The problem of unjust conditions in Catholic organizations

by Regina Schmiedicke

The revival of Catholic orthodoxy in America has a dirty little secret: unfair labor practices. By this I mean mainly the low wages and lack of job security for those who work at many of the thriving new orthodox apostolates as well as many who work for the schools, ministries and offices of some dioceses.

Many FUS alumni have done a stint in working in Catholic dioceses or apostolates, thus they are more acquainted with working conditions in these institutions than most Catholics.   And many of them have found out that “working for the Church” too often means low pay, long hours and having to cope with management that is inept, untrained or, at worst, ill-disposed.

A few examples, all of which occurred in strongly orthodox Catholic environs:

* A young father being denied a raise on the advent of his second child because his bosses said, “We prayed about it and we don’t think God wants us to give you one now.”

* A woman being summarily fired from her job with no warning when she developed a serious medical condition that her employers thought their health insurance couldn’t handle.

* Families receiving welfare at the same time that the heads of households were full-time apostolic employees.

This last situation is perhaps rather drastic, but wages that are unjust by papal definition are common in apostolic work. I consider myself fairly familiar with American Catholic apostolates, and to date I have only heard of two that pay their employees a living wage.1

Many young and newly-converted Catholics, in their zeal for a good cause, are willing to work hard for little pay if the working environment is good. Unfortunately, all too often, the lack of managerial expertise among the supervisors in many apostolates and diocesan institutions, combined with natural personality conflicts, combined with the spiritual attack that any work of mercy encounters, results in working conditions that people would never tolerate in a secular job.

All these problems contribute to the bad rap “working for the Church” has gotten in FUS alumni circles. However, there is another side to the problem which I would like to highlight—one that has made no small contribution to the miserable situation that exists in too many Catholic working environments today. I refer to an apparent unwillingness on the part of many employers to learn about and implement the Church’s teaching on the rights of workers. It is probably due to a perception that to be concerned with worker’s rights means buying into “liberal” or “socialist” or even “communist” ideology. This misperception exists widely in orthodox Catholic circles and is wittingly or unwittingly fostered in many conservative Catholic magazines, businesses and social circles—particularly in political circles that tend to identify fidelity to the Church too closely with loyalty to the Republican party.

In reality, the Church has been vocal about both worker’s rights and the goodness of labor unions. Vatican II states, “Among the fundamental rights of the individual must be numbered the right of workers to form themselves into associations which truly represent them and are able to cooperate in organizing economic life properly, and the right to play their part in the activities of such associations without risk of reprisal” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, paragraph #68).

Among the papal writings on the subject is the encyclical On Human Work. The first encyclical John Paul II wrote was on Christ; the second was this one, on labor issues.   It is no doubt at least partly because of his personal experience as a laborer in grueling conditions under the Nazis, as well as his ties to the Polish “Solidarity” movement (which was so instrumental in bringing down communism in eastern Europe) that these problems are so close to the Pope’s heart.

He states in section 20: “...even if it is because of their work needs that people unite to secure their rights, their union remains a constructive factor of the social order and solidarity, and it is impossible to ignore it.”   The Pope acknowledges that abuses can occur when unions become part of class warfare or mere political machines, but ends up concluding nevertheless that the solidarity and community that unions build is a good in and of itself: “... it is always to be hoped that, thanks to the work of their unions, workers will not only have more but above all be more: in other words that they will realize their humanity more fully in every respect.”

It can be confusing for someone (such as myself) of a Republican background, who is used to thinking of unions mainly as political lobbying groups, to hear that the Church has made a point of championing worker rights and labor unions over the free market and free enterprise. The key is to understand the link between just labor practices and human dignity. To work full-time for less than a living wage; to have to work punishingly long hours; to have little or no control over the conditions under which one works; to work under managers who have too much power, who are free to fire employees virtually at whim, is profoundly de-humanizing. And when these sorts of practices are found at organizations that ostensibly exist for the purposes of Catholic charity, it is scandalous.

I know of one independent Catholic pro-life charity which is notorious for its rough treatment of its workers. Earlier this year three of its respected employees said they were fired suddenly because they had been meeting (on their own time) to discuss concerns with working conditions and the possibility of organizing themselves to deal with them. They approached the local diocese with their grievances, but were told that the diocese had no jurisdiction over the apostolate. The fired employees resorted to filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, but, the Board, though it found grounds for the complaint, declined to take action against the apostolate because it was a “religious institution.”

Are these lay associations of the faithful accountable to no one?

Apparently the management was not afraid of reprisals from their donors, board of directors (one of whom is an anti-union lawyer), or from the rest of their workers for their actions.   Catholics—in America at least—tend not to be sympathetic with workers and unions. We tend to overlook the Church teaching on the matter. We are ready to defend the lives of the unborn; we insist on total orthodoxy; we rage against “liberals” for being selective in their adherence to Church teaching. And we don’t even notice the double standard.

According to the Bible, the sin of depriving the worker of his just wages cries out to heaven just as loudly as the sin of murdering the innocent. But you would never know it from talking to many conservative Catholics. In an enlightening conversation with a manager in the apostolate referred to above, I brought up the Pope’s teaching on the right to work. Her response was, “But that’s just his opinion, right?” Then, as a well-informed Catholic, she caught herself and mused, “You know, that’s what my friends say about Humanae Vitae.”  

I strongly believe that this is the age of the laity, and that God has called many single and married lay men and women into apostolic labor. “The harvest is great, the laborers are few.” However, how can the worthy ministries founded in this generation survive another generation without undergoing radical reform at least in the areas of unjust wages and unjust firings?

As a distributist, I don’t necessarily think that inviting the government camel’s nose into this tent is the ideal solution.   Nor do I think that independent apostolates clearly fall under the jurisdiction of the Catholic hierarchy (though I am ready to be corrected in this regard). I believe that this is an issue of building the culture of life, which is the vocation of the laity in every station.   And it is my hope that the Catholic laity will wake up to their duties in this area and respond.

In the business world, it is possible to argue that poor pay and ill treatment of employees harms profits. But in the non-profit Catholic world, these arguments have less weight. For many apostolates it seems more feasible and tempting to hire poor college students, use their minds and experience, then kick them out the door when they express a desire to start a family and make higher salaries.   As enrollments at FUS, Christendom, and TAC continue to climb, this source of cheap labor seems inexhaustible for some time.

I suggest that both secular and Catholic businesses should start from the foundation the Pope uses in his encyclical. Employees aren’t “assets” or “capital” or “resources;” they are persons. They have God-endowed dignity, a right to employ themselves and to benefit from the fruit of their labor. They have a responsibility to their employers, but the employers have a corresponding responsibility towards them. And in keeping with the principle of subsidiary, it is best for the workers themselves to determine in cooperation with the employer the conditions under which they will be employed. And this, for those who are unfamiliar with it, is the essential role of a union contract.

One way we as individuals can effect change is by refusing to donate to institutions that engage in discrimination against their workers. Those in the Catholic press can act as watchdogs on this issue. And those who work in these apostolates should gather and seriously debate the feasibility of creating more solidarity among Catholic lay apostolic workers. Those managing Catholic apostolates would do a great good by urging this kind of solidarity among their workers, instead of fostering an unchristian atmosphere of mistrust, fear and resentment.

And I urge FUS in particular to begin a re-education of the Catholic laity regarding the rights of the workers and of unions.

I will end with another quote from the Pope’s encyclical: “In order to achieve social justice in the various parts of the world ... there is a need for ever new movements of solidarity of the workers and with the workers .... The Church is firmly committed to this cause… so that she can truly be the “Church of the poor.” And the poor appear under various forms ... in many cases they appear ... because a low value is put on work and the rights that flow from it, especially the right to a just wage and to the personal security of the worker and his or her family.”

Regina Doman-Schmiedicke, ‘94, is a freelance writer for Catholic publications and author of Snow White and Rose Red: A Modern Fairy Tale.

  1. I have no reason to believe that these two apostolates are more well-endowed financially than the many others that don’t.   I suspect that apostolic employers paying low wages stems more from faulty prioritizing of funds than from tight budgets. ↑