Saturday, October 22, 2011

Pope Benedict to Issue Statement about Economic Justice: But Convincing Teaching Presumes Practicing

Fr. Thomas Reese posted a statement yesterday at the Holy Post blog site saying that on Monday, Pope Benedict will issue a document about the reform of the international financial system that will be closer to the views of Occupy Wall Street than to those of the U.S. Congress--and far to the left of where any American politician stands.  According to Reese, the document will focus on the dignity of the individual and the demands of justice, as we assess the morality of economic systems.

And, of course, for those of us schooled in the long, rich tradition of Catholic social teaching, this statement will, indeed, be welcome.  It will be welcome, in particular, because so many of our church officials appear to have forgotten about that tradition of social justice teaching--notably, the Catholic bishops of the U.S., who move closer to the political and economic stances of the Republican party with each passing day.

For my part, I'll be waiting eagerly to hear what the new document will have to say about the practice of economic justice within the Catholic church itself, and within Catholic institutions.  I assume, of course, that the pope will address these topics, certainly so, since people will hardly pay attention to any critique of the injustices of economic systems in society at large if they come from the leader of an institution who is not also intent on addressing questions about how his own institution practices justice, about how the Catholic church and its institutions deal with the dignity of the individual and demands of justice in their own institutional life.

If the papal statement ignores such issues, people will rightly not pay much attention to any statement the pope might make about the practice of economic justice or of justice in general.  Particularly if they have the impression that the institution the pope himself heads does not practice justice in thoroughgoing ways, but is blind in some conspicuous ways to the dignity of the individual and the demands of justice in its own practices.  People will pay attention to what the pope says about these topics to the extent that the church and its institutions give credible—give sacramental—witness to what church statements proclaim through their words.  In the absence of such credible sacramental witness to the words proclaimed, people will be inclined to treat the words of the pope and other church leaders as ornamental, perhaps interesting, perhaps pretty, but not by any means compelling.

And so I'll be waiting to hear what this papal statement, which a number of those commenting on it in advance regard as prophetic, will be saying about how the church and its institutions enshrine justice in their practices.  For instance, I'm assuming the papal statement will deal with (or at the very least advert to) questions such as the following: How are workers in Catholic institutions treated?  Do they receive just wages and strong benefits?  How do Catholic institutions regard the rights of workers?   Do workers in Catholic institutions enjoy the right of association, the right to form unions and collective bargaining units?  Do they have the right to air grievances publicly and without fear of reprisal from the Catholic institutions that employ them?

Are they afforded the right to participate in the process by which institutional decisions are made affecting the lives of everyone working in their Catholic institution?  Do workers in Catholic institutions enjoy the right to participate in the governance process itself through open discussion (without fear of reprisal) of disputed matters that affect the common good for all those working in the institution?

If these principles are not at play in Catholic institutions, if they aren't recognized and enshrined in the practices of Catholic institutions vis-a-vis the treatment of workers, it would be hard to see how Catholic institutions, in their own labor practices, respect the dignity of individuals and the demands of justice.

I'm assuming, too, that Pope Benedict will advert to questions about whether workers in Catholic institutions are protected from arbitrary firing.  Do workers in Catholic institutions also enjoy protection from arbitrary and unjust discrimination on grounds of race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.?  Do Catholic institutions have fair and strong grievance processes for those who insist that they have been fired unfairly?

If clear, morally sustainable principles are not in place in Catholic institutions to deal with these issues, if principles of justice to deal with these issues morally aren't recognized and enshrined in the practices of Catholic institutions vis-a-vis the treatment of workers, it would be hard to see how Catholic institutions, in their own labor practices, respect the dignity of individuals and the demands of justice.  And it would be hard, therefore, to see what the pope or the church could teach society about economic justice, when its own institutions fail to practice justice in the workplace, and to protect the dignity of workers as persons.

I'm assuming that the pope's statement will take a good look, too, at the church’s own record, in its internal life, as it deals with questions of human rights and the dignity of individuals.    Some questions I'm assuming Pope Benedict will be dealing with in that section of his statement would be the following: Are the human rights of all groups within the church--theologians might be a valuable test case here--recognized and treated with respect?  To take theologians as a test case: when theologians are accused of teaching something that is incorrect, are they apprised by church officials thoroughly, completely, and precisely of all charges made against them, before they are censured or punished?  Are they allowed to know the identity of their accusers?  Are they permitted to answer the charges of their accusers and of church officials acting on those charges?  Are they permitted to engage in open, respectful exchanges in which they can answer the charges against them, explain themselves, and defend themselves?

If processes are not in place within the Catholic church to safeguard the human dignity of theologians, and to assure that the demands of justice are met as theologians are accused of error and silenced or fired from their jobs, then it would be hard to imagine what the church could credibly say to the world at large about practicing justice.

Another matter of justice in the internal life of the church that I am assuming Pope Benedict will discuss in his forthcoming call to the world to practice economic justice: are the rights of the laity in the Catholic church respected?  Is the human dignity of lay Catholics safeguarded by the governance structures of the Catholic church?  Do the governance structures of the Catholic church promote the demands of justice, when it comes to the treatment of lay Catholics?

For instance, when bishops close parish churches and schools that have been built and maintained by the Catholic people themselves, often at the cost of generations of sacrifice, are the laity consulted by the bishops as these decisions are made?  Do the laity have a voice in these decisions affecting their own churches and schools?  If not, it would be an uphill battle, I think, for the church to try to convince society at large to respect workers as individuals and to take into account the demands of economic justice.  Not if the Catholic church in its own internal life and governance structures rides roughshod over the dignity of lay Catholics and is deaf to their demands for justice.

Another matter I'm assuming the papal statement will discuss: society at large has come increasingly to recognize that women are as fully human as men are and deserve the full range of human rights accorded to men.  And so I am certain that, in this statement about the dignity of the individual and the demands of justice, the Holy Father intends to address the question of how the Catholic church regards and treats women.  Since, if the church itself ignores the dignity of some of its members due to their gender, and treats some of its members unjustly due to their gender, it cannot make a convincing case to society at large when it calls social institutions to behave justly.

A church that calls the world and its institutions to the practice of justice, but which does not itself practice justice, cannot and will not give credible witness to the world as it issues its call to the world.   Because I assume the pope is aware of this, I will be expecting anything he writes to call social institutions to the practice of economic justice—a praiseworthy goal, one I wholeheartedly endorse—to engage the kinds of questions I outline above.

Otherwise, people are likely to shrug their shoulders at anything this papal statement might have to say and to throw its words over their shoulders, as they mention something about noisy gongs and clanging cymbals

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