The Working Catholic: Idolatry

The Working Catholic: Idolatry
by Bill Droel

David Cloutier teaches Catholic ethics at Mt. St. Mary’s University in Maryland. The students give a skeptical “oh hum” to the unit about Catholicism’s sexuality teaching. However, the unit on property and consumption is met with shock, outrage and even offense. “They seem to believe that so long as [something] is gained through work, any property is theirs to enjoy as they please,” Cloutier writes in The Vice of Luxury (Georgetown University Press, 2015).
All private property, Cloutier says, comes with a social mortgage. Wholesome and fulfilling economics is not about the art of the deal, but at a profound level it is about making a gift. Genuine economic freedom, Cloutier asserts, “means a commitment to reciprocity.”

Cloutier makes his argument through the old categories of virtue and vice. He has a tough job, your Working Catholic blogger suspects, because college students no longer frame their thinking in such categories.
Luxury, Cloutier forcefully persists, is “vicious and sinful.” It not only degrades the individual but, contrary to opinion, it is not good for the economy. Cloutier’s message is not restricted to the pretentious Trump family. The vice exists in nearly all income groups. “The lure of luxury permeates the ordinary spending and experiences of middle-class [North] American life,” he explains. Luxury is not this or that object. Nor is it “an occasional slippage.” It “is a disposition.” It is a spell that comes over society as a whole.

Christian ethics struggles to assert its alternative to the vocabulary of our dominant individualistic or utilitarian ethic. In our culture, for example, the phrase hard-earned money automatically justifies buying lotto tickets, joining a handbag-of-the-month club, judging some people to be the undeserving poor, thinking that tips to a waitress are optional and more.
Drawing upon Catholic sacramental theology and Catholic social doctrine, Cloutier attempts an alternative language about consumption. Though ascetics can be admired, he does not call the majority of Christians to “radical renunciation.” At the other extreme, he does not favor a materialistic majority that washes things over with a little Sunday piety. He suggests “a genuinely sacramental worldview in which the spiritual is participated in via the material.” That is, nearly all objects are holy, though not in themselves, but as analogues of God’s creation and redemption—presuming a disposition toward grace not a disposition for luxury.
Coultier uses a Catholic principle called universal destination of goods. He also recommends Pope Benedict XVI’s talks and writing on “the culture of gratitude.” Both of these intriguing themes need popular rendering.

Put it this way: Gratitude is one disposition. “Thanks for the new day.” “Thanks for this coffee.” (A slogan that your blogger believes in after the third morning cup.) “Thanks for our beautiful country.” Every sincere expression of gratitude implies a giver, someone beyond the self. Gratitude makes each and every thing relational. “Thanks to the fair trade farmers and to the electric company for this coffee.” “Thanks to our 18th century patriots, to our service personnel and to all those involved in civic groups for this beautiful country.” “Thanks mom and dad, now departed, and thanks to God for this new day.”
Earned through hard work for my free use is another disposition. But no job, no country club membership, no private jet and no object can fulfill this disposition’s expectations. Objects that have only material significance automatically rust and disappoint. This hard work disposition eventually becomes resentment. Evidence? Donald Trump.
Objects can give life if they signify a relationship. With gratitude they automatically become little sacraments.

Coultier’s book with its 20-page bibliography and 15-page index is not for a popular audience. It assumes some familiarity with Catholic philosophy and theology. It contains too much jargon and engages in a tad too much moralizing. But the book’s message is quite important and the message deserves a respectful hearing among a wide audience. Is Cloutier perhaps preparing a booklet edition?

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

Sad turn at St Martin’s

Caritas in Veritate doesn’t apply to small schools where it is not hard to talk to an administrator?

“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,” observed Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate. Administrators at St. Martin’s University in Washington state aren’t so sure. Contingent faculty there voted 63-34 to seek representation from SEIU 925, but the school refuses to deal with the union and is invoking religious freedom as a legal defense. Indeed, administrators say they don’t understand why anyone would want a union there. The Seattle Times cited the Chancellor’s bemused response to the organizing campaign:

“I guess the first thing I thought is, ‘That’s peculiar; I wonder why they think they need a union to be heard?’” said Abbot Neal Roth, who is on Saint Martin’s board of trustees and also serves as the university’s chancellor. “We’re such a small school, and it’s not hard to talk to anybody who is an administrator.”

Oh, Abbot Roth. I admire your innocence, and your question sounds like an excellent aid to discernment. If St. Martin’s were to take the money currently being paid to expensive union-busting lawyers, and instead use it for an administration retreat reflecting on why St. Martin’s instructors voted 2-1 to form a union, it would be much more productive.

Imagine, for example, sitting in a room with Pope Benedict and explaining to him why Caritas in Veritate didn’t apply to St. Martin’s. I’m sure you are sincere in your belief that a union isn’t good for your school, but would you really feel comfortable arguing your point with the pope?

Negotiations at Catholic Health (Buffalo) coming to a head?

A year-long contract dispute at Buffalo’s Catholic Health system may be heading for a strike. Nurses and other employees at the system’s St. Joseph Hospital have been bargaining since their contract expired last summer; now the contract has also expired at the system’s Mercy Hospital property. Among the key issues: the nurses are calling for improved staffing ratios, while the hospital is asking for employee concessions on health insurance. Now the Mercy employees have voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, and St. Joseph workers will vote later in the month.

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) represents thousands of employees at the two hospitals and has created a website to share views and information with members and the public. To visit, CLICK HERE. The hospital responded to the strike vote with a statement on its website.

The Working Catholic: The Undeserving Poor? by Bill Droel

Too many people seem too sure about the causes and the cure for poverty. I hear it in the barbershop, at my favorite lunch spot and frequently at the bar. “If only they would get a job and quit living off my hard-earned money.” The adjectival hard-earned is always used. I also hear: “My family made it on their own. Why can’t those people?” Plus other riffs on the same theme.
These longstanding complaints are not confined to barroom banter. They are part of public discourse. Elected officials, foundation executives, talk-show hosts and others routinely make a distinction (maybe not in those exact words) between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. By popular opinion, for example, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (which everyone calls food stamps) is an undeserved handout while Medicare and Social Security are—here’s that phrase again—hard-earned benefits.

Have the poor always fallen into these two categories? Or is the distinction something new?
We will soon celebrate the 500-year anniversary of the great Protestant Reformation. Along with the significant improvements it made to Christianity, the Reformation created unintended consequences. Prior to the Reformation Christian love or caritas looked upon the poor as worthy in and of themselves. They were not despised but assisted to the degree Christians were able to do so. At the same time, please note, the poor of long ago were not romanticized. The poor who made appearances in the New Testament, for example, were not held up as exemplars of virtue.
After the Reformation sympathy or humanitarianism replaced nonjudgmental caritas. This is a subtle shift that hardened into the distinction between deserving and undeserving. It solidified in our country in the 1850s as the poor became synonymous with immigrant Catholics. The orphan trains sponsored by humanitarian groups in New York serve to illustrate the newer approach. Many children wandering the streets were taken-in by an aid society and placed in “a healthier environment” with a rural family in the Midwest. The aid society judged the child’s natural family to be unfit, particularly because it was assumed the natural father (probably Irish-American) drank beer and/or whiskey. The Sisters of Charity and other Catholics in New York tried to retain the older approach: Avoid making judgments; open urban orphanages that kept the child in proximity to the natural family. (Babe Ruth in Baltimore was one example.)

The term Protestant approach or Protestant ethic in this blog is not the same as Protestant religion as practiced in a Methodist or Lutheran church. Nearly everyone in our country, including the Catholics, is Protestant in how they understand poverty, its causes and its remedy. Congressman Paul Ryan, for example, says that he thinks about poverty using Catholic social philosophy. Ryan might devoutly worship in a Catholic church, but his ideas about poverty are not traditional, old-school, mainstream Catholic ideas.

Do some people cheat on their food stamp application? Of course. Are some people who receive assistance lazy? Of course. Are some of those who appear at the door of a parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society simply con-artists? Of course. Does a St. Vincent de Paul volunteer have a duty to use donated money and food wisely? Indeed, yes. Does a parish volunteer have a fiduciary responsibility to turn away someone who repeatedly asks for help and yet who looks like, with a fresh haircut and a clean shirt, could get a job? That is a tough call for a real world Catholic.

Droel edits a free newsletter on faith and work for National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).

Working Catholic: Fashion Statement by Bill Droel

Some philosophical and religious traditions look askance at fashion. Eastern religions, for example, focus on the transitory nature of the material world. They advise us not to get infatuated with appliances, jewelry or one’s wardrobe. Gnostic philosophy, which has at junctures influenced Roman Catholicism and other expressions of Christianity, says appearances are a deceptive illusion. Some strains in evangelical Christianity are unimpressed with art because only a direct relationship with God is important.

Being an Irish-American Catholic, I carry around an analogical imagination. That is, in my tribe God is mediated through the world’s beauty and order, particularly through God’s primary analogue, other people. Nature, artifacts, responsive institutions, plus architecture, music, film, novels and even fashion can dispose me to God’s grace.

This column won’t at first ring true to anyone who knows me because nearly my entire wardrobe is off-the-rack from outlet stores. Nonetheless, I take notice of a student or neighbor who has style, a look, or flair—maybe an unusual hat, a colorful scarf, or a sport coat that seems to match the personality. These touches, at times, briefly reflect the divine to me. In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot, a character says, “The world is saved by beauty, if at all.” That seems right to me.

Catholicism is in favor of fashion, though with an urgent caution. There is no place for the exploitation of designers and models, including on the so-called reality TV shows. Similarly, the sweatshop conditions in the apparel industry must give way to international labor standards.

Bill Cunningham (1929-2016), the longtime fashion reporter for New York Times, brought his Catholic faith to bear in his work, though implicitly. Cunningham himself was no fashion plate. He usually wore a blue jacket with large pockets. Into his 80s, Cunningham peddled a bicycle around Manhattan. He never owned a TV; he didn’t go to movies. Yet society types and models were pleased whenever Cunningham drifted into a party or a show. Cunningham never sampled the hors d’oeuvres nor even took a soda at any of the galas. “I just try to play a straight game, and in New York that’s almost impossible to be honest and straight,” he once said.

Upon return to New York from his service in the Korean War Cunningham took newspaper writing assignments about fashion. He added a $35 camera to his reporter’s notebook. By the late 1970s he was full-time and soon developed a popular “On the Street” column.
His idea was that fashion is not just patterns and material in a studio. I went to “the shows and the streets to see how people interpreted what designers hoped they would buy,” he once said. He found out that ordinary New Yorkers in their own way create or influence fashion. Cunningham came to believe that fashion is all around. He spent many hours on the streets looking for a stylish accessory or a unique outfit. On the street, he said, “you find the answers you don’t see at the fashion shows… My whole thing is to be invisible. You get more natural pictures that way, too.”

Fashionable does not mean expensive. It is about a person’s confidence and their consciousness of the world around them. We are saved by beauty.
Cunningham’s humble lifestyle attuned him to the beauty of all God’s creation. One of Pope Francis’ major themes is the priority of experience over ideology or abstractions. Cunningham once explained his approach to work in words that echo that theme: “I never go out with a preconceived idea. I let the street speak to me.” Seek beauty and it will find you.

Trivia contest: Who was the world’s first fashion designer? Hint: Genesis 3:21.

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

Dorothy Day, Servant of God and Worker Justice

(courtesy of Jeffry Korgen)

I used to think the word “worker” in “Catholic Worker Movement” referred to the Works of Mercy accomplished by its members. But a new encounter with the thought of Dorothy Day, Servant of God, and Peter Maurin, through staffing the Archdiocese of New York’s canonization Inquiry into her life, taught me that the Movement has a historic, multi-layered relationship with low-wage workers and their struggles.

Dorothy_Day_1934The Catholic Worker emerged in the 1930’s against a backdrop of worker movements. The Catholic Worker name itself is a play on the communist Daily Worker newspaper. Like Pope Leo XIII, Dorothy Day believed the Church needed to offer an alternative to workers caught between accepting exploitation in the workplace and adopting atheistic communism. Day lifted up the Gospel and Church teaching against the abuses of the times, but in 1949, she targeted the Church itself.

In January of that year, the Archdiocese of New York rejected gravediggers’ demands for a significant pay increase and a five-day workweek. A bitter strike ensued. Cardinal Spellman called the gravediggers’ union communist-dominated and brought in seminarians (!) as scabs to bury the dead. Dorothy Day spoke out in favor of a living wage for the gravediggers and penned editorials in support of the strikers. She wrote Cardinal Spellman personally, and asked him to “meet their demands; be their servant as Christ was the servant of his disciples, washing their feet.”

The strike was settled two months later, after an appeal from the gravediggers’ wives, a change in union representation, and a fractional increase in the archdiocesan offer. The six-day work week stayed. But Dorothy Day had made a point that the Church as an employer is not exempt from its own teaching—an argument which still arises, on the one hand to castigate Catholic universities for miserly payment of adjuncts, on the other to congratulate Society of St. Vincent de Paul stores for making a new commitment to pay a living wage.

But the Catholic Worker commitment to low wage workers goes farther than simply supporting unions. Dorothy Day, influenced by Peter Maurin, went a step further—advocating for worker owned businesses and farm cooperatives through an economic philosophy called distributism. Distributism salutes capitalism by insisting that its enormous ability to create wealth go to work to enrich the lives of ordinary people—not just the rich—through worker-owned enterprises.

As the Church sorts through questions of Dorothy Day’s sanctity, we would all do well to embrace the holiness of her many efforts on behalf of and with low-wage workers.

 

Jeffry Korgen is assisting the Archdiocese of New York prepare evidence for the cause of Day’s canonization. He can be reached at jkorgen@korgenassociates.org.

For more information about efforts to canonize Dorothy Day, visit the Dorothy Day Guild website

Farmworkers, NY Catholic Conference Campaign for Better Labor Conditions

RMM

Photo Courtesy of Rural and Migrant Ministry

In 1935, the US Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), guaranteeing workers the right to organize in unions and bargain collectively. Like an online terms and conditions statement, though, it had a lot of exclusions hidden in the fine print, and the NLRA denied its protections to the nation’s farmworkers. The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA), which established the federal minimum wage and overtime laws, did the same.

Church leaders in New York are joining farmworkers and other union activists to press for changes. Farmworkers marched from Long Island to Albany to petition the legislature for action. There they were joined by Albany’s Bishop Edward Scharfenberger and Catholic social justice advocates in a rally outside the state legislature calling for passage of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. The NY Catholic Conference says:

The New York State Catholic Conference supports the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, and strongly urges enactment of this legislation. Farmworkers are excluded from many of the laws that establish worker protections, including overtime pay, employer contributions to the unemployment and workers’ compensation funds, and public health protections including sanitation and housing standards.  In addition to ending these exclusions, this bill would require that farmworkers be given a 24-hour day of rest in every calendar week which, whenever possible, would coincide with the laborer’s traditional day for religious worship.

Cork Celebrates Mother Jones

Festival recalls native daughter who became legendary American labor activist

Mother_jones_5-1-29 LOC

Back on the ould sod, Cork is once again staking her claim to famous mineworker advocate Mary Harris, aka “Mother Jones.” Americans know her social justice crusader as the dressmaker-turned-agitator who organized colorful demonstrations by the wives of striking miners, with the authorities labeling her “the most dangerous woman in America” and “the grandmother of all agitators.” It’s said that she retorted, “I hope to live long enough to be the great-grandmother of all agitators.” (Indeed, she died in 1930 at the age of 100.)

Jones is honored in her hometown in an annual festival. New to me: when Jones was six, Cork famously hosted another American labor hero. In 1845, abolitionist leader (and escaped slave) Frederick Douglass spent the better part of a month in Cork campaigning against the slave trade. For more information, visit the Cork Mother Jones Festival website.

Nearly two years after union vote, Sacred Heart doctors still seeking first contract

pnwhma logoDoctors losing patience

In 2014, Oregon’s Sacred Heart Medical Center floated plans to outsource the jobs of “hospitalists” – staff MDs who oversee treatment of hospital patients. The doctors, alarmed at the proposal and concerned that untenable patient loads would follow, organized and voted 30-3 in favor of forming a union. The AFT-affiliated Sacred Heart group is not the only union-represented unit of medical doctors in the United States, though they may well be the only such group at a Catholic hospital. Their story came to national attention with “Doctors Unionize to Resist the Medical Machine,” an account by Noam Schriber in the New York Times.

First contracts often take some time to develop, but after nearly two years the doctors are losing patience. Modern Healthcare reports that they are planning a one-day informational picket to press for quicker progress.

Notre Dame de Namur recognizes union rights of tenured faculty

seiu 1021 faculty

Courtesy SEIU 1021

While a few Catholic colleges are, sadly, scanning US labor law for opportunities to prevent adjuncts from organizing, Notre Dame de Namur is taking a step in the opposite direction: scanning the law for opportunities to implement Catholic social teaching on the rights of labor. Ever since NLRB v. Yeshiva in 1980, the law has generally held that tenured university faculty are “management” and not under National Labor Relations Act jurisdiction. This doesn’t actually mean that they can’t form unions and bargain, but it does give university administrators a green light if they choose the path of union busting. But when the tenured faculty at Notre Dame de Namur sought to join SEIU 1021, the administration didn’t look for a way to thwart them but a way to recognize their right to organize. Faculty voted 35-6 to join the union, and according to Inside Higher Education the university is evaluating its governance structure to ensure it is compatible with the NLRA.

It’s been a good couple of months for adjunct and contingent faculty organizing in Catholic Higher Education, with a growing number of universities appreciating that honoring the rights of labor is part of our Catholic identity, not a threat to it. In May and June, contingent faculty at Holy Names University (Oakland CA) and St. Louis University (MO) have voted union yes; ballots will be counted June 17 at St. Martin’s University (Lacey WA).