The Cardinal Newman Society pointed out the other day that a slew of Jesuits at Marquette University wanted Gov. Walker of Wisconsin recalled. When asked why they did so, the spokesman for the Province would only confirm the signature of one of the Jesuit professors at Marquette and then referred the inquiring reporter to Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (FC), the USCCB document on Catholic voting. Presumably, the Jesuits are appealing to the document’s position on unions in light of Gov. Walker’s ending the collective bargaining rights for most public sector unions.
Color me old-fashioned, but I’ve thought for years that it helps to actually read documents. So what do the bishops actually say about unions?
The first mention in the document has employers responsible for many things including allowing their workers to join a union. But then the bishops note that workers have responsibilities too. They write:
“Workers also have responsibilities—to provide a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, to treat employers and co-workers with respect, and to carry out their work in ways that contribute to the common good. Workers, employers, and unions should not only advance their own interests, but also work together to advance economic justice and the well-being of all.”
Please notice that employees and employers have a responsibility to the common good, to the “well-being of all.” This is important because the Holy Fathers like to remind us through Catholic social teaching that with rights come responsibilities. Pope Benedict put it this way in Caritas in veritate:
“Hence it is important to call for a renewed reflection on how rights presuppose duties, if they are not to become mere licence.”
The footnote after this line leads us to Blessed Pope John Paul II’s statement for the 2003 World Day of Peace. He said, recounting Blessed John XXIII’s wonderful document Pacem in terris, that
With the profound intuition that characterized him, John XXIII identified the essential conditions for peace in four precise requirements of the human spirit: truth, justice, love and freedom. Truth will build peace if every individual sincerely acknowledges not only his rights, but also his own duties towards others. Justice will build peace if in practice everyone respects the rights of others and actually fulfils his duties towards them. Love will build peace if people feel the needs of others as their own and share what they have with others, especially the values of mind and spirit which they possess. Freedom will build peace and make it thrive if, in the choice of the means to that end, people act according to reason and assume responsibility for their own actions.
Rights and duties, obligations and responsibilities go together. So when the bishops write about laborers and their responsibility towards the “well-being of all” they really mean it.
The bishops mention unions again later in FC and state that
Catholic social teaching supports the right of workers to choose whether to organize, join a union, and bargain collectively, and to exercise these rights without reprisal. It also affirms economic freedom, initiative, and the right to private property. Workers, owners, employers, and unions should work together to create decent jobs, build a more just economy, and advance the common good.
Again, with every right is a responsibility. Do the laborers of Wisconsin’s public sector have the right to bargain collectively? “Yes, they do,” says the Church.
But don’t they also have the responsibility to “advance the common good”? “Yes, they do,” says the Church.
So who’s in charge of maintaining the common good, you ask? Well according to Catholic social teaching it’s the State.
Ahh, so here we get to the fundamental question. What happens when the State determines that employees, their own in this case, are failing to advance the common good? What if the State determines that the lack of accountability for workers, years of systemic underperformance as well as political corruption actually does real harm to the common good? What then?
Catholic social teaching is clear and consistent on this point. When your right gets in the way of the common good then your right may be trumped. In Rerum novarum Pope Leo XIII defended the natural right of private property against the Socialists. However, he admits that private property is not an absolute right. When the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council explained the right of religious liberty, even they provided the qualifying “within due limits.” If you fail your duty, you could lose your right.
The people of Wisconsin, despite what the good Jesuits at Marquette might have hoped, have determined that the current situation with the public sector union is hurting the common good. One way this happens is that the employer who gets the short end of any union abuse is the State itself, i.e. the body charged with maintaining that common good.
Here, then, is the moral of the story. Laborers have a right to unionize and to collectively bargain. They may not abuse that right at the expense of the common good. What union leaders in this country need to learn, as well as Catholics who defend unions, is that belonging to a union does not inoculate one from, you know, SIN. Union leaders and members are not as pure as the wind-driven snow. Unions are populated by people who are prone to the very same vices as the employers who can and have and do abuse workers. Therefore, belonging to unions does not exempt one from criticism, and being Catholic does not mean you have to blindly support unions.
My hope is that for the sake of the great tradition for unions in Catholic social teaching , Catholics like the Jesuits at Marquette can advise unions to avoid the harms to the common good that the people of Wisconsin have noticed again and again and again and again….