Catholics vs. Gov. Walker?

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.



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  • vette207

    The Catholic church is a mess! The atrocities of the clergy and the Church’s many positions that are very liberal, support the Democrats in many cases. The exception is, obviously, abortion! The Church has NO idea what it is doing! Unfortunately, it never will under a system where 1/2 of the world’s population (women) are not allowed in the hierarchy of the Church…oh by the way…I am not female.

    In Mass. (of all places) the Fall River Diocese will NOT allow unionization of teachers! Shameful! The Vatican can’t have it both ways. Opps, I guess it can. As long as folks keep giving to the Church, it can have it both, all, ways it wants. Glad I’m out!

    Oh, btw, I don’t need to have a clergy member “explain” to me what the Church means when it comes out with a statement. If it is that convulsed, the aforementioned statement is worthless.

  • Nicholas Jaroslawsky

    Linking what is going on in Wisconsin with respect to unions and the Catholic Church and its teaching will lead all to the unequivocally conclusion that public service unions are not entitled to collective bargaining rights as per FDR, Truman, George Meany and above all the Holy Scriptures. The public service component of workers in these unions will never allow them to strike either because of statues that are in place that protects the public to the damage that they could inflict in a pursuit of personal commercial gain without substitution workers that unions would not allow in pursuit of a commercially advantages outcome. Those advances that unions would be pursuing would be at the expense of the least among us and would cause damage to the most vulnerable. Teachers that would no longer teach, nurses that would no long tend to the sick, transit workers that will no longer run the basic infrastructure that allows the rest of us to continue to place food on our families table is just a small list in exposing the tentacles that the forays of unions have made into the public sector with no alternatives to their unilateral work stoppages.

    The denial by teachers for instance to train their charges in a manner that would prepare them for the opportunities that await them when conscientiously prepared can only be defined as a sin as resources are wasted in pursuit of engorging union members and children are left without the skills required to survive. Wisconsin students are reported to have 2/3 of their attendees below the standards required for their grade level all the while their educators are at 84% of the median pay scale for Midwestern public school teachers.

    Budgets that have shown that $18,000 and $24,000 in New York City and Newark New Jersey respectively are spent on each student all the while that Catholic schools require that parent pay less than $12,000 per student per year on average across grade school thru High School for what is undeniably a better education is the clearest indication that unions are the problem and that the immoral pursuit of money by unions are the most telling of reasons for the failure of the public schools in educating our students.

    New York Archdiocese has been given one of the brightest of all ecclesiastic and charismatic minds in America taken from the archdioceses of Wisconsin. Neither here nor there has there been the howl that should have ensued with respect to the requirement that the Church defend the most defenseless among us as we fight the onslaught of abortion, all funded with political contribution that have emanated from the unions that support the insidious self dealing of politicians that award contract to those same unions that support their campaigns.

    It is time for The United States Council of Catholic Bishops to issue its understanding that public service unions have no place in a society that adheres to the teaching of Christ and that the pursuit of financial gains all the while delivering faulty products such as found in the public school of Wisconsin is a sin that should be condemned. His Eminence Archbishop Timothy Dolan should start leading and stop posturing for political purposes and lead the flock to publicly embarrass those who find moral turpitude to take money for a service that is never delivered.

  • Dienekes

    Interesting how anxious a prelate can be to give us guidance on this, while giving an essentially amoral public (read “government”) school system a decades-long pass. Of course, if you believe that the existing system helps character formation and is good for Catholic children, disregard this and carry on.

    The silence on that topic is downright deafening.

  • valwayne

    I am a Roman Catholic who supports Gov Walker 100%. The rights of workers to organize does not contain the right to form a corrupt deal with a political party in which they provide billions to get democrats elected who then turn around and authorize exorbitant payoffs in the forms of unaffordable salary and benefit increases that will have to be paid for by other hard working folks through increased taxes. No less a hero to workers than FDR opposed collective bargaining for public employee unions. If the church is going to openly oppose anything it should oppose the open corruption that exists between the democrats and the public employee unions that has driven average working people into the poor house from taxes, and states like WI, CA, NJ, etc

  • Phil Stone

    Bishop Listecki made it clear that he (and the CHurch) is behind the right to organize, that bad times do not mean workers have a no right to collective bargaining. There is a difference between being able to make demands/bargain collectively, and what one demands. Bishop Listecki’s point makes that distinction clear. And what one demands seems to be the point of all the quotations mentioned above. But that is the very point which Governor Walker initially tried to obscure, and which Bishop Morlino appears to obscure as well. Does the Bishop really think that just having union representation is a sacrifice for the peoople of Wisconsin? Because that is the only way to make sense of his claim of Neutrality.

    The fact is that the Unions had already given the Governor what he wanted from the stand point of the budget, all of the theater has been about busting the unions. Which is presumably why Bishop Listecki said what he did, and the Bishop’s conference seconded it. They are addressing te issue which is at the center of the conflict.

    Bishop Morlino seems to be concerned that there is class warfare rhetoric popping up, but he doesnt seem to recognize that the tactic Governor Walker is taking has long history as a tactic in class warfare.

    Bishop Marlino doesn’t think it is possible to develop an answer to the question of “what is fair?”, because he seems to think that all ethical reasoning (besides his own) is relativism. I have seen many Catholics mischaracterize various tenets as relativism, so this is not surprising. Relativism asserts that there is no right answer. Tolerance is based on the idea that sometimes people have a right to make a bad choice.

    That is why our country’s founder, like Madison and Jefferson, even protected the rights of people to be Roman Catholic, an unpopular faith in the US at that time. They held that regardless of what they, or anyone might hold to be the religious truth, everyone was entitled to make their own choice. That the freedom to make one’s own choice was more authentically true than any religion could be shown to be, absent faith in it. I can be tolerant of my neighbors of differing beliefs, at times recognizing their right to make their own choice, just as I would expect myself, and the Church often asks for Christians in less than free societies. It doesn’t mean that I believe them to be correct, or even that I think they might be correct, only that it is not for me to decide for them, nor them for me. It is one way that I love my neighbor.

    Neither Bishop is trying to say that the employees should give up X amount of money. In that sense they are being neutral. But that is not what the conflict is about. X has been agreed, it is the collective bargaining right which are at issue. Bishop Listecki and theh Conference of Bishops have said the Church supports these rights. Bishop Marlino apparently doesn’t want to say that. And Father Sirico seems to want to say that it actually applies to everyone, and therefore not to the teachers.



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