E-mails in the last day or so tell me I should be chastened, depressed, or drowning my sorrows as the Catholic Church lines up firmly in support of protesting teachers and others in Wisconsin, and opposed to Governor Walker. Of course, the reality of the situation is quite different.
There have been statements in recent days from the archbishop of Milwaukee, the bishop of Madison, and the national bishops’ conference. I called on Fr. Robert Sirico from the Acton Institute to help unpack them all, and what exactly a discerning Catholic voter watching events in Madison might be wise to take into account.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: The archbishop of Milwaukee issued a letter a few days ago on the rights of workers, noting that “hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.” Does that mean he is on the side of Democratic lawmakers who are hiding out on the job?
Fr. Robert Sirico: There are many commentators who would like us to think so, but Archbishop Listecki was simply outlining the Church’s teaching on the rights and dignity of workers (and all people for that matter, because after all, it’s not just employees who are “workers”) as well as his pastoral concern for the people involved in a very contentious debate. The archbishop knows very well the clear warning given to unions by Pope John Paul II to the effect that unions need to avoid partisan political identification.
Lopez: What’s the most important message of his letter?
Fr. Sirico: First and foremost, the Archbishop is a pastor and has many people within his flock who are torn on both sides of this divisive issue. From what I can tell, he is simply attempting to calm the waters, remind people of their mutual dignity, yet without taking sides. In all but the most extreme cases of industrial disputes, that’s exactly what a Catholic bishop should do.
Lopez: Thursday morning a press release went out from the Catholic bishops’ conference in Washington seconding what Archbishop Listecki had to say. Does this make it look like the Church in some way is all about the protesters in Madison and opposed to the governor?
Fr. Sirico: I’m not entirely sure of the purpose of the statement that came from Bishop Blair. On the one hand he wants to express his (and the Bishops’ Conference’s) solidarity with a fellow-bishop trying to guide his flock in a difficult situation. That is entirely appropriate. On the other hand, I can see how some might think it gives the impression that Archbishop Listecki has taken sides in the debate, which he and his spokesman said he has not.
Lopez: Does Bishop Robert Morlino’s letter on “fairness” provide the most clear moral guidance about what’s going on in Madison?
Fr. Sirico: Bishop Morlino, as the bishop of the diocese in which all this is going on, has given us a model of clarity of the role of a bishop in an admittedly volatile situation. In a letter published in his own diocesan newspaper, and modestly noting that he is only addressing the people in his diocese, Bishop Morlino clearly states that he and the Wisconsin bishops are neutral, and yet walks his people thought how one might think about the matter.
Lopez: Morlino wrote “I simply want to point out how a well-informed conscience might work through the dilemma which the situation poses.”
Fr. Sirico: This really demonstrates the respect that Bishop Morlino has for his own people. He helps them to inform their consciences and provides a model how to come to a conclusion on the matter without going beyond his role as a teacher of the Catholic faith.
Lopez: Why do you think Bishop Morlino ended his guidance with this from John Paul II?
“Just efforts to secure the rights of workers who are united by the same profession should always take into account the limitations imposed by the general economic situation of the country. Union demands cannot be turned into a kind of group or class ‘egoism,’ although they can and should also aim at correcting — with a view to the common good of the whole of society — everything defective in the system of ownership of the means of production or in the way these are managed. Social and socioeconomic life is certainly like a system of ‘connected vessels,’ and every social activity directed towards safeguarding the rights of particular groups should adapt itself to this system.
“In this sense, union activity undoubtedly enters the field of politics, understood as prudent concern for the common good. However, the role of unions is not to ‘play politics’ in the sense that the expression is commonly understood today. Unions do not have the character of political parties struggling for power; they should not be subjected to the decision of political parties or have too close links with them. In fact, in such a situation they easily lose contact with their specific role, which is to secure the just rights of workers within the framework of the common good of the whole of society; instead they become an instrument used for other purposes.”
Fr. Sirico: Bishop Morlino is aware of how out of balance the debate over unions can become and, wisely in my estimation, draws from John Paul II (someone who was rather familiar with the legitimate role of unions in society) to remind us that not all unions or union activity is the same thing. Once they become conterminous with political parties they lose their usefulness to the common good. Unions, like everyone else, have concrete responsibilities to the common good. The rights which are often proclaimed by unions are not absolute rights, and need to be considered in the context of other people’s rights — the rights of employers, the rights of taxpayers, the rights of consumers, the rights of children to be educated, and the rights of the unemployed (the latter being a group that most unions don’t seem to be especially interested in these days).
Lopez: On a most practical level, what do you think Bishop Morlino means by this? “The matter, in the end, is one of fairness, and a culture governed by the dictatorship of relativism cannot agree on what the word ‘fair’ means.” What can a discerning citizen — perhaps a protesting teacher, perhaps a news watcher, perhaps a reporter, perhaps a lawmaker, or governor — do with that?
Fr. Sirico: For many today, it has become difficult to think in authentically moral categories, even when they use the language of morality. What Bishop Morlino is doing here is situating the current debate in the broader moral confusion that has come to be known as “The dictatorship of relativism” — a phrase introduced by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger on the eve of his election as Benedict XVI. If one does not grasp fundamental moral norms and sees this debate in terms of a class struggle, the concept of fairness (and even the objective demands of justice more broadly) is unintelligible and the result is merely a struggle over power and might.
So, when some people in Madison today simply assert “workers’ rights” without taking into consideration the overall common good (which would include the rights of all the groups I’ve just mentioned) or being able to explain where these rights comes from, they essentially render the idea of rights meaningless because it is not grounded in a coherent understanding of the natural law or authentic fairness.
Lopez: So is there a Catholic position on labor unions?
Fr. Sirico: Yes — it is rooted in the right of free association (and for that matter, the right not to associate). It is not a political stance and in fact, Catholic teaching goes out of its way to warns against unions becoming agents of political interests. It is also useful to keep in mind that the Catholic position on unions is not an endorsement of all unions, in all places at all times and under every circumstance. Can the Church, for example, ignore the fact that many unions both today and in the past have become corrupt and become more concerned about the position and power of union officials than the people they claim to represent? And it is also true that the Church has largely developed her teaching on labor unions with regard to private unions. What we are dealing with in Wisconsin is the role of public sector unions, which is a different matter and may require some specific attention at some point from magisterial social teaching. Paul VI (who few would accuse of being a prominent economic conservative) had this to say in his 1971 apostolic letter Octogesima adveniens about unions and public services, which seems especially relevant for today’s situation:
Their [unions’] activity is, however, not without its difficulties . . . the temptation can arise of profiting from a position of force to impose . . . conditions which are too burdensome for the overall economy and for the social body, or to desire to obtain in this way demands of a directly political nature. When it is a question of public services, required for the life of an entire nation, it is necessary to be able to assess the limit beyond which the harm caused to society becomes inadmissible. (OA 14)
Lopez: Is there a Catholic position on the tea party and tightening the fiscal belt? If Congress starts really taking on entitlement reform, will the Church be protesting?
Fr. Sirico: Of course there is no specific Catholic position on the tea party or the specifics of entitlement reform. As the social-teaching tradition has stated consistently, the Church has not specific economic or political policy prescriptions to offer. The Church offers principles such as freedom, human dignity, solidarity, and subsidiarity. The application of these principles is largely up to the lay faithful who must prudently apply them in real life, and maintain a spirit of charity when the disagree on their respective applications. Beware anyone who tells you what “the Catholic position” is on the tea party, the specifics of budget debates or entitlement reforms. These are matters of prudence, not dogma. In fact, it’s often the case that the person trying to tell you that this is the Catholic position on a prudential issue turns out to be an incorrigible dissenter on the true non-negotiables of Catholic faith and morality! They know who they are.
In terms of entitlement reform and fiscal belt-tightening, much will depend on what they consist of. Catholic social teaching is not blind to the excesses of the welfare state and has underscored the damage it can inflict upon a society’s moral ecology and economy. Obviously the Church must pay attention to how entitlement reform affects the least among us, but with attention to the common good of society. Indeed, it might even be an opportunity for the Church in America to reflect upon how we can better help our brothers and sisters in need without simply assuming that yet another government program or unaffordable entitlement will help resolve the problem in the long term.
Lopez: Does Catholic social thought mandate or see its most accurate manifestation in contemporary America in left-leaning politics?
Fr. Sirico: Absolutely not. It is simplistic to go from a concern for human dignity, for example, to socialized medicine or expansive welfare programs. It would be helpful if the bishops’ conference were to add to their own seven “Themes of Catholic Social Teaching” the principle of subsidiarity, which helps to clarify the limits and justification of state intervention. How odd that this principle, which Pope Pius XI defined as: “a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry” (Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 79), should not appear on the list provided by the American bishops’ conference. Maybe that is something the bishops could ask the justice and peace staff to rectify.
I would like to add one more point, if I may. In order to get a perspective on how far the question Catholicism and public debates such as this one in Madison have come, consider the difference in substance and tone of the present archbishop of Milwaukee in this situation to that of Archbishop Weakland in 1994 when the union at Briggs and Stratton went on strike. Archbishop Listecki has remained neutral whereas many would argue that his predecessor-but-one, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, made every effort to undermine Briggs and Stratton. It might sound strange, but the contrast gives you some idea of much better things are, at least in the Catholic world, when it comes to sensible engagement by many Catholics on these matters.