Friday, December 14, 2012
In recent weeks, for various reasons, I have dramatically cut-back my consumption of online, TV, and dead-tree news and commentary -- unless it has to do with Duke basketball or Notre Dame football. I have to admit, it's been great. I had been overdoing it, and it seemed (and seems) a better response to my disappointment with the election results, and my concerns about their implications, to focus on Advent and coaching fifth-grade basketball.
Among the things I don't miss about the pre-election fire-hose of news-and-opinion -- besides the endless self-affirming and snarky political Facebook posts -- is the all-too-frequent strategic and tactical deployment of (as opposed to conscientious and prayerful engagement with) Catholic Social Doctrine, and the invocation of an (in Catholic teaching) not-warranted distinction between "social justice" teaching and, say, pro-life and religious-freedom teaching. But, of course, the fact that I'm for the most part ignoring this deployment doesn't mean it is not still happening (yes, yes, on both sides, I know). Certainly, the debates about the "fiscal cliff", and about the merits of the union-related legislation in Michigan, are providing more occasions and opportunities for it to happen.
Now, in recent months, many Catholic bloggers, thinkers, writers, etc., have been quick (appropriately so, in many cases) to identify and criticize what they regard as mis-uses by conservatives and Republicans of Catholic Social Doctrine and Catholic teaching generally. They have pointed out, for example, that "subsidiarity" is not reducible to "federalism", or "localism", or across-the-board smaller government (for a great piece on what it is, see this, by Patrick Brennan). They've pointed out the importance of not confusing "intrinsic evil" with "the worst and most bad things." And so on.
In some cases, these corrections were important. That said, I think similar vigilance needs to be exercised with respect to invocations of Leo XIII, Catholic Social Doctrine, the dignity of labor, the freedom of association, Christian moral anthropology, etc., in course of sweeping criticisms of "anti-union" legislation (see, e.g., recent enactments in Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin) or overbroad endorsements of Labor's agenda and practice in present-day America.
To be clear: Civil society matters; the human person is relational and situated; work is a participation in the creative activity of God; all human persons, because they are persons, possess a dignity; workers have a right to associate, organize, and advocate (consistent with public order and the common good) for their interests; and profit-maximization is not a moral-trump. Labor unions helped bring about many good things; opponents of labor unions have often done bad things. It would be wrong for a political community to prohibit or unreasonably burden the freedom of association that workers (like the rest of us) enjoy. In other words, much of what left-leaning Catholics like Michael Sean Winters and Morning's Minion and Lew Daly have been saying about labor-related matters is true.
But . . . just as "subsidiarity" is more than a slogan about "small government", the writing and thought of Leo XIII on the social question and the social order is not reducible to "unionism, as presently defended and advocated for in early 21st century America, is to be supported by faithful, thoughtful Catholics." It's not that unions were once necessary, but now they are not. It's that unionism is to be supported by faithful, thoughtful Catholics when it is consistent with, and actually carrying out, Catholic Social Doctrine, and not (or, at least, not necessarily) when it is not. To resist overreach and bad-acting by unions is, well, to resist overreach and bad-acting; it's not to stomp on Rerum novarum.
In my view, it is vital to keep in mind, as we try to think with Christ and the Church -- and not with either the Chamber of Commerce or the Democratic Party -- about union-related policy, to take into account (to the extent we can) the costs and benefits of proposals and practices, and to look at what unions are, and are not, actually doing with the power they have, and not merely to wield a "the Church teaches that unions are good" stamp. In fact, unions and unionism are sometimes bad (just as religious freedom -- which is good -- is sometimes abused).
For example: In the United States, teachers unions are, on balance, definitely not good. They have, historically, been a powerful force for anti-Catholicism and the obstruction of reforms, including reforms that the Church clearly teaches are morally required. It is a grave injustice to require parents who want their children to be educated in (reasonably regulated and reasonably well performing) Catholic schools to pay twice (that is, to deny public funding to those parents). Legislatures should not extend special powers to teachers unions, and they should oppose them to the extent it is necessary to re-orient education-related spending and policy in the best interests of children (and in a way that advances religious freedom and pluralism) and not of public employees who work in government-run schools. Another point: It is not good for unions to use workers’ contributions to support political causes – say, abortion rights – that are not relevant to the association’s purpose and mission.
Finally, whatever the merits of the “closed shop” arrangement might be in the commercial context, it is extremely difficult to defend – indeed, it would seem to violate, rather than advance, the freedom of association – in the public-service and public-education sectors. Too often, the relationship between legislative majorities, or powerful legislative interests, and public-employee unions is so cozy as to make it difficult to meaningfully describe these unions as part of a healthy civil society. Indeed, and more generally, a thoughtful and nuanced Catholic approach to these matters would insist on a distinction between the public-employment context and the private-employment context – not because public employees do not have a right to associate (of course they do!) but because they do not have a moral right to use political power to extract excessive benefits for themselves at the expense of third parties (i.e., taxpayers) who are not meaningfully “at the table” of the relevant negotiations. And so on.
Anyway . . . Go Irish. And, have a blessed Advent.