Response to ‘The problem of unjust conditions in Catholic organizations.’

by Kevin Schmiesing

In the September 22 issue of the Concourse, Regina Doman-Schmiedicke takes to task Catholic apostolates that engage in “unfair practices” toward their employees. Mrs. Schmiedicke makes several important observations and suggestions. She characterizes well Pope John Paul’s emphasis on the personhood of the worker and the mutual responsibilities owed by workers and employers toward each other. She also points out real abuses she has observed at various Catholic apostolates (e.g., a woman being summarily fired after discovering a medical condition).

Mrs. Schmiedicke is also correct in her recommendations for dealing with such abuses, exhorting outside individuals to make personal donation decisions based on the behavior of the apostolate in question. She is right that inviting the government in to arbitrate questions such as just wages is fraught with difficulty.

Her account, however, is troubling on a number of points. For one, she seems to oversimplify the economic decision-making involved in the paying of wages. For instance, her example of the father being denied a raise on the advent of his second child begs further explanation. Does Catholic social teaching insist that every parent, upon the birth of a child, be guaranteed an increase in salary? Some Catholics seem to believe so (under the rubric of “family wage”), but they must be pressed to show where an encyclical or any other authoritative document suggests as much. There are considerable practical difficulties with the notion of the family wage, the most important being the establishment of exactly what level of wage is “just.”

This leads us to Mrs. Schmiedicke’s claim that she knows of only two Catholic apostolates that pay a “living wage.” This may be, but if so, that is her own opinion and no more. The Church has never given anything more than the most general guidelines for determining what constitutes a just or living wage. Throughout the article, Mrs. Schmiedicke writes as though the just wage has been clearly defined, and indicts Catholic apostolates accordingly. The problem is that opinion as to the level of a “just wage” differs, sometimes drastically, from one person to another. A study recently asked a group of academics and a group of clergymen to enumerate the items that a family must be able to purchase in order to live at a minimally dignified level. When the academics’ items were totaled, the average salary necessary for a family of four was set at $63,000; the clergymen’s list of basic goods required $48,000. Some readers may find these reasonable. Most will understand that implementing such recommendations would result in economic catastrophe.

There are three other minor problems that I will note briefly, though much more could be said about each of them. First, Mrs. Schmiedicke admits that eager young Catholics are willing to work for these apostolates because the “working environment is good.” She then notes adverse working conditions that “people would never tolerate in a secular job.” But it’s not a secular job! That’s just the point. If compensation and working conditions are really that bad at these apostolates, then why do they have no problem finding willing workers? There are inherent benefits that attend working for an important cause, in the company of people whose world view one shares. This kind of compensation is not quantifiable, but extraordinarily important. In addition, it seems that most of the jobs of which Mrs. Schmiedicke speaks are those requiring a bachelor’s degree in theology or philosophy or some related subject. Anyone graduating with a liberal arts degree must be under no illusions as to the level or remuneration he or she should expect. It is not, after all, that difficult to make a living wage. One can go to technical school for 2 years and make $40,000 a year as an auto mechanic. As long as we all desire to own and drive cars, and as long as there is a shortage of mechanics and a glut of theology B.A.s, the theology graduates will make less. To try to reverse this dynamic would only exacerbate both the shortage and the glut.

Second, Mrs. Schmiedicke’s defense of labor unions is somewhat misleading. It is true that Catholic social teaching unequivocally defends the right of workers to organize in unions. Mrs. Schmiedicke is right to point to the Pope’s experience of Solidarity as influencing his teaching on the subject. However, a comparison between the Polish Solidarity movement and contemporary unions in the United States would bear out the fact that the Pope has something very different in mind.

Finally, Mrs. Schmiedicke’s comparison between the Church’s social teaching and its teaching on contraception is dangerously inaccurate. The two differ significantly. The social encyclicals consistently outline the requirements of social morality, including the protection of private property, the treatment of workers as persons, and so on. Beyond these general principles, the content of the Church’s social teaching has been considerably more ambiguous than its teaching on sexual morality. A cursory comparison of the major social encyclicals of Leo XIII, Pius XI, John XXIII and John Paul II would show that social teaching has developed and that the formulations of it in terms of concrete political suggestion have differed markedly. The woman who said, “It’s just his opinion,” was too glib, but she was correct if referring to certain specific passages. The consistent and perennial teaching on contraception, of course, was stated in explicit and authoritative language by Paul VI. This is not to say social teaching is somehow less important than other moral teaching, but it is of a different nature.

Mrs. Schmiedicke has done a service by providing a thought-provoking application of her interpretation of Catholic social teaching. It is important, though, that Catholics not conceive of this teaching in an overly simplistic way, and it is important that any application of it recognize the economic realities which it must confront. In these ways, Catholics can contribute most positively to building a genuine culture of life that honors human dignity in all its aspects. n

Kevin Schmiesing, who graduated from FUS in 1994, recently completed a doctorate in history at the University of Pennsylvania.   He now works as Project Coordinator for the Center for Economic Personalism in Grand Rapids, Michigan.