Up until now, St. Leo’s University in central Florida bore witness to an important element of Catholic Social Teaching – the right of workers to organize – by bargaining with a union representing its faculty. No more. In a surprise move, the Board of Trustees recently decided to withdraw recognition from the faculty union, citing their exemption as a religious institution from coverage of the National Labor Relations Act.
As a matter of civil law, the university is not required to bargain with a union representing its employees. Catholic social teaching is another matter. Since the first modern Papal Social Encyclical, Rerum Novarum (1891), the Church has taught that workers have the right to organize in unions. In his letter Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed this teaching, concluding that “The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must be honoured today even more than in the past .”
While the National Labor Relations Act exempts religious institutions from its protections, Catholic social teaching offers no such exemption. Lest there be any confusion on this point, the US Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on the Economy in 1986 (Economic Justice for All) explicitly stated that “all church institutions must fully recognize the rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively with the institution through whatever association or organization they freely choose .”
The expansive freedom enjoyed by religious institutions under the First Amendment is a great gift, but it is subject to abuse. Managers and administrators in all institutions – civil or religious, for-profit and non-profit – prefer to issue orders rather than bargain with representatives of their employees. It is to be expected that they will be tempted to do away with unions when possible and substitute their own judgment and authority in place of negotiating with their employees in pursuit of the common good. The civil law provides at least some restraint for employers at for-profit institutions; not so in the case of religious institutions.
The trustees of St. Leo’s, and others who use the impunity guaranteed by the First Amendment to evade their obligations under Catholic social teaching, bring our cherished right to religious freedom into ill repute.