Saturday, September 21, 2013

Why Do Catholic Institutions Need Reform? Margaret Mary Vojtko

Why do the Catholic church and the institutions it sponsors need reform, you ask? Read this story:

Margaret Mary Vojtko, 83, died a few weeks ago. Almost destitute, she had been struggling to live on under $10,000 a year, undergoing cancer treatment without health insurance, working a night shift at Eat 'n Park as a second job, sometimes sleeping in an office because she couldn't afford to fix her furnace or pay for her electricity, distraught when her regular job's hours were cut with no severance or retirement and, finally, ignobly, buried in a cardboard casket without handles - that, despite having taught French for 25 years at Pittsburgh's Duquesne University, a Catholic school whose mission is to "serve God by serving students...through commitment to excellence in education...profound concern for moral and spiritual values and service to the Church (and) the community. Duquesne is also one of three Catholic schools now fighting a union battle - in its case, appealing last year's 50-9 vote by adjunct professors to join an Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers.


After Vojtko died, responding to criticism of how the school had treated her,  Duquesne's Chaplain said that the school had invited her to live in one of their communities, and priests regularly visited and prayed with her. In other words, notes a union lawyer who wrote an impassioned op-ed about her life and death, "In lieu of a living wage and benefits, they offered her intermittent charity and prayers as a salve to her impoverishment."

As Daniel Kovalik reports at Alternet, Vojtko worked on a contract basis semester-by-semester, with no benefits and a salary ranging from $3,000 to $3,500 per course. She did not clear even $25,000 per year from her teaching at Duquesne and had absolutely no healthcare benefits.

The salary of Duquesne's president, you say? $700,000+ with a full range of benefits.

This story sickens me, in part, because it cuts close to the bone: though Steve and I have thankfully avoided the destitution of Margaret Mary Vojtko and I would not dream of comparing our experience to hers, we, too, have been placed in a situation of dire economic need by a Catholic institution--Belmont Abbey College--which claims to be an arch-supporter of Catholic teaching, but left us both without income and healthcare coverage, and a house note to pay, in the mid-1990s, just as we had assumed the responsibility of providing care for my aging and demented mother. When I applied for the pittance of unemployment benefits available to me through North Carolina law, Belmont Abbey sent a witness to the hearing about those benefits to block even that pittance.

I was never given a reason for the one-year terminal contract Belmont Abbey gave me, and after I sought recourse through a grievance committee and it asked that I be given that reason in writing, when the president responded to me and the committee with a letter making the astonishing claim that he had told me the reason, I simply resigned. In Steve's case, the college fired a slew of faculty and staff at one time, claiming financial exigency. These faculty and staff were all rumored to be gay.

This is the point at which Steve and I stopped going to Mass. We couldn't stomach--literally so--the sight of the monks who had taken our daily bread from our mouths standing at the altar on Sunday, offering us the bread of life that is the eucharist. When I tried to go to liturgy after what these Catholic religious folks had done to us, I became so nauseated that I could not sit in the pew. With the responsibility of caring for an ailing mother in the final years of her life on Steve's and my shoulders, the monks took from our mouths our daily bread, our access to healthcare, our place in the academic and wider communities, while they themselves enjoyed each of those privileges in abundance.

I have written letters to the current abbot, who in the mid-1990s held another position in the monastery and was key in hiring us, but then betrayed us, to tell him about this and to ask if the monks ever intend to admit and apologize for the injustice they did to us. I have never received any response to my letters. Through the grapevine, I've heard the the monks tell the Belmont Abbey Community that I'm simply crazy, writing such letters.

Catholic social teaching? The gospels? Jesus? Not a whit of that makes the difference of a hill of beans, as long as Catholic institutions and Catholic religious authority figures keep behaving this way. 

I am anguished to hear Margaret Mary Vojtko's story.

The photo of Margaret Mary Vojtko from Abby Zimet's Common Dreams article linked at the start of this posting, and which has been circulated with the story of her death at various internet sites, is apparently not her photograph. I had originally included it with this posting. The display of principles of Catholic social teaching I've now used is from the Lunch with Monika site, and was taken at the Romero Center in Camden, NJ.

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