Lent Reading

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel

St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Friday this year. Thus, several Illinois bishops (though not all) and other bishops elsewhere “granted a dispensation” so that the faithful could thereby have corned beef on the feast. (Is there any evidence that workaday Catholics are incapable of making such decisions on their own? I met no such person during my evening out.)
By way of two bishops, here is an alternative to fretting about shamrocks and dispensations. Pope Francis suggests we read On Naboth by St. Ambrose (340-397), bishop of Milan. It is a 32-page commentary on a parable recounted in First Kings 21. St. Ambrose invites us to consider fasting in a more substantial manner than foregoing meat on seven days each spring—only six days if St. Patrick or St. Joseph intercedes.

St. Ambrose does not have to search far in Scripture to conclude that God is not interested in superficial fasting. “The fast that I have chosen,” as St. Ambrose paraphrases God, is to “undo every tie of injustice, loose the bonds of contracts made under duress, set free the broken and break every unjust obligation. Break your bread for the hungry and bring the needy and homeless into your house.”
St. Ambrose continues with a saying that is often reprinted: “Nature, then, knows no distinction when we are born, and it knows none when we die. It creates all alike, and all alike it encloses in the bowels of the tomb.” Go to any cemetery. “Open up the earth and [see] if you are able [to] discern who is rich. Then clear away the rubbish and [see] if you [can] recognize the poor person.”
As for the Old Testament story in First Kings, St. Ambrose cuts no slack for King Ahab, who perhaps had an advance copy of The Art of the Deal. Ahab seems to offer Naboth a deal for his vineyard. I’ll give you either a different vineyard or cash, says Ahab.
St. Ambrose is not fooled. It is arrogance, writes St. Ambrose. Give me, Ahab says. For what purpose? “All this madness, all this uproar, then, was in order to find space for paltry herbs. It is not, therefore, that you [Ahab] desire to possess something useful for yourself so much as it is that you want to exclude others… The rich man cries out that he does not have.”
The First Kings story, St. Ambrose concludes, “is repeated everyday” as we in our dissatisfaction covet other people’s goods.

It is not too late to adopt a Lent discipline. We can try to fast from envy and greed. We can try to be rich in contentment; not only between now and April 16, 2017. But we can practice contentment every day until that day when our last mortal possession is taken to a cemetery to join all the other look-alikes.
It wouldn’t hurt these Lent days and in the coming months to also give something away. Here St. Ambrose has a final piece of advice. “You are commonly in the habit of saying: We ought not to give to someone whom God has cursed by desiring him to be poor.” Or as this is expressed in the United States: We should refrain from helping the undeserving poor. There are no cursed poor, St. Ambrose concludes. There is no divine distinction between the deserving and undeserving. Read the Scripture: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a printed newsletter.

Pope Francis: It’s a grave sin to lay off people carelessly

“Work gives dignity, and managers are obliged to do all possible so that every man and woman can work and so carry their heads high and look others in the eye with dignity,” the Holy Father told employees of Sky Italy at his weekly General Audience. The Italian broadcaster had announced plans to lay off 300 workers.

Pope Francis has addressed layoffs and restructuring in the past, always with the same message. While there are times layoffs are necessary to the survival of an enterprise, boosting profits is not sufficient justification to take away another’s livelihood. Contrary to what contemporary business theory would have us believe, the worker takes priority over the shareholder, not the other way around. For the full story, see Pope Francis: It’s a grave sin to lay people off carelessly on the Catholic News Service.

Loyola University Chicago Appoints “Just Employment Task Force”

We are pleased to report that Loyola University Chicago has established a Just Employment Task Force to examine university labor and employment practices in light of Catholic Social Teaching! Loyola has witnessed a number of labor disputes in recent years. Food service workers there, who belong to UNITE HERE and are employed by a university contractor, tangled with their employer over health benefits. Loyola’s adjunct faculty (right) voted to join the SEIU and are in the process of negotiating their first contract. And last month graduate teaching assistants voted to join the SEIU as well.

Too often, employers and administrators become defensive when workers organize and turn to professional union-busters for advice. Loyola, it seems, is instead consulting Catholic social doctrine to determine how to move forward. Jo Ann Rooney, Loyola’s new President, said: Read more

Urban Holiness

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel

Children in a generally peaceful home can acquire virtue more readily than those in a disruptive home—though moral growth or sin are possible in both situations. The same is true of a city. A vigorous city makes holiness more likely; a chaotic and corrupt city requires extraordinary individual moral striving. Again, sinners can be found everywhere, as can the saintly.
Urban holiness starts with its architecture, zoning and construction. A city’s shape can enhance or limit the moral lives of its inhabitants, explains Wade Graham in Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas (Harper Collins, 2016). But bulldozers, construction cranes and surveyors cannot guarantee moral outcomes. It cannot be assumed that salvation comes by bricks alone. It is a mistake, says Graham, to simply put “faith in things to transform our souls and spirits.”
For example, Graham explains the invention some years ago of the concept of blight. The remedy for which was urban renewal. These projects, however, addressed poverty and deterioration entirely “in terms of buildings (the hardware), not in terms of people, jobs, wages and the economy (the software).”
Today, there are those who see the city’s response to poverty in the same terms they use for prosperity. They propose more hardware or more money, maybe for policing or for education. Last week, for example, a plan was floated to rehab certain strip malls as an antidote to Chicago’s gang violence. A reasonable argument is made to increase funding for city schools. But again, new facilities and more computers do not in isolation improve student test scores or lower the dropout rate. Detached from the software side of life, hardware solutions are distractions—at least to some degree.

Much of what makes a city a good place to live has less to do with money and buildings than it does with the person-to-person relationships that are formed. Cities provide unique ways of relating to others, to the world and to God, says Pope Francis. Presuming, that is, our dedication to “a connective network” through which “people share a common imagination and dreams.” Connecting is not automatic. Segregation, violence, corruption and neglect are, as Pope Francis is aware, the default positions of urban life. Urban holiness requires, in his terminology, “a culture of encounter,” which no longer happens randomly.

Just as in the old fable of the “Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” there are people today who assert the moral superiority of nature over the city. The city is for survival, they say. It is for making money. Nature, the fable continues, is for companionship and contemplation. A spiritual life, this fable says, requires a retreat from sidewalks and alleys to meadows and sunsets.
This fable is wrong. So too is the disparaging prattle about Chicago currently emanating from our White House. Chicago is great with its magnificent architecture and fine museums and many tourist venues. A city’s greatness is not its hardware, though. No, a city’s greatness arises from its hospitality to immigrants, to refugees seeking a new life, to students and workers, to the elderly and dispossessed, to young parents and to the poor. From an unlikely mix of urban characters come poets, taxi drivers, teachers and citizens. Cities are incubators and repositories of culture and civilization. The city is the place where women and men come to make their way in the world and where they encounter others, thereby creating something greater than the sum of the parts.
Chicago is great—and Philadelphia, St. Paul, Austin, Buffalo and your city. Great that is, to the extent that each of us takes responsibility to nurture relationships and give meaning to the next generation. A great city emerges when we urban humanists make a practice of meeting people one-by-one; when we treat a lunch conversation or an office appointment as sacred; when another person’s story is the text for our spiritual reflection; when we abandon our opinionated generalities and instead make a premium of each privileged encounter.
Noble humanity flourishes in a city. In fact, because culture is densely concentrated there, urban spirituality is quite rich.

Go Black Hawks.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.

St. Martin’s adjuncts conduct Ash Wednesday walkout, call on university administrators to “give up union-busting for Lent”

courtesy SEIU 925

As our regular readers know, American universities have cut instructional costs by shifting an ever-growing share of teaching duties from costly tenured faculty to part-time adjunct instructors with low salaries and few (if any) employment benefits. In response, adjunct faculty at several universities, including Catholic ones, have formed unions to bargain collectively.

It should be easier for them to do this at Catholic colleges than it is at secular ones – after all, Catholic social teaching is quite explicit in supporting workers’ right to join unions. In some cases that’s exactly how it works. Adjunct faculty at Trinity Washington who voted to join SEIU 500 recently became the latest such group to ratify a union contract after relatively amicable (if long) negotiations. Details of the contract can be found on the SEIU 500 website.

Unfortunately, when a Catholic university decides to ignore Catholic social teaching and refuses to recognize a union chosen by its adjunct faculty, it can actually be harder for the adjuncts to secure their rights at a Catholic institution than a secular one. Some colleges, such as St. Martin’s in Seattle, are trying to use their religious identity as a shield for unfair labor practices – arguing that the first amendment grants them impunity.

That claim is being litigated as I write, but the adjuncts at St. Martin’s who voted 2-1 to join SEIU 925 are not waiting idly. On Ash Wednesday, 75 adjuncts and their supporters walked out for a one-day strike and rally on the university grounds. “Give up union busting for Lent!” they chanted.

A California Catholic Speaks out on Right-to-Work

from Dave Oddo, member, Catholic Labor Network

As part of a prolonged assault on labor rights, U.S. Representatives Steve King (R-Iowa) and Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) have recently introduced the deceptively titled “National Right-to-Work Act” (H.R. 785.)    H.R. 785, which applies exclusively to U.S. private sector workers, has been referred to the House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and the Workforce.

In response, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka stated: “Right-to-work is a lie dressed up in a feel-good slogan. It doesn’t give workers freedom. Instead, it weakens our right to join together and bargain for better wages and working conditions. Its end goal is to destroy unions.” 

 

According to Dave Jamieson of the Huffington Post, “right–to-work laws give workers the option to stop supporting unions, while still enjoying the benefits of representation.” Passage of this legislation would deliver “a severe blow to the labor movement.”

                       

As the American Catholic Bishops have previously written in their Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy, “No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself.  Therefore, we firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably now seen in this country, to break existing unions and prevent workers from organizing.”

A 2011 report from the Higgins Labor Studies Program (University of Notre Dame) revealed that, in “right-to-work” states, both union and non-union workers received lower wages and benefits than their counterparts in non-right-to-work states.

Dave Oddo has been a supporter of labor unions since 1968. He was a member of the California Teachers Association from 1983-1992. He resides in San Diego, California.

World Meeting of Popular Movement Gathering in Modesto

Labor unions, community groups, and other grassroots worker justice organizations assembled in February for a widely reported regional gathering of the World Meeting of Popular Movements. Pope Francis sent a message of greeting and encouragement to the assembly. The event, organized by the Vatican, the USCCB, and the PICO Network, was also attended by members of the hierarchy who called on participants to be “disruptors” and talked about how to extend sanctuary to immigrants and refugees put at risk by the president’s recent executive actions.

The meeting drew up a Message from Modesto including 8 action proposals:

We propose the following actions:

1. Sanctuary

We urge every faith community, including every Catholic parish, to declare themselves a sanctuary for people facing deportation and those being targeted based on religion, race or political beliefs. Being a sanctuary can include hosting families at-risk of deportation, accompanying people to ICE check-ins, organizing to free people from detention, holding Defend Your Rights trainings and organizing rapid response teams. All cities, counties and states should adopt policies that get ICE out of our schools, courts and jails, stop handing over people to ICE and end practices that criminalize people of color through aggressive policing and over-incarceration.

As Pope Francis has said to us: “Who is this innkeeper? It is the Church, the Christian community, people of compassion and solidarity, social organizations. It is us, it is you, to whom the Lord Jesus daily entrusts those who are afflicted in body and spirit, so that we can continue pouring out all of his immeasurable mercy and salvation upon them.”

2. Disrupting oppression and dehumanization

We must put our bodies, money and institutional power at risk to protect our families and communities, using tools that include boycotts, strikes, and non-violent civil disobedience.

As Bishop Robert McElroy said to us, “We must disrupt those who would seek to send troops into our communities to deport the undocumented, to destroy our families. We must disrupt those who portray refugees as enemies. We must disrupt those who train us to see Muslim men & women as a source of threat rather than children of God. We must disrupt those who would take away healthcare, who would take food from our children.”

3. Bold prophetic leadership from faith communities

At this moment of fear and anxiety, we urge our clergy and faith communities to speak and act boldly in solidarity with our people. As Cardinal Tobin shared with us, sometimes our faith leaders need to walk out in front and show that they are not afraid either. We ask our Catholic Bishops to write a covenant that spells out specific actions that dioceses and parishes should take to protect families in the areas of immigration, racism, jobs, housing, and the environment.

4. One People, One Fight

We commit to break down the walls that divide our struggles. We will not let corporate and political elites pit us against each other. We are in one fight to rebuild a society in which every person is seen as fully human, has a full voice in the decisions that shape their lives and is able to thrive and reach their human potential.

5. International Week of Action May 1-7, 2017

We are calling on people in the U.S. and across the globe to stand together against hatred and attacks on families during a week of action May 1-7, 2017.

6. State and regional meetings of popular movements

We propose meetings of popular movements in each of our states over the next six months to bring this statement, the vision of the World Meetings and the Pope’s message of hope and courage to every community in the United States.

7. Popular education

We propose to develop a shared curriculum and popular education program to equip people with analysis and tools to transform the world. We will focus on the development and leadership of young people. We will draw on the wisdom of our faith and cultural traditions, including Catholic Social Teaching. We recognize that our spiritual and political selves are inseparable. We have a moral obligation to confront and disrupt injustice.

8. Political power

To defend our families and protect our values we must build political power. We must change the electorate to reflect our communities, through massive efforts to reach out to tens of millions of voters who are ignored and taken for granted by candidates and parties. We must hold elected officials accountable to the common good and encourage people in our communities to take leadership themselves, including running for office, so that we can govern the communities in which we live.

Modesto, California
February 19, 2017

 

Anti-Labor Politicians Target Union Rights of Iowa Public Workers, Over Bishops’ Objections

Iowa teachers protest legislative attack on unions (courtesy Iowa AFL-CIO)

Iowa seems to be ground zero in an assault on worker rights in early 2017. US Representative Steve King of Sioux City — who identifies himself as Catholic — has distinguished himself both by sponsoring national “right-to-work” legislation and as a leading defender of the President’s executive actions targeting immigrants and refugees. At the state level, over the objections of Iowa’s Catholic Bishops, legislators have adopted legislation stripping public employees of most bargaining rights. The Iowa Catholic Conference reminded legislators that “workers retain their right of association whether they work for a private employer or for the government,” and urged that the state’s budget challenges be resolved through dialogue and negotiation, but were rebuffed.

The legislation is similar to Wisconsin’s “Act 10,” a 2011 measure by Governor Scott Walker that took away unions’ rights to bargain over health and pension benefits, limited raises to the rate of inflation and created administrative hurdles for unions in recruiting and retaining members. Bishop Jerome Listecki, writing for the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, advised that while the state’s budget problems called for shared sacrifice, “hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.” Bishop Stephen Blaire, on behalf of USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, quickly endorsed Bishop Listecki’s message.

If you know of similar initiatives targeting public employee union rights proposed in other states, please contact me at clayton@catholiclabor.org.

Right to Work Heads to US Congress, but Hits Speed Bump in NH

Since last November, anti-labor politicians have made a concerted effort to bring “right-to-work” laws to new areas of the country – laws that aim to weaken unions by allowing individual workers to “opt-out” of paying dues after the majority has voted for a union. Despite heroic efforts by workers in Kentucky and Missouri, right-to-work has become law in both states. Things looked grim in New Hampshire as well, but in then end Granite State legislators rejected the proposal. Meanwhile, union workers in Missouri are gathering signatures for a referendum, hoping to overturn the legislature’s action.

Still, legislators in relative union strongholds like Pennsylvania and Oregon are filing similar anti-labor legislation, and in the US Congress Reps. Steve King (IA) and Joe Wilson (SC) are pushing a National Right to Work Act. If Catholics – in the unions, in the pews, and in the chanceries – do not stand up and testify for their values, our nation will soon have a much-diminished labor movement to defend the rights and welfare of American workers.

As Lexington’s Bishop John Stowe observed during the Kentucky legislative debate,

In Catholic teaching, unions are described as an indispensable element of social life.  Unions are to promote solidarity among workers.  They are essential for economic justice and to protect the rights of workers… The weakening of unions by so-called “right to work” laws, has been shown to reduce wages and benefits overall in the states where such laws have been enacted.  This cannot be seen as contributing to the common good.

The Working Catholic: Pure Faith

Fr. Isaac Hecker, CSP (1819-1888) founded the Paulist Fathers, the first United States-based religious order. His sermon on “The Feast of St. Joseph” gives a summary of Hecker’s spiritual outlook:

Our age is not an age of martyrdom, nor an age of hermits, nor a monastic age. Although it has its martyrs, its recluses and its monastic communities, these are not and are not likely to be its prevailing type of Christian perfection. Our age lives in its busy marts, in counting-rooms, in workshops, in homes and in varied relations that form human society, and it is into these that sanctity is to be introduced.

Of course, every society has moral defects, some of which are quite serious. Hecker believed, however, that faith grows and spreads when the achievements of a society and a culture (in his case the United States) are first appreciated. Start with the positive, Hecker said.
A different outlook is making its way around the internet. Called The Benedict Option, it starts with the negatives of society and tries to construct a so-called pure Christian lifestyle. The movement’s name, reports The Wall St. Journal (2/19/17), is in homage to St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547), who founded a dozen small communities or monasteries in Italy. Some people identify with the movement while maintaining their normal job and while residing in a normal neighborhood. They take care, however, to avoid so-called secular influences. They spend time with others who share their worldview. Other people, as WSJ profiles, move into an alternative community and worship in a monastic setting.
This anti-cultural option is nothing new within Catholicism. Recluses, monastic communities and religious purists are always part of the mix; they come and go. The admirable Catholic Worker movement, for example, judges our dominant culture to be indifferent and violence-prone. People join the Catholic Worker to give symbolic protest and to serve the poor in personal, non-bureaucratic fashion. The Catholic Charismatic movement, to give a second contemporary example, is countercultural to one degree or another.
A few expressions of Christianity (Amish, for example) are designed to stand apart from the dominant culture. Catholicism, while it always benefits from sincere countercultural witness, is not designed to be sectarian. Catholicism is for sinners, not for a pure remnant.
The danger for those who espouse the Benedict Option is self-righteousness. Withdrawing from a so-called corrupt society is not in itself a more holy way than staying in society while advancing the common good. Home-schooling is not more holy than reforming a public school. A Mass celebrated in Latin is not more pleasing to God than one celebrated in Spanish or English. Serving dinner in a Catholic Worker house is no more a corporal work of mercy than a social worker spending a frustrating day arranging for a family’s food and shelter benefits.
In traditional Catholicism the virtue of social justice is finding like-minded people within one’s workplace or neighborhood and then in concert improving a policy or an institution. Social justice is hard because it is incremental. Always more to do tomorrow. It is also hard because it requires tradeoffs. Is half-a-loaf too little to settle for? Are the allies on this week’s effort too morally objectionable or is temporary collaboration OK? Will the side-effects of this week’s improvement cause greater harm within a few months?
Each Catholic needs monastic time and space–a few minutes each day, an hour or more once a week (in addition to Mass, which is world-affirming) and ideally a weekend retreat once a year. Catholicism cannot, however, endorse monasticism for the majority.
Do you want to entice children and young adults with the power of our faith? Try bringing solid Catholic tradition and our sacramental imagination into contact with the positives in their life and in our culture—jazz, the Constitution, baseball, public libraries, solar engineering, affordable housing development, direct relationships that avoid social media, efficient plumbing and garbage collection (the front line against disease), the jury system, sophisticated adoption agencies, a relatively vibrant voluntary sector, religious freedom (though in need of democratic vigilance), newspapers, well-maintained parks and expansive forests, clean water (though jeopardized in Michigan and elsewhere), colleges (though pay restraint for head football coaches is needed), resilient families (though pro-marriage public policies are needed), the hospice movement, group homes for mentally disabled (though more responsible management is needed in some of them), daily mail delivery, non-violent protest, lasagna and many more manifestations of God’s grace.

Droel is the author of Patty Crowley: Lay Pioneer (NCL, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $2.75 donation)