The church and labor rights

By | February 28, 2011

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In an effort to provide a moral foundation to the issue of worker rights, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki, on behalf of the state’s Catholic bishops, wrote a letter Feb. 16 to members of the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance. In his letter, Archbishop Listecki acknowledges that Walker and legislators have a duty to make budgetary decisions based on fiscal responsibility. At the same time, he says, hard decisions should not “nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.”

Soon after the state of Wisconsin was established, popes and theologians were drawing on Scripture to form church teachings on the rights of workers. Especially during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, when profound changes began to take place in manufacturing, mining and other new industries, the church provided guidance in the areas of social justice and labor.

From Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter, “Rerum Novarum,” and continuing on to statements from Pope John Paul II and now Pope Benedict XVI, the church’s social doctrine has been a warehouse of wisdom in the area of worker rights and labor issues. It is with this backdrop that Archbishop Listecki presented his statement to legislators.

According to John Huebscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the statement has been well received. However, some of the harshest critics of the letter have been Catholic bloggers who see no connection between Catholic social teaching and the elimination of unions’ collective bargaining rights. Many of these same writers criticize their fellow Catholics for questioning the implementation of the upcoming revised Roman Missal, but have no problem objecting to Archbishop Listecki’s statement on preserving workers’ rights.

The shameful fact is that the ancestors of some of these critics have their church’s long-standing support and protection of organized labor to thank for their prosperity today.

This is not to say that Walker’s goal of a balanced budget or his call for state workers to compromise on benefits and pension packages is wrong. But as many people have pointed out, extreme demands that appear to be more than economically motivated should not be allowed to undo fair concessions.

Just about every family in Wisconsin is affected by what’s going on in Madison today. Emotions run high, giving way to fits of anger. We would all do well to heed Archbishop Listecki’s words, to “move beyond divisive words and actions and work together, so that Wisconsin can recover in a humane way from the current fiscal crisis.”

As the motto of our great state tells us, we need to move “forward.”

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