Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Ruth Kolpack Case: What's at Stake, Morally Speaking?

As I noted yesterday in my final posting about the case of Ruth Kolpack and Bishop Robert Morlino (here), it is interesting to watch the response of a certain group of Catholics to cases like this. The Catholics to whom I’m referring here are those quickest to proclaim that all Catholics are obliged to obey the magisterium without question.

They’re the same Catholics who insist that true Catholics will cast their votes on the basis of abortion and same-sex marriage alone. They’re, in short, Catholics for whom neoconservative political ideology has come to be as significant as (or more significant than) magisterial teaching, in defining their outlook on many issues. It’s fascinating to watch what these Catholics are willing to defend in cases like the Kolpack case.

In the dialogue that followed my first posting about this issue (here), a respondent stated that I don’t understand how the world works, when I insist that Ruth Kolpack’s rights as an employee were violated when she was terminated without being given a reason for her firing. That’s a revealing statement.

Can you imagine those Catholics who are defending the termination of an employee in a Catholic institution without any stated reason for that termination claiming that abortion or homosexuality ought to be regarded as just “how the world works”? In the case of those issues, Catholics who have sold their souls to neoconservative ideologues work tirelessly to convince us that “how the world works” is not how the world should be. These Catholics insist that those who see the abortion issue or homosexuality differently than they do ought to accede to their moral demands, precisely because the world as it is should conform to considerations about how the world should be, in moral terms.

But when it comes to issues of social justice and the just treatment of employees, these same Catholics, who are so scrupulous to obey some Catholic teachings and who will brook no critique or questions regarding those teachings, are willing to shrug their shoulders and talk about “how the world works.” As if economic life is value-free, and we ought to let it do its thing without moral analysis or moral demands. And in total defiance of clearly articulated official Catholic teaching which insists that the economic sphere is every bit as much normed by moral considerations as the sexual or the biological or the scientific sphere.

Essentially, many Catholics of the right simply ignore Catholic teaching about economic life and the rights of workers, while accusing their brothers and sisters of being cafeteria Catholics who pick and choose what we want to believe, when we dissent from the teaching of the church on issues of sexual ethics. Essentially, many Catholics of the right defend an amoral, draconian view of the workplace that is much closer to social Darwinism than to the gospels.

It is not difficult to understand how we have come to this point. As my numerous postings on the Institute for Religion and Democracy have noted (here), neoconservative political activists have worked long and hard for several decades now to marginalize the social justice teachings of many Christian churches. These political activists, who are closely allied with powerful economic interest groups, have sought to depict abortion and homosexuality as the only moral issues worthy of attention in the churches today. They have adroitly used the mainstream media to disseminate a political agenda masquerading as a religious one.

And, to their discredit, many American Catholic bishops have played along, even though the American bishops have made prophetic statements about issues like war and peace (The Challenge of Peace) and economic justice (Economic Justice for All). After several generations of scorched-earth politics in which many American Catholic bishops have allowed neoconservative political ideology to capture the imagination of their flocks—as if a single (and exceedingly flawed) political viewpoint represents the totality of Christian teaching about social and economic life—many Catholics today have no knowledge at all of these key documents of the American bishops.

Or of John Paul II’s writings on the priority of labor. Or John XXII’s and Paul VI’s encyclicals on issues of economic and social justice. Or the long Catholic magisterial tradition defending the rights of workers to form unions and to strike, and insisting that workers must be treated as persons and not things, that economic life is as subject to moral considerations as any other area of life.

The upshot of this willing captivity of the American Catholic bishops to the political right for some decades now is that when the bishops speak about the sanctity of life in the abortion debate, fewer and fewer folks listen. It is very difficult for the bishops to convince the culture at large, and increasing numbers of Catholics as well, about abortion and the sanctity of life, when the people proclaiming this message seem peculiarly insensitive to the human dignity and personal worth of employees of Catholic institutions. Of folks like Ruth Kolpack.

The moral considerations at the heart of Ruth Kolpack’s case ought to be self-evident to Catholics schooled in official Catholic teaching about the workplace and human rights. It says a great deal about the state of American Catholicism today—about the state to which the bishops have brought the church by their unthinking alliance with neoconservative political leaders—that many Catholics have no clue at all about those moral considerations, and want to be convinced of them.

Here are some of the moral considerations that, in my view, clearly underlie the discussion of what has happened to Ruth Kolpack:

1. What would I wish to be done to myself, in Ruth Kolpack’s situation?

One of the most fundamental considerations of the moral life—a sine qua non of all moral analysis—is the question of whether I can place myself in the shoes of someone else, as I defend what is done to her. The world religions teach that I am to see myself in others, and behave accordingly. I am to do to others what I would wish to have done to myself.

I am never to treat others as an object, a thing, a pawn in my games or the games of others. I cannot claim to be a moral agent and behave that way.

Ruth Kolpack claims that Bishop Morlino fired her without providing any reason for her termination after she had worked as a full-time Catholic lay minister for 23 years. I have seen no statement from the diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, that challenges this claim. So I must assume that Ruth Kolpack is telling the truth when she makes this statement.

And, as I have noted, since I have myself received precisely the same treatment at a Catholic institution, I know that such behavior is possible. And my observation of how Catholic institutions function has led me to think that such behavior is not only possible, but is, in fact, frequent.

What would those defending Ruth Kolpack’s termination without any stated cause for that termination wish to have done to themselves, in a similar situation? Would they want to know why they were being fired, when they had worked in lay ministry for 38 years, first as a volunteer, and then for 23 years as a full-time paid employee?

It is inconceivable to me that those defending what has been done to Ruth Kolpack would really wish to be treated as they think she should be treated. And it says much about the kind of church we have become and the level of catechesis provided to the flock by the bishops, that anyone would even try to justify the kind of treatment accorded Ruth Kolpack by Bishop Morlino.

2. What are the effects on workers like Ruth Kolpack, when they are terminated after years of dedicated service and are not provided a reason for that termination?

Again, the religious traditions of the world insist that, when we seek to defend any behavior towards others, we ask whether we would want such behavior done to us. This moral insight requires us to think carefully about what happens to human beings when they are subjected to the behavior we are defending.

Catholic teaching on economic life adds a further fundamental consideration here: it is never morally permissible to treat any worker as a thing, rather than a human person created in God’s image. That moral principle requires Catholics who take church teaching seriously to think about the real-life effects of terminations like the one to which Ruth Kolpack has been subjected—by a Catholic institution. By a bishop, no less—a shepherd of the flock.

I am not Ruth Kolpack. I don’t know her. But I have the ability to imagine, based on my own experience of life (which has included experiences like the one she is now going through), what a termination like this—years of good service to the church, sacrifice on its behalf, and then being fired with no stated cause for the firing—might do to a human being.

It hurts to be fired. It is exceptionally painful to be treated as an object. It strikes to the core of one’s personal worth to work hard at a job and then be fired without any stated cause—as if one is a tissue that has been used, crumpled, and discarded. Being fired in such a demeaning way, and being without work, have effects that ripple through one’s entire life, affecting one’s health, one’s family and friends, and so forth.

Being fired in such a way—and by a Christian institution!—causes one to ask anguished questions about where God is, and whether brothers and sisters in Christ care, and what life can mean, when such things are possible and when they occur in the name of Christ. I can fully understand what Ruth Kolpack means when she says that her ministry is her life—and what that statement implies about her struggle right now, given what has happened to her.

3. Human beings have a basic human right to work.

This, too, is a core moral consideration placed before faithful Catholics by Catholic teaching, and one also echoed in many other religious traditions of the world. Work is not a luxury that should be afforded human beings when it happens to be available. It is a human right. We have a right to work because we are human beings, and institutions that want to lay claim to being moral institutions have an obligation to provide work for us.

A corollary of that moral insistence is the recognition that people cannot be morally deprived of work—of their livelihood, of their vocational lives—without just cause. It is deeply immoral to take away the livelihood of human beings, to take bread from their mouths, without a strong reason for doing this. When a church institution fires a lay minister without providing her the opportunity to defend herself against accusations made against her, without giving a reason for her termination, that institution does something morally opprobrious: it removes bread from the mouth of a human person (and those who depend on that person) without legitimate reason for doing so.

As John Paul II insists over and over in Laborem exercens, it is by our work that we fulfill our humanity in a social context. Taking away a person's work by its very nature threatens to dehumanize the person deprived of work, by taking away the context in which she fulfills her human nature, contributes to society, and responds to her vocation.

4. What are the effects on the Christian community, when Christian institutions and Christian pastors fire employees of church institutions without providing a reason for the firing?

The firing of employees of church institutions with no stated cause has effects not only on those fired. It also has effects on the church itself. No moral consideration of such cases can be complete if we do not examine the effects on the church, when a lay minister such as Ruth Kolpack is fired after years of service, and no reason is provided to her for her termination.

In the first place, allowing a pastor of a church or an official in a church-owned institution to fire employees without stating the cause of the termination corrupts a church and its leadership. As English Catholic historian Lord Acton famously observed, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Allowing pastors and church leaders the absolute power to hire and fire at will, with no accountability for their actions—and that is, indeed, what Catholics of the right are defending in Ruth Kolpack’s case—places dangerous power in the hands of pastors and church leaders. That power allows—it positively invites—those wielding it to treat those “beneath” them as things and not as persons.

It corrupts, in other words. And in institutions that permit such power to their leaders, and in societies in which the leaders of church institutions are permitted such power, we all feel the effects of that corruption. The corruption we permit by allowing such unchecked power in the hands of church leaders and leaders of church institutions permeates the entire church and society as well. For proof of this assertion, videlicet the crisis produced by clerical sexual abuse of children in the Catholic church.

Churches that permit their pastoral leaders and the leaders of their institutions to fire church employees without stating the cause of termination also dissolve the bonds of communion that are essential to Communion. We cannot convincingly proclaim what is most central to life in the Christian community—the sacrament of Communion—when our own practices dissolve communion at its most elemental levels, by depriving church workers of bread without due process and just cause and statement of our reasons for taking bread from the mouths of our brothers and sisters.

There are patent, strong links between daily bread and the Bread of Life. When pastors of the church take daily bread from the mouths of the flock and then try to continue celebrating the Eucharist and offering the Bread of Life to their flocks, they become counter-signs to what they proclaim. They become such counter-signs in an obvious, glaring way. They scandalize their flocks and people of good will. Good shepherds feed the flock; they do not take sustenance from the flock.

Finally, as I have noted above, dehumanizing, anti-Christian treatment of church employees by pastors of churches and leaders of church institutions vitiates the churches’ proclamation about the sanctity of life. The church cannot convincingly argue that life in the womb has sacred value when it treats the lives of its own employees as worthless, by unjust terminations of those employees.

We are at a point in history at which the witness of the churches to the sanctity of all life is sorely needed. As Bishops Howard Hubbard of Albany, NY, and William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, NY, recently noted in a joint letter to Congress, "Our faith and moral principles call us to measure economic decisions on whether they enhance or undermine the lives of those most in need" (here). The bishops note that at this time of global economic downturn, it is the least among us who are likely to suffer the most, and those brothers and sisters need a voice: the Christian community needs to speak on their behalf.

The behavior of bishops like Bishop Morlino in the case of Ruth Kolpack make it much harder for that essential voice to be heard and to be convincing, at this important point in history.