The National Catholic Review

Yesterday at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick led a conference call to release a document called "Respecting the Just Rights of Workers: Guidance and Options for Catholic Health Care and Unions." For several years, McCarrick led a working group on the text that included such labor heavyweights as John Sweeney, President of the AFL-CIO, and Dennis Rivera, Chair of SEIU Healthcare. Sister Carol Keehan, President and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, was also a central player in the negotiations. The final document, though not "binding" on individual bishops or unions, was issued under the signature of Bishop William Murphy who chairs the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

One of the animating themes of the discussions, and the subsequent document, is the recognition that for Catholics, health care ministry is just that, a ministry. As Sr. Carol said yesterday, Catholic health care "continues the healing ministry of Jesus…it is the health care workers who make that ministry active." So, this is not only about profit and loss for the Church, and to be ministerially effective, workers must enjoy the dignity and rights that the hospital wishes to extend to those who are in need of healing.

It says something, and something bad, about our culture that the document needs to call for such seemingly simple forms of courtesy as " respect," "truthful and balanced communication," and "honoring employee decisions," among the principles agreed upon by the group. For the past thirty years, our culture has been governed by the "laws of the market" not by the "dignity of the worker." So, these things must be said and kudos to our Church for saying them. In its respect for workers to determine what is best for themselves, this document carries forth the great pro-labor social teaching of the Church dating back to Pope Leo XIII’s seminal encyclical Rerum Novarum.

Another paragraph that jumped out at me discussed areas of continued disagreement. "We sometimes differed in our assessment and advocacy of various means and methods for workers to make their choices. For example, the participants differed in their views on the usefulness and difficulties of the traditional Nation Labor Relations Board (‘NLRB’) process….Participants respected these differing perspectives and did not abandon strong convictions and positions in these areas. Nonetheless, we worked diligently and persistently to find agreement on other practical alternatives that all the participants could support." These lines, to my mind, should be applicable to a range of issues on which the Church engages the culture. They could serve as "Exhibit A" when we say dialogue is a good thing or try to flesh out what we mean by seeking common ground. The next time someone poo-poohs "common ground" point to this text. It is fine to have disagreements with other people, and so long as there is mutual respect, agreement in other areas or other methods can be found with diligence and good faith.

At the press conference, I asked if the conscience rights of Catholic workers at secular hispitals had been addressed in these sessions. Sr. Carol said that they had not been: the focus was exclusively on labor relations at Catholic institutions. But, it is also clear that the more labor leaders understand that our health care system is a ministry, that its foundations are in our faith commitments which we cannot set aside, the more likely they are to put in a good word with the Obama White House and members of Congress. This is another benefit of dialogue.

I have often thought that if church leaders like Cardinal McCarrick and Sister Carol Keehan had not been born we would have needed to invent them. I still recall with bitterness the attack on McCarrick as he left office leveled by George Weigel, who questioned the value of McCarrick’s commitment to moderation and dialogue, and hinted that the cardinal would wink at a watering down of doctrine to achieve consensus. How ironic that McCarrick’s reputation for moderation and his personal commitment to dialogue may end up playing a key role in achieving conscience protections for Catholic health care workers, protections that Weigel and his crowd only got out of the Bush White House in its closing days after eight years of stalling.

As soon as the text of the document is up at the USCCB, I shall provide a link to it, as well as to Cardinal McCarrick’s opening remarks at the press conference. (UPDATE - here is the link to the document. They have not posted Card. McCarrick's remarks.) The cardinal looks fit and trim and in the best of health. For the sake of Church and country, we wish him many years. Even in retirement, he is busy accomplishing good things and gathering people into the Kingdom.

 

Comments

Anonymous | 6/23/2009 - 9:24am
Nice article, just one technical point.  Conscience protection has been in law for decades - the Bush action was a publicity stunt designed to embarrass the incoming administration.
Anonymous | 6/24/2009 - 1:22pm
In the Foreword to “Respecting the Just Rights of Workers,” Bishop William Murphy talks about the ten year dialogue exploring “how Catholic social teaching should shape the actions of unions, management and others in assuring workers a free and fair choice on questions of representation in the workplace.”  What follows is a blueprint to be followed by management and labor in Catholic Health Care institutions to ensure a process that is “free, fair and respectful.” Why, however did the bishops stop at addressing only those who work in Catholic hospitals?  Why did they not address the same issues when it comes to the workers most directly under their control - teachers in Catholic schools.   Throughout the document, the U.S. Bishops are making clear to Catholic healthcare employers that a worker’s right to unionize is “a fundamental principle of social justice recognized by the church.”   Where were the bishops when Cardinal Sean O’Malley cut the Archdiocesan high school system into individual units and discarded the 30 year history of union recognition and negotiated contracts, making the teachers employees at will?   Where were the bishops when former St. Louis Archbishop, Raymond Burke, wrote to teachers in the fledgling elementary teachers’ union that “Neither the Archdiocese nor individual parishes will recognize or bargain collectively with any organization as a representative of teachers.     Where were the bishops when Scranton bishop Joseph Martino not only busted the Scranton Diocese Association of Catholic Teachers after some 30 years of union recognition but established his own “company union”- something which would be illegal in every other workplace in Ameica?   This is the latest social justice document of the U.S. Bishops that all but sky writes DO AS WE SAY, NOT AS WE DO.   Cardinal McCarrick, formerly of Washington, D.C. sums up the DO AS I SAY - “Catholic social teaching can and should guide relationships between management and labor.  It should be up to workers to decide through a fair process whether to be represented by a union. . . we want to ensure that workers make these choices freely and fairly..”  while Cardinal McCarrick’s fellow bishops, O’Malley, Burke and Martino, serve as the poster children for the bishops’ Catholic Social Teaching Wall of Shame.   For the laborers in the Church’s educational vineyards, “Respecting the Just Rights of Workers” is but one more example of the Bishops’ failure to Practice What They Preach.  
Anonymous | 6/23/2009 - 3:24pm
I didn't have your e-mail, so here is the link to the document on the USCCB Web site: http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/national/respecting_the_just_rights_of_workers.pdf
Anonymous | 6/23/2009 - 12:01pm
I'd like to address Michael Binder's assertion about conscience protection laws.  While it is factually correct that such laws have existed since the 1970s, they were added step-wise to the federal register as addendums to bills (for example, appropriations bills for Medicare funding).   As such, it was never a single piece of legislation that cohesively laid out federal policy on conscience protection for healthcare workers, and the existing laws never had any  'teeth' of enforcement to them.  I can attest to this both from my personal experience as a physician, as well as experiences of my friends in medicine.  The rule enacted by Secretary Leavitt in the last term gave structure and enforcement power to the existing set of laws.  I cannot claim to know, as Mr. Binder does, Sec. Leavitt's motive in proposing a codified conscience rule.  However, if the president administration had no issues with exisiting federal laws on conscience, I question their strenous objections to granting regulatory and enforcement power to those laws.