Saturday, September 4, 2010

Labor Day Reflection: Catholic Bishops Speak of Dignity of Workers, But Continue Call for "Right" to Discriminate

I think it's significant--and good--that National Catholic Reporter's website is running its current story about the U.S. Catholic bishops' Labor Day statement side by side with Richard McBrien's article arguing that, for Labor Day, the Catholic church should embody its its social teachings.  As my previous posting notes, it's well-nigh impossible for Catholic faith communities to convince the culture at large of our exceptionally important ethical obligation to make the stranger welcome, if those same communities do not embody the virtue of hospitality in their own community life.  

The USCCB Labor Day statement, entitled "A New 'Social Contract' for Today's 'New Things,'" calls for a new social contract putting the life and dignity of workers at the center of social renewal.  But as Richard McBrien rightly notes, Catholic institutions routinely violate the human dignity of workers and ignore the human rights of workers, even as the church tries to convince secular institutions to treat workers with dignity and respect their rights.

McBrien points out that many of the John Paul II generation of bishops now leading U.S. Catholic dioceses are not merely more theologically conservative than most U.S. bishops have historically been.  They are also more politically conservative.  Many of them have been willing in recent elections to give a quasi-official stamp of approval to Republican candidates while insinuating that a vote for a Democratic candidate equals sin.
As McBrien notes, it's no accident that many of our current crop of bishops lean to the political right.  In recent years, the Vatican has appointed bishops not because they are pastorally experienced and pastorally sensitive, but because they have kept their noses clean and never made any statements that call the Vatican's party line into question.  Many contemporary bishops simply have little feel for the struggles of ordinary people, because they have little pastoral experience dealing with everyday folks.  And, unlike their predecessors in the first part of the twentieth century, many bishops did not grow up in economically struggling families in which they saw first-hand the effects of dehumanizing treatment of workers by employers.

In McBrien's view, when the Catholic church seeks to preach to society at large about social justice, human rights, and the just treatment of workers, it will not be believed unless it respects the principles it is preaching in its own institutional life.  McBrien bases this assertion on the sacramental principle at the center of Catholic theology.  

As he notes,

The principle of sacramentality is of urgent importance today. The church must embody in its own life those teachings that are central to Catholic social doctrine.

This is a discussion that certainly needs to be of concern to gay and lesbian citizens and gay and lesbian Catholics.  Just last week, the USCCB joined with a number of right-leaning faith communities to send a public letter to Congress demanding that the U.S. government continue to respect the "right" of faith communities to practice religiously based discrimination in hiring and firing decisions.

One of the key issues of concern to those sending this letter to Congress--an issue of concern to the U.S. bishops, as well, on behalf of Catholic institutions in their employment practices--is the question of the rights of workers to be protected from discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.  The bishops are arguing--explicitly so--for the "right" to continue discriminating against LGBT employees in Catholic institutions, as they see fit.

You can't preach what you don't practice.  You can't credibly teach what you don't embody.  

If the U.S. Catholic bishops want to convince the culture at large to respect human rights and the dignity of workers, they must work to eradicate unjust discrimination from Catholic institutions.  And they must exemplify in their own behavior, in Catholic institutions themselves, the virtues they want to communicate to the public sphere.

Walk the talk.

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