Solidarity & Accountability

by Michael Sean Winters

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Solidarity is a tired word. We almost immediately associate it with the brave Polish workers who formed an independent union, a key step in the dismantling of the Soviet empire. In some circles, as Pope Francis has said, solidarity is almost a bad word, but he went on to affirm “it is our word,” a word without which Catholics can scarcely explain themselves or the Church’s social teachings.

Solidarity is a lot less tired today than it was yesterday morning. It received a facelift of sorts at a conference I helped to organize, co-sponsored by the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, the on-campus think tank of the Catholic University of America, and the AFL-CIO. The event was held at the AFL-CIO headquarters and was attended by labor leaders and theologians from around the country, as well as by a cardinal, an archbishop and six bishops. NCR will have a report on the day’s proceedings, but I only want to focus on one two of the stars of the day, both originally from western Pennsylvania, an area where unions and churches stood together – and stand together still – sharing a common commitment to the working people of the region.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Mr. Richard Trumka both noted their roots in western Pennsylvania, and joked about the fact that their parents would be a bit surprised to find their children having reached the offices they hold. Both men are now in positions of authority and responsibility, but the ease with which they spoke of one another betrayed something deeper than a geographic link. They have both spent time with working people and with their concerns, they have the smell of the sheep. They spoke not only with authority but with authenticity.

Cardinal Wuerl’s keynote address was one of the best I have heard him give. The full text is available here. He spoke first about the New Evangelization and the social Gospel, identifying four key challenges to the effective preaching of the Church’s social teachings: relativism, secularism, materialism and individualism. This last was a particular focus of the conference, which was the second in IPR’s series on libertarianism, hence the title, “Erroneous Autonomy.” +Wuerl quoted liberally from Pope Francis and previous popes, in setting forth why the Church teaches what it does in regard to society.

+Wuerl then went on to set forth the natural need for solidarity, explaining the concept in terms not dependent upon belief in a particular revelation and using examples from daily life to illustrate his point, specifically recalling an exchange he had when speaking at the Catholic Center at Harvard when someone asked him what “you people,” meaning the clergy in the room, brought to society. +Wuerl recalled his response:

“What do you think the world would be like if it were not for the voices of all of those religious traditions represented in the hall? What would it be like if we did not hear voices in the midst of the community saying, you shall not kill, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness?

What would our culture be like had we not heard religious imperatives such as love your neighbor as yourself, do unto others as you would have them do to you?

How much more harsh would our land be if we did not grow up hearing, blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the peacemakers?

What would the world be like had we never been reminded that someday we will have to answer to God for our actions?”

To his credit, the man who asked the question smiled broadly and said, “It would be a mess!”

The cardinal went on to explain the foundations of Catholic Social Teaching and the role of that teaching, and it was in this last section that he said something which everyone in the room was buzzing about afterwards:

I grew up in that part of southwest Pennsylvania where the labor movement was quite active. One visible way that solidarity was manifested, both within the movement and in the larger society, was respect for the picket line. Once, some years ago, as I was making my way to a close by store, preoccupied in thought, I heard someone say “Please Father.” I then looked up and saw this picket line. Needless to say, I stopped. “Thank you,” she said to me. Growing up it was clear – you don’t cross a picket line.

The efforts to stand together on behalf of all human development, to be inclusive in our outreach to all people, to demonstrate the commitment to protect the environment and our respect for all human life are the new picket lines of today which we ask all, with us, to respect.

The phrase “new picket lines of today” struck a chord. People in the room – and in addition to the conference participants, the room filled with twenty-somethings who came down from their offices when they heard a cardinal had come to talk – people who might not grasp, or might not appreciate, the problem with relativism were here handed an analogy they could grasp instantly: There are things you simply respect, no questions asked, almost ontologically. One of them is cross a picket line. +Wuerl put the essence of the Church’s teaching on society into that category: human development, outreach to all, protecting the environment, respect for life, these are picket lines. I wish I had come up with the metaphor myself. I serve notice to the cardinal I intend to steal the metaphor and use it time and again.

After the cardinal spoke, one of the lead AFL-CIO staffers on the conference, who is not Catholic, was visibly moved. “He explained the language we use like shorthand,” she said. Another was simply giddy: “We knew we loved the pope, but now we love ‘his guy in DC’ too.”

While Cardinal Wuerl was hitting his home run, news broke that the Holy Father had sacked Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul, Minnesota. My thoughts are similar to those I wrote when Bishop Robert Finn’s resignation was announced. The resignation of +Nienstedt is not happy news, but it is necessary news. The sad chapter of his failed leadership is now a closed chapter. I see that Mr. Bill Donohue thinks +Nienstedt was treated unjustly, and that he was fired because he is an orthodox bishop. It is a strange charge to throw at the feet of the Holy Father and I hope Mr. Donohue’s ordinary will let him know that.

Accountability has been the watchword among those who seek to end the scourge of clergy sex abuse. The Church has made strides, large strides, in implementing child protection policies, but the missing piece of the effort until 2015 was the issue of episcopal accountability. The bishops since 2002 have stated clearly how they would handle allegations of clergy sex abuse, but there were no provisions for bishops who neglected their own policies. Pope Francis has put the bishops of the world on notice: There are consequences. Two bishops have now been removed. Last week, the Holy Father announced new procedures and personnel at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to handle cases of bishops who fail to protect child, labeling such cases “abuse of office.” And, yesterday, the Vatican also announced it would initiate a trial of the defrocked, former Archbishop Joseph Wesolowski, former nuncio to Santo Domingo. If half the charges against Wesolowski are true, he was a sociopath. Like us all, he deserves his day in court. There was a time when nuncios never had to worry about landing in court no matter what they did. Those days are over.

Yesterday was not a tale of two churches, Washington showing itself proud while St. Paul endured the reckoning. There is one Catholic Church. It contains saints and sinners, and saints who sin, and sinners who have moments of holiness. It contains pastors who rise to the occasion and pastors who don’t. It brings so much wisdom to the world, and sometimes has the most difficult time keeping its own house in order. But, I close by calling attention to one particular difference between what unfolded in Washington yesterday and what transpired in St. Paul. The situation in St. Paul was dominated by self-reference, a desire to protect the Church’s image more than the safety of children. The meeting at the AFL-CIO was all about reaching to the peripheries and, just so, a sign of health. More and more, I think we realize how important Pope Francis’ call is for the Church to become less self-referential, to get out into the world, to be with poor people and common people, and not be holed up in the sacristy. I prayed yesterday for Archbishop Nienstedt as I am sure this is a painful time for him. But, I prayed too for Cardinal Wuerl, and was really glad I live in Washington.  

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