This is a slight modification of the title of a provocative post by Msgr. Charles Pope. In it, Msgr. Pope challenges us to articulate approaches to the proclamation of Catholic Social Teaching that bishops could/should use when addressing public policy and the questions of the day. It is worth reading.
Almost on cue, the events in Wisconsin provide an excellent case study of different approaches. One approach was taken by Bishop Morlino, the bishop in whose diocese the events are taking place. Another approach was taken by Archbishop Listecki, the archbishop of Milwaukee and president of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference. The final approach was taken by Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, CA and chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. These approaches illustrate the three basic options for addressing the events in Wisconsin through CST. They also illustrate advantages and disadvantages of how these different approaches interact with the larger world.
One approach was taken by Bishop Morlino. Bishop Morlino frames the issue as posing a dilemma for a well-formed conscience. The dilemma is as follows:
[T[he present dilemma comes down to either a choice for the common good, of sacrifice on the part of all, at times that pose immense economic threats, both present and future on the one hand, and on the other hand, a choice for the rights of workers to a just compensation for services rendered, and to the upholding of contracts legally made. As Catholics, we see both of these horns of the dilemma as good, and yet the current situation calls many of us to choose between these two goods.
This is quite refreshing. The Bishop acknowledges that there are no easy answers and that reasonable people can differ. Interestingly, Bishop Morlino includes a warning about the perversion of unionism from John Paul II that neither Archbishop Listecki or Bishop Blaire includes in their material. After pointing the way, Bishop Morlino asks us to pray and exercise a well-formed, responsible conscience.
Archbishop Listecki’s letter is different. His statement explaining the neutral position of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference does not focus on the common good. It focuses on the rights and roles of unions. It is, though, balanced. Indeed, each paragraph can easily be categorized as “pro-union” or “pro-government.” There do appear straw men. The Archbishop contrasts the obvious truth that not every claim by a union must be accepted with the straw man that unions should not be marginalized. Hmmmm….. On the one hand, this may merely be diplomatic; characterizing the legislature’s position in its own terms in the first half and characterizing the unions’ position in their own terms in the second half. This excessive diplomacy detracts from the helpfulness of the document as a teaching document for the laity as we are giving opposing principles on the extremes when we need to learn in the middle. In the end, it is quite a neutral document, but one which suggests that workers’ rights are essential to the common good.
Bishop Blaire, Chairman of the USCCB Domestic Justice and Human Development Committee (speaking on behalf of himself), clearly supports the union-side of the debate. A number of things are apparent. First, Bishop Blaire leaves it ambiguous as to whether he is speaking for himself or the whole committee (switching between “I” and “we.”) Second, Bishop Blaire frames the issue as one of justice. He uses as his thesis statement that most pro-union statement in Archbishop Listecki’s letter. Bishop Blaire then quotes the Holy Father and John Paul II about the value of unions. The next paragraph begins with a reminder about the “moral dimensions” of the issue. Bishop Blaire then offers a concession to union responsibility, but immediately follows it with “however” and re-emphasizes that it is impossible to ignore unions as an element of society. This technique — brief acknowledgment of competing values surrounded by affirmation of inconsistent values — characterizes much of CST, especially, for example, questions of immigration. It is clear where Bishop Blaire or even perhaps the whole committee stand. Unlike Bishop Morlino and, to an extent, Archbishop Listecki, Bishop Blaire does not see a dilemma and does not believe that reasonable people can differ: union demands for the most part are legitimate and any change in the current legal regime is suspect.
I find Bishop Morlino’s approach to be superior to that of the others. Bishop Morlino acknowledges an obvious truth — that the questions are difficult. Too often in CST, the teaching fails to acknowledge the complexities of the real world. We lay faithful try to apply it, but once we get beyond generalities, CST provides little help. For example, for Bishop Blaire unions are important in meeting human needs and union power is an element of justice. But that doesn’t tell me much as I am trying to figure out whether it is just for unions to have annual representation elections or for government to stop collecting union dues for them. Bishop Morlino does not have a lot to say about specifics, but by acknowledging them, he allows CST to penetrate further into the details than Archbishop Listecki or Bishop Blaire. Bishop Morlino also challenges all of us to struggle with the question. Bishop Blaire presents the question as answered, at least through his tone and emphasis. Why bother to think hard about line drawing? Finally, Bishop Morlino’s approach does a better job of avoiding the potential that the Church’s position will be associated with one of the political sides. By forcefully calling it a dilemma, he acknowledges some right on both sides. By contrast, Bishop Blaire does not see it as a dilemma; the view that comes through is that any change that negatively impacts union power is, at the very least, suspect. In other words, he comes close to lending the moral authority of the Church to the unions. Of course, Archbishop Listecki’s neutrality is not so much a teaching moment as it is a political/diplomatic document.
If the role of a bishop is to teach, the three approaches to the Wisconsin protests show three different approaches to CST. One, Bishop Morlino, frames the issue as one into which further inquiry is necessary. One, Archbishop Listecki, frames a neutral document. The last, Bishop Blaire, appears through emphasis and tone to side with the unions. The current situation in Wisconsin and throughout the country provide a good opportunity to watch the effects of different approaches as they occur.
Filed under: Catholic Living, Social Justice | Tagged: Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, Bishop Robert Morlino, Bishop Stephen E. Blaire, budget, labor, unions, Wisconsin, Wisconsin bishops | Leave a comment »