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Michigan’s War on Workers: Catholic Bishops Asleep at the Wheel

December 12, 2012, 4:24 pm | Posted by John Gehring

Ever since Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, put the dignity of work and the importance of unions at the center of Catholic social teaching, the Catholic tradition has provided a moral bulwark against efforts to defang labor rights. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, goes so far as to describe unions as “an indispensable element of social life.” Pope Benedict XVI has pointed to economic globalization and the “downsizing of social security systems” as reasons why unions and worker solidarity are needed “even more than in the past.”

So when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law a flurry of anti-union legislation yesterday Catholic bishops in the state surely protested?

Not so much.

The Michigan Catholic Conference did not send out even a cursory press release. In Detroit, where there are plenty of Catholic union families, the archdiocese has no statement up on its web site. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops? Snooze.  This is a stunning level of silence from a church that for centuries has been at the forefront of worker and economic justice. It’s also emblematic of an increasingly conservative church leadership that has radically narrowed Catholic identity to fights against contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage. The old giants of social justice like Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Msgr. John Ryan or Bishop Walter Sullivan, who passed away just yesterday, have been replaced by a new generation of episcopal leaders like Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, WI., who gave religious cover to Rep. Paul Ryan’s anti-government ideology during the campaign and is now cracking down on Catholic nuns at an interfaith retreat center. It was left to one of the great legends of the Catholic social justice movement, retired Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, to say what needed to be said at Sojourners blog today:

In the book of Isaiah, the prophet proclaims, “Woe to those who make unjust laws.” Indeed, woe to those in the Michigan state legislature who voted in favor of these laws. Woe to Governor Snyder whose pen is at the ready to sign these bills.

Sadly, we’ve seen this movie before. As I blogged about last fall, the Catholic Conference of Ohio also failed to stand up to a wave of anti-union legislation in that state despite a diverse coalition of religious opposition. The Catholic bishops in Ohio remained “neutral” on Issue 2, one of the most important fights over worker justice in the state’s history.

Catholic bishops have clearly demonstrated capacity to mobilize parishioners, pour millions into political lobbying and speak boldly in the media. They flexed their muscles during last summer’s Fortnight for Freedom campaign, largely aimed at the Obama administration’s efforts to ensure women have greater access to contraception, and doubled down on fights against civil same sex marriage during the election.  As Michael Sean Winters, far from a lefty commentator, notes in the National Catholic Reporter today.

Lord knows, if Michigan had passed anything to do with contraception we would have heard about it quickly enough. If the bishops of Michigan are not going to stand up and defend 120 years of explicit papal social teaching on the importance of unions, shame on them. If they are not going to defend their own people in the pews from this corporate effort to drive down wages, shame on them. If the bishops of Michigan cannot see that one of the greatest achievements of the Catholic Church in the United States was that we did not lose the working classes in the late 19th and early 20th century as the Church in Europe did, and defend that achievement, shame on them.

It’s nice to see Catholic bishops pushing the sainthood cause of Dorothy Day, but in failing to speak out for those workers and families she championed in her remarkable ministry, the church fails the test of its own proud tradition.



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