The Church and the unions

Judging by the impassioned commentary from some Catholic quarters during recent confrontations between unionized public-sector workers and state governments, you’d think we were back in 1919, with the Church defending the rights of wage slaves laboring in sweat shops under draconian working conditions. That would hardly seem to be the circumstances of, say, unionized American public school teachers who make handsome salaries with generous health and pension benefits, work for nine months of the year, and are virtually impossible to fire even if they commit felonies. I don’t think those were the kinds of workers Leo XIII had in mind in “Rerum Novarum,” or John Paul II in “Laborem Exercens.”

The right of workers to organize to advance their interests is not in question. What is in question is the claim of organized government employees to be immunized against the sacrifices necessary to rescue America from fiscal disaster: a disaster created in no small part by irresponsible politicians pandering to publics-sector workers’ unions. A union that does not defend its own is, of course, an absurdity. A union that defends only its own, with no concern for the common good, is something else altogether. That kind of unionized selfishness smacks of organized greed, just like the pyramid schemes of Bernie Madoff and his ilk.

Tens of thousands of inner-city children are being denied a quality education today because of the intransigence of the teachers’ unions in conceding the effectiveness—and moral imperative—of voucher programs that allow underprivileged and at-risk kids to get the kind of decent, disciplined education that is unavailable in too many government-run schools: not because of lack of funding, and not because government schools “have to take everyone,” but because of union rules that protect failed teachers, reward incompetence, and make it virtually impossible for dedicated teachers to conduct the kind of classrooms that work. This is, in a word, selfishness—cruel selfishness. It ill befits Catholic activists and commentators to support it.

A related moral question is raised by public–sector workers’ unions and their recent clashes with governors and legislators determined to prevent their states from going over the fiscal cliff. It’s the same moral question that is posed to all of us by the impending crisis of federal entitlements like Social Security and Medicare: what is our responsibility, in this generation, to future generations?

Is it morally worthy of us to leave our children and grandchildren with mountains of debt because we cannot bring ourselves to reform unsustainable entitlement programs that were enacted when life expectancy was far lower than it is today? Is it morally worthy of today’s public-sector workers’ unions to defend what one columnist described as “massive promissory notes issued to government unions when state coffers were full and no one was looking”? Is it worthy of citizens of the world’s leading democracy to mortgage the country’s future security interests and diplomatic options to the fact that the People’s Republic of China owns vast amounts of American governmental debt in the form of Treasury bonds—and may well call our financial bluff one day when freedom’s cause is on the line?

My family benefited, once, from American trade unionism. My grandfather and uncle were members of the United Steelworkers, back when America had a steel industry. There are many reasons why there’s little left of the once-great enterprises for which they worked: the inevitable shifts of comparative advantage in a dynamic global economy are perhaps the most important reasons. But the stupidities of both management and labor in refusing to face the facts of a rapidly changing economic environment also played their role. And the wreckage you see in once-great steel towns across the American Rust Belt bears mute witness to the human suffering that results when people can’t see beyond their own immediate and narrow interest.

Rather than acting as if this were 1919, Catholic leaders in America might begin to assert that selfishness is selfishness, with or without a union label, and that the common good requires sacrifices from all.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash