Monday, March 14, 2011

Words & Deeds.

My dad is an accountant, he once told me "People lie, numbers don't lie." Here are some numbers about the distribution of wealth in America.

I have received several comments asking what the bishops have said about what is happening in Wisconsin. Actually there is a wealth of statements about social justice and the rights of workers.

On May 1891, Pope Leo XIII promulgated an encyclical Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Workers). Here are some quotes from that letter to Catholics:

If the question be asked: How ought man to use his possessions? The Church replies without hesitation: "As to this point, man ought not regard external goods as his own, but as common so that, in fact, a person should readily share them when he sees others in need.

No one, certainly, is obliged to assist others out of what is required for his own necessary use or for that of his family, . . . But when the demands of necessity and propriety have been met, it is a duty to give to the poor out of that which remains. (#35-36)

The following duties . . . concern rich men and employers: Workers are not to be treated as slaves; justice demands that the dignity of human personality be respected in them, ... gainful occupations are not a mark of shame to man, but rather of respect, as they provide him with an honorable means of supporting life.
It is shameful and inhuman, however, to use men as things for gain and to put no more value on them than what they are worth in muscle and energy. (#31)

The oppressed workers, above all, ought to be liberated from the savagery of greedy men, who inordinately use human beings as things for gain. Assuredly, neither justice nor humanity can countenance the exaction of so much work that the spirit is dulled from excessive toil and that along with it the body sinks crushed from exhaustion. The working energy of a man, like his entire nature, is circumscribed by definite limits beyond which it cannot go. (#59)

Labor which is too long and too hard and the belief that pay is inadequate not infrequently give workers cause to strike and become voluntarily idle.This evil, which is frequent and serious, ought to be remedied by public authority, because such interruption of work inflicts damage not only upon employers and upon the workers themselves, but also injures trade and commerce and the general interests of the State...(#56)

In protecting the rights of private individuals, however, special consideration must be given to the weak and the poor. For the nation, as it were, of the rich, is guarded by its own defenses and is in less need of governmental protection, whereas the suffering multitude, without the means to protect itself, relies especially on the protection of the State. Wherefore, since wage workers are numbered among the great mass of the needy, the State must include them under its special care and foresight. (#54)

In 1986, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (USA) issued a pastoral message to American Catholics. The title of that message was: Economic Justice for All. Here are some excerpts from that pastoral message:

68. Biblical justice is the goal we strive for. This rich biblical understanding portrays a just society as one marked by the fullness of love, compassion, holiness, and peace. On their path through history, however, sinful human beings need more specific guidance on how to move toward the realization of this great vision of God's Kingdom. This guidance is contained in the norms of basic or minimal justice. These norms state the minimum levels of mutual care and respect that all persons owe to each other in an imperfect world10. Catholic social teaching, like must philosophical reflection, distinguishes three dimensions of basic justice: commutative justice, distributive justice, and social justice11.

70. Distributive justice requires that the allocation of income, wealth, and power in society be evaluated in light of its effects on persons whose basic material needs are unmet. The Second Vatican Council stated: "The right to have a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one's family belongs to everyone. The fathers and doctors of the Church held this view, teaching that we are obliged to come to the relief of the poor and to do so not merely out of our superfluous goods"13. Minimum material resources are an absolute necessity for human life. If persons are to be recognized as members of the human community, then the community has an obligation to help fulfill these basic needs unless an absolute scarcity of resources makes this strictly impossible. No such scarcity exists in the United States today.

89. In summary, the norms of love, basic justice, and human rights imply that personal decisions, social policies, and economic institutions should be governed by several key priorities. These priorities do not specify everything that must be considered in economic decision-making. They do indicate the most fundamental and urgent objectives.

90. a. The fulfillment of the basic needs of the poor is of the highest priority. Personal decisions, policies of private and public bodies, and power relationships must be all evaluated by their effects on those who lack the minimum necessities of nutrition, housing, education, and health care. In particular, this principle recognizes that meeting fundamental human needs must come before the fulfillment of desires for luxury consumer goods, for profits not conducive to the common good, and for unnecessary military hardware.

Two personal observations about all the foregoing documents, it has been said that the best way to keep something secret from people is to publish it in print. Recently I was watching a television comedy series in which the father took his son to a public library. “What’s this place?” the boy asked his dad. “This is where homeless people come to sleep,” came the response from the dad. Winston Churchill quipped “The only thing new in the world is the history that you have not read.”

Secondly, several readers have asked “Why don’t the bishops speak about health care, or what is happening in Wisconsin to workers?” As you can see from the documents re-printed above, they have spoken. Having said that, it is also important to ask, “How have they acted?” Read this excerpt from the National Catholic Reporter commenting on the public position taken by bishops in Wisconsin.

Morlino, writing in his diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Herald, said he and the statewide Wisconsin Catholic Conference were neutral, even though the Catholic Church has long sided with the rights of unionized workers.

“The question to which the dilemma boils down is rather simple on its face: Is the sacrifice which union members, including school teachers, are called upon to make proportionate to the relative sacrifice called for from all in difficult economic times?” Morlino wrote.

“The teaching of the church allows for persons of good will to disagree as to which horn of this dilemma should be chosen because there would be reasonable justification available for either alternative.”

To be sure, Morlino has emerged as a hero of the Catholic right. In the heat of the 2008 campaign, he blasted vice presidential nominee Joe Biden and then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi for “stepping on the pope’s turf—and mine” in appealing to church fathers for their support of abortion rights.

Do Catholic bishops apply what they preach to the secular world in their own relationships with their employees? Specifically, “What are the salary/benefits packages in my (Arch) Diocese for teachers, office staff, janitorial staff, etc?” “What are the salaries for priests, deacons, religious (i.e. brothers and nuns)?”

I was horrified to discover that the parish secretary and her dependants were not covered by our diocesan health insurance plan. Workers had to purchase this out of pocket; this effectively priced them out of health insurance. I was also shocked to discover that a woman who had worked all of her life as a housekeeper in a rectory was given a monthly pension of only $121.00

Bishops often sign these beautiful declarations about human dignity and rights, but fail to implement them in their own house. As long as they can convince the public that morality is primarily, if not exclusively, about what happens south of the belt they should be fine. If by some fluke the little people should actually prevail as they did in Egypt, then they can always point to all of these beautiful official documents and to the nuns and simple priests who worked with the poor as proof that they were always on the right side.

1 comment:

BobinCT said...

I'm glad someone is finally reminding people of the Church's long history of Social Justice. In the late 1960s I was a student in Catholic high school staffed by Sisters of Mercy and Diocesan priests. The junior year Religion curriculum was the Social Teaching of the Church. We studied Rerum Novarum and Quadrogessimo Anno, both of which have been affirmed by every Pope since Leo XIII. In the mid-80s I read The USCCB Pastoral Letter on the Economy while at student at Yale Divinity School. I've heard very few priests or bishops in the last 15-20 years even mention these documents. Either they don't teach them in the seminaries, or the priests don't want to offend those parishoners who butter their bread, as it were. Thankfully and somewhat to my surprise, at the suggestion of our Archbishop, my parish has started a monthly discussion group on the Social Teaching of the Church and how it applies today. I'm hopeful that we've turned a corner, and the fixation on and the vitriol associated with the campaign against same-sex marriage and abortion will give way to a deeper understanding of social justice in a larger context.