Archbishop Blase Cupich delivered a very important talk yesterday, speaking to the members of the Chicago Federation of Labor. His talk comes after Pope Francis’ many talks that focus on the importance of dignity of work and, as well, Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s address to a conference at the
Archbishop Cupich began by recalling how someone told him when he arrived last year that he would need to learn the “Chicago way” in which government, business, labor and the Church all sit at the table together and work through the difficult issues confronting the city. The Windy City is known for its civic pride, and that devotion has built enormous reservoirs of goodwill even while some of the groups are at loggerheads on some issues. Washington should learn something about the “Chicago way” too.
+Cupich recalled the Church’s clear teaching on the dignity of work and the rights of workers. He cited Pope Francis multiple times, St. Pope John Paul II, and the great labor priest from Chicago, the late Msgr. George Higgins, who effectively served as the AFL-CIO’s chaplain for forty years. He also gave a shout out to Fr. Clete Kiley, another Chicago priest, who has taken up Higgins’ mantle and is, today, America’s leading labor priest. This is the legacy of common effort and magisterial teaching +Cupich came to sharpen.
+Cupich’s talk was not merely theoretical. Illinois is one of many states where legislatures are debating so-called right-to-work laws. The Koch brothers fund an organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which provides draft anti-union legislation to mostly Republican officeholders. The right-to-work proposals are a type of piracy, akin to stealing intellectual property, insofar as they would give workers the right to decline to pay any dues to the union which conducted negotiations with management on behalf of all employees. Currently, no worker is forced to pay dues for organized labor's political or other activities, but in most states, they must pay their fair share of the costs of both negotiating and monitoring a collective bargaining agreement. Otherwise, they would get a free ride, benefiting from the union’s efforts without sharing the cost. +Cupich said:
[I]n view of present day attempts to enact so-called right-to-work laws, the Church is duty bound to challenge such efforts by raising questions based on longstanding principles. Do these measures undermine the capacity of unions to organize, to represent workers and to negotiate contracts? Do such laws protect the weak and vulnerable? Do they promote the dignity of work and the rights of workers? Do they promote a more just society and a more fair economy? Do they advance the common good? Lawmakers and policymakers cannot ignore or brush aside these questions. Others may see it differently, but history has shown that a society with a healthy, effective and responsible labor movement is a better place than one where other powerful economic interests have their way and the voices and rights of workers are diminished.
To my mind, this is precisely how the Church should engage the public square, setting forth the principles but also indicating that applications of those principles must be consistent with the principles themselves. Too often, “prudential judgment” is invoked to dodge the clear significance of the moral principles the Church articulates.
Archbishop Cupich also made clear that the Church has drawn no distinction between the rights of private and public sector employees: All have the right to organize. Some libertarian opponents of organized labor have argued that because the Church does not specifically address public sector unions, those workers do not have the right to organize. This is foolishness. Imagine how that principle would work in other areas. The Church has not made a list of all illicit sexual acts, it has merely stated that non-procreative sexual acts are illicit. Are we to think that perhaps some of them are actually okay because they were not explicitly named? +Cupich was clear: “Similarly, the Church has consistently taught that workers have a right to have a voice in the workplace, to form and join unions, to bargain collectively and protect their rights. And the Church has never made a distinction between private and public sectors of the work.” Whatever issues any of us has with public sector unions, and I have my own with the teachers’ unions especially, their right to organize is not at issue in the eyes of the Church.
But, the most important part of the archbishop’s talk came in this section:
Friends can disagree and can see things in different ways. Admittedly, these differences can create tensions, but they should not break relationships. In times of tension, I ask you to keep in mind that the Church’s commitment to solidarity with workers is rooted in our commitment to solidarity with all. The Church stands in solidarity with the undocumented. We stand in solidarity with the poor and homeless. We stand in solidarity with unborn children and their mothers. We stand in solidarity with the unemployed. We stand in solidarity with families and their children and their right to a good education. We stand in solidarity with the elderly and the sick. Some of you will not share our commitments on one or more of these priorities. I ask that you respect that these commitments flow from the same, core belief in human life, human dignity and solidarity as our support for workers and their unions. My hope is that people will see that the Church is calling for a consistent ethic of solidarity that aims at making sure no one, from the first moment of life to natural death, from the wealthiest community to our poorest neighborhoods, is excluded from the table of life. We resist what Pope Francis calls the “throwaway culture,” that treats people as things and is tempted to discard the weak and the vulnerable, those without money or power or voice.
Two things jump out about this passage. First, he asks that those who do not share all of the Church’s expressions of solidarity nonetheless respect that our position, as Catholics, flows from the same understanding of solidarity with all, especially those who are marginalized by society. If someone disagrees with us on one issue, it does not mean we cannot find common ground with them on other issues. The second point is more subtle, but potentially revolutionary. Instead of the “consistent ethic of life” +Cupich invokes a “consistent ethic of solidarity.” The consistent ethic of life, first articulated by his predecessor Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, ended up with Catholics trying to see how issues relate to one another and, inevitably, arguing that some issues trump others. But, a consistent ethic of solidarity turns the focus from issues to people. We are called to solidarity with the unborn and with the undocumented and with the unemployed, people who are defined by what they are not, but we are also called, hard though it may be, to be in some measure of solidarity with the Planned Parenthood worker, or with the opponent of immigration reform, or with the employer who sometimes fires workers. The degree of that solidarity may vary, but it is what we, as Catholics, are called to with one another. I think this shift from a “consistent ethic of life” to a “consistent ethic of solidarity” is subtle, but consequential.
In many ways, this shift helps fashion and frame the kind of person-centered economy and society Pope Francis has called for in Laudato Si’ and elsewhere. When technology and efficiency are the only criteria, we lose sight of the human person. In that challenging section of the encyclical, in which the pope drew on Guardini, this is what he is after. And, the shift applies to the Church also. In a press conference earlier in the week, +Cupich reminded us that before God revealed the Law to Moses, he told His people, Israel, who they were. This is what revelation does, it tells us who God is and who we are, who we truly are. This is what was too often missing from discussions about the New Evangelization, which seemed to many like a re-packaging of old rules, a kind of PR exercise. No. We will only be able to bring new life to the Church and to the world if we do as Jesus did, and remember that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
It seems appropriate that +Cupich used a meeting with a few thousand workers to speak about this shift of frame. In my dealings with organized labor, I have come to recognize that they grasp these deeper truths the pope is speaking about. “Unions are important not simply for helping workers get more, but helping workers be more, to have a voice, a place to make a contribution to the good of the whole enterprise, to fellow workers and the whole of society,” +Cupich told the workers at the Plumbers' Hall in Chicago yesterday. The working men and women of America have been getting the short end of the stick for so many years, as a hyper-financialized economy treats them as mere commodities to be purchased at the lowest price. When once a worker could expect a secure job and a secure retirement, today, the workforce is radically insecure, living paycheck to paycheck, knowing that the pink slips could come at any time, and hoping that the market will keep their 401(k) from tanking. Ours is a less human and less humane society than it was before the Reagan years, when there was a different shift, from a stakeholder to a shareholder economy. No one knows this more than workers trying to provide for their families. The lesson for the pastors of the Church is obvious: If you are close to your people, if you enter into their lives, their hopes and their fears, you will be able to begin preaching the Gospel with not only new fervor, but new insights. +Cupich did this yesterday and I believe he has touched on something critical to our nation and our Church: Only a consistent ethic of solidarity can repair the tattered fabric of our hyper-individualistic culture, and it is emphatically the Church’s job to accompany that effort at repair.