RC Health Care & Labor Unions

The Feerick Center in National Catholic Weekly, June 23, 2009

Media Source

Yesterday at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick led a conference call to release a document called "Respecting the Just Rights of Workers: Guidance and Options for Catholic Health Care and Unions." For several years, McCarrick led a working group on the text that included such labor heavyweights as John Sweeney, President of the AFL-CIO, and Dennis Rivera, Chair of SEIU Healthcare. Sister Carol Keehan, President and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, was also a central player in the negotiations. The final document, though not "binding" on individual bishops or unions, was issued under the signature of Bishop William Murphy who chairs the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

One of the animating themes of the discussions, and the subsequent document, is the recognition that for Catholics, health care ministry is just that, a ministry. As Sr. Carol said yesterday, Catholic health care "continues the healing ministry of Jesus…it is the health care workers who make that ministry active." So, this is not only about profit and loss for the Church, and to be ministerially effective, workers must enjoy the dignity and rights that the hospital wishes to extend to those who are in need of healing.

It says something, and something bad, about our culture that the document needs to call for such seemingly simple forms of courtesy as " respect," "truthful and balanced communication," and "honoring employee decisions," among the principles agreed upon by the group. For the past thirty years, our culture has been governed by the "laws of the market" not by the "dignity of the worker." So, these things must be said and kudos to our Church for saying them. In its respect for workers to determine what is best for themselves, this document carries forth the great pro-labor social teaching of the Church dating back to Pope Leo XIII’s seminal encyclical Rerum Novarum.

Another paragraph that jumped out at me discussed areas of continued disagreement. "We sometimes differed in our assessment and advocacy of various means and methods for workers to make their choices. For example, the participants differed in their views on the usefulness and difficulties of the traditional Nation Labor Relations Board (‘NLRB’) process….Participants respected these differing perspectives and did not abandon strong convictions and positions in these areas. Nonetheless, we worked diligently and persistently to find agreement on other practical alternatives that all the participants could support." These lines, to my mind, should be applicable to a range of issues on which the Church engages the culture. They could serve as "Exhibit A" when we say dialogue is a good thing or try to flesh out what we mean by seeking common ground. The next time someone poo-poohs "common ground" point to this text. It is fine to have disagreements with other people, and so long as there is mutual respect, agreement in other areas or other methods can be found with diligence and good faith.

At the press conference, I asked if the conscience rights of Catholic workers at secular hispitals had been addressed in these sessions. Sr. Carol said that they had not been: the focus was exclusively on labor relations at Catholic institutions. But, it is also clear that the more labor leaders understand that our health care system is a ministry, that its foundations are in our faith commitments which we cannot set aside, the more likely they are to put in a good word with the Obama White House and members of Congress. This is another benefit of dialogue.

I have often thought that if church leaders like Cardinal McCarrick and Sister Carol Keehan had not been born we would have needed to invent them. I still recall with bitterness the attack on McCarrick as he left office leveled by George Weigel, who questioned the value of McCarrick’s commitment to moderation and dialogue, and hinted that the cardinal would wink at a watering down of doctrine to achieve consensus. How ironic that McCarrick’s reputation for moderation and his personal commitment to dialogue may end up playing a key role in achieving conscience protections for Catholic health care workers, protections that Weigel and his crowd only got out of the Bush White House in its closing days after eight years of stalling.

As soon as the text of the document is up at the USCCB, I shall provide a link to it, as well as to Cardinal McCarrick’s opening remarks at the press conference. (UPDATE - here is the link to the document. They have not posted Card. McCarrick's remarks.) The cardinal looks fit and trim and in the best of health. For the sake of Church and country, we wish him many years. Even in retirement, he is busy accomplishing good things and gathering people into the Kingdom.