part of the mystery of the demise of labor unions might have been clarified. Our political leaders, the column states, "are counting on the indifference of Catholics and others to the unequivocal teachings of our religious leaders that, above all else, we respect the dignity of all human persons." The problem is not "the unequivocal teachings" of our religious leaders; it is their behavior toward their own.

From your perspective in Franklin, Tennessee, what does the record of the American hierarchy look like in respect to its own practice of the church's social teachings? Have you heard of the Supreme Court case National Labor Relations Board vs. The Catholic Bishop of Chicago (1979)? Guess why the NLRB was "versus" the "Catholic Bishop of Chicago"? Why did the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board cite the late John Cardinal Krol for unfair labor practices (1972)? Multiply these questions by 50 and you still would not finish the list of cases in which the Catholic establishment fought its own employees■nurses, teachers, professors■who were trying to do just what the popes and bishops taught them was right and honorable for them to do. Is it any wonder that managers and other executives in the world of business and industry should feel no moral compunction in opposing workers' organizations when the public record of Catholic church officials in dealing with its own employees was itself so often anti-labor?

On the positive side we have this recent remark from ARCC's Vatican2 Internet listserver, February 1,1996: "Thank God for shepherds like Hunthausen, Weakland, et al., who over the years have called on their fellow bishops to start taking account of their role as employers and to practice what they preach."

We agree with U.S. Catholic that the labor movement is under attack. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told Catholic social justice leaders on February 27 that there is "an all-out assault" on worker protection and that workers themselves "are disgusted with business, government...and even the church." How could workers be disgusted with the church if it practiced what it preaches about labor relations?

ARCC's position is not "pious posturing" as you call it. There is a clear need in this area and we are convinced that the church could become a powerful force in advancing the cause of workers (and of God's justice) if it walked its own talk.


Dr. Biechler, an emeritus professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law Society of America.

E-mail Comments to Dr. Biechler