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Trade Unions & the Catholic Church by Gerry O'Shea

by Call To Action on 03/23/18

In the early 20th century, the Catholic church was strongly in favor of the development of trade unions, a major controversial public issue at that time. Pope Leo's encyclical Rerum Novarum, which was promulgated in 1891, vigorously promoted the right of workers to organize and negotiate their wages and terms of employment.

Employers used every trick in the book - fair and foul - to prevent workers from having an organized voice. Employees often looked to Rome for support, and every pope since Leo has affirmed that workers have a clear moral right to union representation.

 Mike Quill, the outstanding Kerry man who founded the Transport Workers' Union with help from the Communist Party in the 1930's, laced his speeches with references to papal statements of support for workers' rights.

Pope Francis has confronted the conservative argument that the best economic arrangement for workers is a laissez faire approach where big company profits will flow downwards and increase the salaries of ordinary workers. Francis knows better: Trickle-down economics "expresses a crude and naive trust in those wielding economic power."

For the last fifty years the American Catholic Church has become increasingly conservative, rarely heard about the travails of workers or the plight of trade unions, rallying its members instead against abortion, gay rights and, disgracefully, even opposing Obamacare, which mostly helped the poor and working families, because it mandated the availability of contraceptives in all health insurance policies.

Bishops and cardinals are rarely heard about the serious economic inequality that now permeates American society where the top 1% has accumulated more wealth than the bottom 80%, and current Republican economic policies are making the situation even more unfair. Where are the prophetic voices on pulpits, crying out against the moral depravity of public policies that rob the poor and ordinary workers to give the millionaires even fatter bank accounts?

The situation for workers was better in the 1970's because unions were strong enough to insist on decent wages and conditions for their members. Since then union membership has declined to a mere 6.8% of workers in private industry and to 34% among public employees.

The union movement is facing a major crisis in a case that is currently before the Supreme Court.  In what is known as the Janus case, the court must decide whether to nationalize Right-to-Work laws. If the court weighs in on the side of Janus then non-union employees would be exempted from contributing to the costs of negotiating and defending the labor contract worked out by the union.

 At present employees in 22 states who choose not to join a union are mandated to pay what is called an agency fee, contributing in that way to the cost of contractual negotiations.

If the court rules against the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), then workers, like Mr. Janus, would become freeloaders, benefiting from union negotiations but not paying a penny for the service.

 Such a ruling seems likely because Republicans - against all precedent - refused to confirm Merrick Garland, President Obama's nominee to replace Anthony Scalia on the Supreme Court, instead packing the court with Neil Gorsuch, a nominee with strong right-wing conservative credentials.

A decision against AFSCME would cripple union organizing nationwide, and just imagine the disgruntlement of union members paying higher union dues to benefit freeloading co-workers. Keep in mind that nobody wants to force any worker into joining a union or to compel any employee to contribute to any political party; the sole issue is that workers who benefit from contractual negotiations should pay an agency fee for this service.

The Catholic bishops, true to their honorable pro-union heritage, have filed a strong  brief with the Supreme Court supporting the AFSCME position, arguing cogently that Janus' case is "a misguided effort to protect one individual from government coercion" without giving due weight to the powerful argument that the common good of all workers requires the rejection of any law that, in effect, protects freeloaders.

Bishop David Zubick of Pittsburg wrote a strong, heartfelt column in his diocesan newspaper seconding the amicus brief of the Bishops' Conference." I grew up in a union household. My father was able to support his family thanks to leadership of his union, Local 590.  .... The role of unions in supporting strong families is one of the reasons that the church has supported the labor movement from its earliest days."

The common good, what benefits the community as a whole as distinct from the private gain of individuals, is paramount in all the social teaching of the Catholic Church. One hopes that this core moral perspective will prevail in the Janus case before the Supreme Court.

Gerry O'Shea blogs at wemustbetalking.com

 

Humanae Vitae - 50 Years Later by Gerry O'Shea

by Call To Action on 02/28/18

1968, 50 years ago, is sometimes described as annus horribilis  - a time of devastating events and awful tragedies. In March Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, and in June Bobby Kennedy suffered the same fate in Los Angeles. In August Soviet tanks shattered a brave and hopeful democratic dawn in Prague, and riots at the July Democratic Convention in Chicago reflected deep societal divisions about the jungle war in Vietnam.

In October in Northern Ireland  civil rights marchers faced the same police thuggery that Martin King and his supporters had to endure in Alabama and Tennessee. The mayhem of the civil rights marches morphed into the Irish "Troubles" that lasted for thirty years.

Then in the summer of 1968 Pope Paul  V1 published his much-anticipated encyclical Humanae Vitae which asserted that the use of contraceptives, even by married couples, was against the laws of nature and thus sinful.

Paul's predecessor, John XX111, had set up a consultative commission to advise him on this vital issue. The Second Vatican Council, in the spirit of the 60's, urged the church to move away from the autocratic model where the man at the top decided and  the people obeyed. This conservative approach was summarized  in church circles as Roma locuta est, causa finita est - Rome has spoken; the discussion is over.

The new mood of openness was supported by many church leaders and indeed the Council documents favored  collegial decision-making over the old hierarchical model. The 72-member advisory commission included 16 theologians, 13 doctors, 5 women and an executive of 9 bishops and 7 cardinals. After extensive deliberations it reported in 1966 to John's successor, Pope Paul. Apart from a minority of six traditionalists who claimed the Church could not change its long-held position of opposition to the use of contraceptives, the vast majority saw no moral  conflict between Catholic beliefs and the use of condoms or the contraceptive pill by married couples.

Unfortunately, Paul sided with the minority and his encyclical Humanae Vitae reflected the narrow scholastic thinking that prevailed among traditionalists. Rome had spoken but this time there was a heated and  bitter debate around what many Catholics  considered the pope's spurious arguments about contraception.

Paul was greatly influenced by the 1930 encyclical  Casti Connubii written by Pius X1. That papal letter espoused a strict ban on the use of contraceptives and branded any deviation from this ruling as a "grave sin." Paul felt - with good reason - that if he sided with the majority on the commission he would be inviting harsh condemnation from traditionalists who would demand an explanation of how sexual acts that Pius called intrinsically evil in 1930 could be morally permissible forty years later.

The pope used Natural Law reasoning which  argues that stymieing the conjugal act by preventing the possibility of pregnancy is unnatural and therefore immoral. Deriving moral imperatives from the purposes of physical acts is problematic for many modern ethicists.

There is another criterion for judging the morality of any human behavior. This involves  Catholics from all backgrounds deciding in good conscience what is right  and what is wrong from an ethical standpoint. This approach is called the Sensus Fidelium and involves ascertaining the sense of the faithful about any issue. In other words, the beliefs and practices of the people in the pews should be seriously considered before making moral pronouncements. Advocates for this democratic approach point out that  the Holy Spirit  is active with the whole community not just with the hierarchy.

Viewed through the prism of the Sensus Fidelium, Paul's  teaching about  the use of contraceptives was rejected by the vast majority of Catholics. Arguing, for instance, that the Natural Law forbids a married couple from using a condom to prevent pregnancy runs  counter to common sense.

 His central conclusion in the encyclical that  the use of contraceptives by married couples is somehow against  the Church's moral code  was rejected and disregarded by most people who agreed with the majority opinion on the papal commission.

Some conservatives still carry the torch for the teaching in Humanae Vitae. Breitbart News  joined the debate by opining that using contraceptives makes women "unattractive and crazy," and the American Catholic Bishops are seriously considering basing their upcoming pastoral letter about the importance of the family on the teaching in Pope Paul's encyclical.

Francis has not repudiated his predecessor's teaching in Humanae Vitae - to do so would almost certainly cause a schism in the church. However he recommended that three children  would be appropriate for most families and he condemned the idea of Catholic families "breeding like rabbits."

Should popes feel bound by previous papal pronouncements on moral matters? Paul couldn't follow the advice of the clear majority of Pope John's commission because of Pius's encyclical, and Francis is tied to the flawed  Natural Law reasoning used by both of his predecessors.


THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADE UNIONS by Gerry O'Shea

by Call To Action on 12/27/17

Let's consider an imaginary company in America, a publicly-traded corporation with 1000 employees who have just announced annual profits of 100 million dollars.

Their accountants say that they owe 10% in government taxes, so the question arises about where the remaining 90 millions go. There are three groups with legitimate claims on the company profits: management, shareholders and regular workers.

Forty years ago the average CEO's salary in America was twenty times more than one of the company's line workers; today the ratio has climbed to an astonishing two hundred and seventy. If we take the average worker's salary as $50,000, that gives the CEO annual compensation in multiple millions.

That is how the cake is divided. The corporate executives and the shareholders are represented at the table when the profits are divvied up and they take good care of their interests, but the workers have no voice in the decision-making. The result is that, despite big increases in corporate profits, ordinary workers' salaries have barely matched the inflation rate since the 1970's. Surely a classical example of a rigged system where the majority of those who contributed to the company's success have no say in the distribution of the profits.

In the same 50-year period union membership has declined dramatically. Now only 6.4% of private sector workers carry a union card; the figure was about five times that in the 1970's. The union contracts negotiated at that time ensured steady improvements in the lives of workers and their families. In addition there was a strong ripple effect on the wages and conditions of non-union workers as employers felt that they had to remain competitive in their salary structure.

The dramatic growth in income inequality in the United States is closely related to the decline in union membership.

Even today union workers earn up to 30% more than similar employees in companies that do not have an organized voice. And  trade union members nearly always have better healthcare, vacation and pension benefits.

Public sector workers, especially in the tri-state area, are highly unionized and their wages, pensions and working conditions reflect a powerful voice at the negotiating table. As a retired teacher, I am grateful that I am represented by a strong union, the United Federation of Teachers.

It is hard to see how the lot of most private-sector blue-collar workers will improve without a strong voice at the corporate table. This will entail an unlikely spurt of growth in trade union membership or legislation in Washington that would mandate this change.

Unfortunately, Republicans would strongly oppose any legislative proposal in the direction of worker representation on company boards. Their recent taxation policies clearly favor corporations and the rich. They promise that higher company profits will somehow dribble down and result in salary increases for workers - a very dubious proposition that doesn't meet the common sense test.

Democrats usually get the support and financial backing of the big unions and their economic and taxation policies are much more likely to favor the middle class. President Obama did raise taxes on the affluent to help fund the Affordable Care Act, and Hillary Clinton promised that, if elected, she would propose a bill that would encourage some profit-sharing by companies - surely a step in the right direction. Still, overall, Democrats lack conviction in this regard and show no plans to address these issues.

Of all the Christian denominations, the Catholic Church has been most associated with supporting workers' rights. From Pope Leo the X111's revolutionary encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891 to John XX111's Mater et Magistra 70 years later to many statements by the present pope, Rome has been clearly in the workers' corner, favoring their demands, including the right to organize and to negotiate a living wage. Mater et Magistra goes further, asserting that workers should be co-owners and thus sharing in the profits of the enterprise where they work.

Unfortunately, very little is heard from the pulpits on the glaring injustices suffered by ordinary workers. Why are there no outraged church voices raised against the immorality of stagnant employee wages and reduced worker healthcare benefits when companies are making record profits and CEO's are raking in millions? Instead we have top leaders with names like Ryan and Brady disgracefully leading the charge for improving the lot of the already well-heeled.

The millions of workers who in frustration voted for Trump last year must surely realize by now that this administration in Washington does not respond to their needs. They should rally around an assertive trade union leader - like a Cesar Chavez or a Mike Quill - to realize the power of  worker solidarity. A tall order for sure, but otherwise the remuneration of top management compared to the pay of ordinary workers will widen even further.

Is The Pope Catholic? by Gerry O'Shea

by Call To Action on 12/06/17

Asking Is the pope Catholic is widely understood as a rhetorical question indicating that the only answer has to be "yes." How could anyone cast doubt on the pope's religious affiliation?

Amazingly, a small but powerful minority of Catholic theologians and church leaders are doing just that, and they raise real doubts about his commitment to what they consider core Catholic beliefs.

 A minority of these dissidents believe that the church has already veered into schism while others assert that Francis' statements on some important moral issues have caused serious confusion and bewilderment among the faithful.

How does one explain this extraordinary situation?

 In 2014 and 2015 the Synod of Bishops met at Francis' invitation to consider how best the church could minister to the modern family in all its permutations, including divorced people in new relationships and members in same sex partnerships.

Two approaches were evident in this all-male assembly. One group argued that only an exclusive marriage union of man and woman is morally permissible. Divorce is completely out except where the divorced partner has received a church annulment. They argue that it has always been church teaching that someone in a second marital relationship - while the first spouse is still alive -  is committing adultery which rules that person out from receiving communion.

The second group, following more liberal thinking, doesn't dispute the church history of teaching against allowing the remarriage of divorced church members, but they stress that a pastoral approach to people in new marital relationships should not exclude them from participating in the most revered Catholic sacrament, the Eucharist.

These theologians point to the example of Christ who scorned many of the pharisaic laws of his time in favor of a perspective characterized by mercy and forgiveness. Pope Francis supports this approach.

Cardinal Muller who was Francis' doctrinal leader in the Vatican made no bones about his opposition to his boss: "No power in heaven or on earth, neither an angel or the pope, has the power to change church doctrine." This confrontational statement implied that the pope was acting beyond his authority when he opened the door to divorced church members receiving communion in his statement, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) published following the bishops' synod deliberations.

Four other cardinals, including the American Cardinal Burke, wrote a formal letter, called a "dubia" or doubt document, in the fall of 2016 disputing parts of Amoris Laetitia. They argued that it is an article of faith that church doctrine can never change, and they were clear that the ban on adulterers - their language - receiving communion could never be lifted.

Many conservative theologians supported the cardinals' dubia and urged Francis to meet with the dissidents to assure them that he fully supported traditional doctrine. Talk about papal heresy was only mentioned by a few clerics and theologians on the far right but there is no denying that many church conservatives are openly dissatisfied with Pope Francis.

There are other issues that seriously divide the Catholic Church. Francis' predecessor, Benedict, spoke of homosexual relationships as profoundly disordered and against the laws of nature. Francis would never use such negative and demeaning language. His attitude to gays is best summed up as "live and let live and don't play God."

He has met with transgender people and many gay partners in his office in the Vatican, at all times proclaiming that, especially in matters of sexual ethics, only God judges and even as pope he is not asking for a share in this responsibility! He appointed Blase Cupich as Archbishop of Chicago even though Cupich openly supports welcoming homosexual couples to the altar rails for communion.

Francis travelled to Sweden to celebrate with Lutheran leaders the contributions of Martin Luther to religious progress. He pronounced that Luther was "a witness to the gospel" and the Vatican issued a stamp honoring him. Traditionalists were aghast at this behavior. They have consigned Luther to the hottest corner of hell and recall the history of hatred and wars that they say his heretical revolt against Rome started 500 years ago.

They accuse Francis of relativism, an excessive openness to changing with the times. In the world of Thomas Aquinas and the scholastics what was morally wrong a thousand years ago continues to be wrong for all time and in all cultures. This is basic teaching for nearly all traditionalists. There is no place in this thinking for what is derided as situation ethics which allows for variations in what is right and wrong, depending on place, time and circumstances.

These divisions are very evident in the American church. The United States conference of bishops at their recent meeting in Baltimore agreed that following on Amoris Laetitia they will publish a document next year on meeting the complex needs of families in the United States. It seems that many of those attending want to use Humanae Vitae, the discredited 50-year old encyclical of Paul V1 which condemned the use of condoms and contraceptive pills by Catholics, as somehow a template for their 2019 letter.

This does not augur well for a pastoral letter on the changing demands of family life. It is also depressing for progressive Catholics that the bishops elected a conservative Kansas archbishop to oversee the Pro-Life Activities Committee over Cardinal Blase Cupich who mirrors Francis' pastoral approach.

Pope Francis is the most respected public figure in the world. His people in what he calls the field hospital of life are behind his agenda to move the church forward from a mostly static and immovable institution to a dynamic positive force for all people in the 21st century. He surely deserves our prayers and goodwill.

 

The Trickle Down Theory - The Kansas Experiment by Gerry O'Shea

by Call To Action on 10/31/17

The President has a new tax plan which, predictably, he is promoting as providing "the largest tax cuts in U.S. history." The truth is that, if his proposals are enacted, the only people who will be cheering will be the top 1%.

The non-partisan Tax Policy Center estimates that by 2027 Trump's proposals would result in a tax increase for a quarter of middle class families. The same tax experts say that 80% of the gains will go to the top 1% of Americans.

There would be a cut in the highest individual rates, a reduction in corporate taxes and an end to the estate tax, which Republicans call the death tax, but which only applies to the relatively few affluent estates worth more than five and a half million.

How do Republicans led by President Trump plan to balance the books? How do they avoid ballooning the deficit which they claim repeatedly is anathema to them? Their main argument is that big tax cuts will lead to significant increases in employment numbers and workers' wages, which, in turn, will result in larger tax revenue and thus cover most of the increase in the deficit.

Part of their plan involves repatriation of overseas company profits, variously estimated at from three to five trillion, at a new very low tax rate, and the belief that this money will trickle down to ordinary workers to the tune of an estimated $4000 per family. Anyone who believes that this bit of chicanery will end up in increases in workers' paychecks should look at that bridge that is for sale in Brooklyn.

Every major Republican since Ronald Reagan has given full and seemingly unquestioned allegiance and credibility to the Trickle Down Theory of Economics.  In a nutshell, this states that if  a government gives big tax breaks to the wealthy, the new money accrued by the rich will somehow be passed on to the middle class and the poor.

A hundred years ago this thinking had a more imaginative name: the Horse and Sparrow Theory, based on its claim that if you feed a horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows to peck on. In the last general election in New Zealand, Damien O'Connor, a leader of the Labor Party there,  memorably described the theory as "the rich peeing on the poor!"

Most economists reject the assertion that the way to help the people at the bottom is to enrich the plutocrats at the top. In fact, a few highly-regarded studies show clearly that when low and  middle class workers get extra tax benefits in their paychecks it results in a real increase in their living standard and more broadly in improved economic activity in the wider community.

The state of Kansas provides an excellent and up-to-date example of the effectiveness of the Trickle Down Theory, which is also often spoken of as supply-side economics. Sam Brownback rode the Tea Party wave to the governor's office in Topeka in 2010, and he was re-elected in 2014. He promised to make Kansas "a red-state model" for Trickle Down economics, and indeed he reduced tax rates and the number of  brackets and created special accounting privileges for businesses.

But the "miracle" never happened. Instead state education spending dropped by 15%, severely impacting the poorest districts. Pot-holed highways reminded voters how services had deteriorated, and instead of the promised burst of growth, the Kansas economy grew by just 0.2% last year compared to 1.6% nationally.

The Brownback budgeting experiment resulted in revenues dwindling to the extent that the state legislators of both parties passed a budget that increased revenue by 1.2 billion dollars over two years and  then overrode the Governor's veto of this legislation.

The lesson is that this trickle-down template does not work as promised. Huge tax cuts do not magically result in economic growth and more revenue. Common sense strongly suggests that when government wants to give back some money to taxpayers, the results are much more likely to be positive for the community if the money is distributed among those who will spend it rather than giving it to people who are more likely to hoard it. Kansas experimented with Trickle Down and it was a disaster for that state.

The Trump budget proposals would massively re-distribute wealth upwards while trimming social programs - like food stamps - that provide some help for the poor. Where is the outrage about  these misguided and cruel policies from evangelical Christians and Catholics, who strongly supported the Trump candidacy, and claim to be guided by the moral standards in the  Old and New Testaments?

Giving more money to those who don't need it while reducing the meager entitlements of the poor is surely the very antithesis of Christian social teaching. Considering this budget in conjunction with various Republican proposals that would end healthcare coverage for millions of struggling middle-income families, which they have now under President Obama's Affordable Care Act, should surely elicit outrage among church leaders. These are quintessentially moral issues that should be heard about from our pulpits.

Pope Francis is very clear about the cruel deception of Trickle-Down Economics: "The promise was that when the glass is full, it would overflow, benefiting the poor, but what happens is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger. Nothing  EVER comes out for the poor."

 Sam Brownback, a devout Catholic, is still preaching the Trickle Down gospel, despite the evidence of its dismal failure in his own state.

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