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Labor encyclicals should apply to church workers.

For more than a century, popes have preached to the world the wisdom of collective bargaining. But for decades, those ringing affirmations of the right of workers to organize have been muffled in U.S. chancery offices.

The latest example of church doublespeak on labor issues comes from Bishop James T. McHugh of the Camden, N.J., diocese, where elementary school teachers start at a whopping $16,700 a year. The pay ranges to $22,600 a year, but only after someone has taught in the schools for at least 20 years (see story, page 3).

Ironically, McHugh was all over the news last week as the rather aggressive American defender of Vatican teaching on sexuality and abortion during the U.N. Conference on Population and Development. Back home, however, the less sexy teachings on workers' rights were being trampled by McHugh himself.

The bishop wants elementary school teachers to sign what he is calling a "minimum standards" agreement -- a document that would effectively nullify any future labor agreement by insisting that "nothing shall be deemed to limit or restrict in any way" a parish's control over all aspects of the elementary school, including suspensions and disciplinary action against teachers.

In other words, the teachers are free to organize as long as they sign away any power that might come with organizing.

Officials in the neighboring Philadelphia archdiocese tried to coerce teachers into signing a similar agreement, but it was rejected.

In Camden, elementary school teachers are now suing the diocese after attempting to organize for more than a year.

High school teachers there went out on strike.

Camden is just the latest example of how shoddy treatment of church workers takes place against a back-drop of inspiring teachings about workers' rights.

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued his encyclical Rerum Novarum ("New Things"), which gave the church's blessing to the surging labor movements of industrial nations.

In decades following, bishops and theologians spoke of the right as well as the duty to organize. In his first encyclical on social matters, Pope John Paul II commended unionism as "an indispensable element of social life." The pope has returned to the theme many times since his 1981 letter, Laborem Exercens ("On Human Work").

More recently, the U.S. bishops have begun to recognize -- at least on paper -- that the rights of labor extend to lay workers in Catholic institutions.

"All the moral principles that govern the just operation of any economic endeavor apply to the church and its agencies and institutions," the bishops said in their 1986 pastoral letter, "Economic Justice For All: Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy."

"Indeed the church should be exemplary," the bishops said.

Some have been exemplary, doing everything possible to pay teachers and others a just wage and gratefully recognizing that even in the best circumstances church workers are making far less than they would in other arenas. Too often, though, church authorities seem more eager to be combative and punitive.

It is small consolation that Camden falls within the average nationally for Catholic elementary school teacher salaries. According to the National Catholic Educational Association, the average salary nationally in 1990-91 for beginning teachers was $14,514 and the average for the highest-paid teachers was $22,175.

In terms of cost of living and assaults on life dealt out by contemporary culture, New Jersey has to rank among the most difficult states for keeping body and spirit intact. How awful, then, that the church should contribute to life's difficulties by obstructing access to a fundamental right.

And the ultimate insult was delivered by McHugh when he voiced his fear that a union would somehow compromise the Catholic character of the schools. That sentiment implicitly calls into question the faith commitment of his teachers, many of whom, simply by deciding to teach in Catholic schools, demonstrate incredible dedication and an uncommon willingness to sacrifice.

How tragic, too, that the church, nationally, depends on laypeople to run its prized institutions for little more than they could make flipping hamburgers.

The Camden dispute also dramatizes once again the sad track record of church leaders when dealing with their own employees. This paper has chronicled in the past the abuses of power and hostility shown toward those who do the day-to-day work of the church.

Perhaps it's time for the bishops to do a remedial session on the labor encyclicals and their own writings on economics.
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Sep 23, 1994
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