The church must practice what it preaches about justice - Catholic Courier

The church must practice what it preaches about justice

Labor Day is observed in the United States and Canada on the first Monday of September. In the U.S. the date was selected to fall between Independence Day and Thanksgiving.

Although celebrated earlier with marches and demonstrations for workers’ rights, especially the right to unionize, Labor Day was declared a national holiday in both countries in 1894.

For many years the U.S. Catholic bishops have issued statements on social justice, human rights, immigration policy and the like in connection with this holiday. The bishops’ statements became especially frequent after 1919 when the Department of Social Action was established within what was then known as the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC).

Today that unit is called the Department of Social Development and World Peace, and the former NCWC is known as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

This column has long been hoping that the USCCB would publish a Labor Day statement one of these years whose central theme is the need for justice in the church, and particularly for those lay persons and religious who are employed in various ministerial and staff positions in parishes, dioceses and other ecclesiastical agencies.

Each Labor Day for the past 16 years, and occasionally before 1992, I have devoted this column to the application of Catholic social teachings to the church itself. This year is no exception.

Last year I wrote: “Unfortunately, I am aware of no hard data, based on objective social-scientific studies, regarding the state of employer-employee relations in Catholic parishes, schools, hospitals, and dioceses.” No social scientist or other well-informed source has written in the meantime to identify any such data or studies.

The column continued: “There is ample anecdotal evidence, however, of continuing abuse of employee rights, often in the form of indirect pressures and outright threats, in Catholic institutions, including even the Catholic press.”

The anecdotal evidence is still forthcoming, but there is less of it now than in years past. That may be because those who have been victimized by such injustice are no longer actively involved in the ministerial life of the church.

It might also mean that they feel that it is of no use to complain to anybody because there are no official mechanisms to which one can appeal.

To be sure, the hierarchical population has changed dramatically since the 1980s. The conservatism of many of the priests who were appointed as bishops during the previous pontificate was not confined to their theology or their unquestioning loyalty to the Holy See.

Opposition to key elements of Catholic social teaching was supposedly as much a disqualifier for episcopal appointment as one’s openness to the ordination of women, optional celibacy for priests and/or the reconsideration of the church’s official teaching on contraception.

But at least some of these John Paul II bishops believe that abortion is a moral issue that “trumps” all others, including social justice, war and peace, the environment, and such traditional Catholic teachings as the right to unionize. In this context, the word “trumps” effectively means that these other issues are really of no moral account.

Such bishops have no qualms about opposing political candidates who are pro-choice (not pro-abortion), and also no qualms about supporting candidates who voted for the war in Iraq and support tax policies that unduly favor the wealthiest of citizens.

For such bishops, the word “liberal” has about the same negative ring to it as “pervert.” They believe that Catholicism and liberalism are incompatible.

In the 1940s and into the 1950s this was a common topic of discussion, in Catholic magazines and in formal debates. I personally recall that seminary bookstore managers in the late 1950s could get into difficulty with a conservative rector for having ordered a book, published by the Harvard University Press, simply because of its title, The Emergence of Liberal Catholicism in America.

But back now to the central concern of this column and of previous Labor Day essays.

The central teaching of the Third World Synod of Bishops’ document, “Justice in the World,” made clear that “While the Church is bound to give witness to justice, it recognizes that anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes. … Within the Church rights must be preserved” (III. paras. 2, 3).

The U.S. bishops cited that same text in their own prophetic pastoral letter of 1986, “Economic Justice for All.”

The teaching is straightforward and unequivocal: The church itself must practice what it preaches and teaches about justice.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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