Panelists sound alarm, share solutions on Catholic social teaching on worker rights

By Kimberley Heatherington | OSV News

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — While Scripture declares that “the worker is worthy of his wages” (1 Tim 5:18), the dignity of work and the rights of workers remains the most overlooked theme of Catholic social teaching, according to a Jan. 29 panel of experts at the 2023 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering held in Washington.

The Jan. 28-31 event was convened by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development, 10 USCCB departments, and 20 national Catholic organizations.

“What has gone wrong that we’ve lost a sense of perspective?” asked Kevin Fitzpatrick, director of Catholic Charities’ Office of Justice and Peace in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, and a regional representative in the Roundtable Association of Catholic Diocesan Social Action Directors.

Fitzpatrick referenced a recent USCCB-funded study, commissioned by the Roundtable and conducted by Loyola Institute for Ministry, that surveyed 800 Catholics in the Archdiocese of New Orleans to learn their perceptions of Catholic social teaching. Respondents — including priests, diocesan staff, social action ministry and organization leaders, and people in the pews — were asked which of the seven Catholic social teaching principles they were most aware.

Displaced Congolese men stand outside makeshift tents at a camp for victims of ethnic violence in Ituri June 25, 2019. A panel of experts briefed 2023 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering participants on causes of unrest in Congo, how the church there is responding, and how Americans can help. (OSV News photo/Olivia Acland, Reuters)

Catholic social teaching principles include the life and dignity of the human person; the call to family, community and participation; rights and responsibilities; the option for the poor and vulnerable; the dignity of work and the rights of workers; solidarity; and care for God’s creation.

Of the survey results, “the one that fell to the bottom is labor,” Fitzpatrick told the audience. “There we came out bottom universally — which is kind of a sad statement.”

He added that Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical “Rerum Novarum” is historically the touchstone of Catholic social teaching; “Rerum Novarum” not only describes mutual duties between labor and capital, it also supports the right of workers to unionize and receive a living wage.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that “the union membership rate — the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions — was 10.1% in 2022.” The same report noted that the wages of workers who are members of labor unions are 18% higher than those who are not.

Clayton Sinyai, executive director of the Catholic Labor Network, said that while his organization wasn’t surprised by the Loyola survey, “we were alarmed.” Echoing Fitzpatrick, Sinyai said “the dignity of workers is really where modern Catholic social teaching began … and for many decades, it was primarily focused on this question of workers and their treatment in the workplace.”

Nonetheless, some dioceses, particularly the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, have successfully raised the profile of the church’s labor teaching in the minds of the faithful.

Yvonne Wenger, director of community affairs for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, shared that the archdiocese hosted a Labor Day luncheon to both familiarize priests and deacons with labor issues, and motivate them to include the church’s thought in Labor Day homilies. The response, Wenger noted, was “universally positive. The priests felt really empowered … to talk about this often forgotten or overlooked element of Catholic social doctrine.”

Nancy Conrad, a member of the Maryland Catholic Labor Network, recounted how their chapter was formed, and its activities in support of a 2022 Maryland Legislature paid family leave law. Enacted April 9, 2022, the Time to Care Act established a paid family and medical leave insurance program.

“My hometown was devastated through long, protracted battles between labor and corporations,” Father Ty Hullinger, pastor of Baltimore’s St. Anthony of Padua-St. Dominic-Most Precious Blood parishes. Father Hullinger grew up near Decatur, Illinois, but would later witness the same workforce issues in Baltimore.

His ministry through the Maryland Catholic Labor Network, he said, has “been about being a bit of a megaphone of the workers … listening and learning, and doing whatever we can do to be that solidarity support network.” Sometimes, that means showing up at picket lines, marches and rallies, or giving testimony that adds the church’s voice to support for legislation or policy changes impacting workers.

“I consider it a privilege and an honor to accompany workers through these difficult struggles,” Father Hullinger said.

In the Archdiocese of Newark, Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin has a history of assigning a liaison to the labor movement and that liaison is Father Timothy Graff, the archdiocese’s secretary of parish mission and vitality.

Father Graff can be seen on picket lines, in labor negotiations and at other labor events. “It’s a ministry of presence; that the faith community is standing here with you. So a lot of it is just that — being present, making those connections,” he explained.

“The faith community can talk to the labor movement, and the labor movement can talk to the faith community, because what we’re about is support. What we’re about is hope,” said Father Graff. “It’s the same message.”

Author: Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ news and information service.

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