Clarifying the fairness issue Print E-mail
Bishop's Column
Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011 -- 1:00 AM
Under the Gospel Book by Bishop Robert C. Morlino
This column is the bishop’s communication with the faithful of the Diocese of Madison. Any wider circulation reaches beyond the intention of the bishop.

Dear Friends,

Believe it or not, I frequently try to avoid weighing in-on certain situations. However, the recent happenings in our state capital with regard to legislation about labor union practices beg for a comment. In this column, I simply want to point out how a well-informed conscience might work through the dilemma which the situation poses.

Should one support or oppose the legislation which regulates union procedures? The Wisconsin Catholic Conference (WCC) has chosen a neutral stance because the present dilemma comes down to either a choice for the common good, of sacrifice on the part of all, at times that pose immense economic threats, both present and future on the one hand, and on the other hand, a choice for the rights of workers to a just compensation for services rendered, and to the upholding of contracts legally made. As Catholics, we see both of these horns of the dilemma as good, and yet the current situation calls many of us to choose between these two goods. Thus the WCC has taken a neutral stance, and this is the point of Archbishop Listecki’s recent statement (below), which I have echoed.

What is fair?

The question to which the dilemma boils down is rather simple on its face: is the sacrifice which union members, including school teachers, are called upon to make, proportionate to the relative sacrifice called for from all in difficult economic times? In other words, is the sacrifice fair in the overall context of our present situation?

At a time when all are called to sacrifice, this question requires a weighing of the relative sacrifice which all are called upon to make, so that a judgment about just proportions can be made by each one of us.

Related articles:

Archbishop addresses right of workers, value of unions by Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki

Catholic teaching and unions: Framing the debate by Dr. Constance Nielsen

The teaching of the Church allows for persons of good will to disagree as to which horn of this dilemma should be chosen, because there would be reasonable justification available for either alternative. (This is unlike the case of abortion or euthanasia, for which reason can offer absolutely no justification in terms of the killing of an innocent victim.)

Reasonable disagreement

The present situation, which has evolved in our state and which is powerfully, symbolically present in the Madison demonstrations, is one which admits of disagreement in conscience as to which alternative is most appropriate. As I indicated, I believe that the final question boils down to: is the sacrifice which teachers and other labor union members are called to make fair?

The problem with responding to that question, of course, is that there appears to be no common ground in terms of what the word “fair” actually means among various individuals. Some believe that “a fair solution” would require sacrifice from everyone but self. The relativism of our culture and society once again does us grave harm, because the cultural response to the question of the meaning of “fair” is, “well, what’s fair for you is fair for you and what’s fair for me is fair for me,” leaving us no common ground for reasonable and civil discourse. We are left with our emotions about the word “fair.” This, then, is a moment in our state and in our nation when the terrible effects of relativism on a culture are being blatantly displayed.

Called to civility of discourse

Of course, those most hurt in the current contestation are the students, in terms of additional missed classroom hours, during a year when harsh winter weather has already forced much classroom closure. In addition, some question whether the substitution of active presence at the capitol of high school students, for example, amounts to their being used to gain political advantage at the cost of their learning process and the relative calm that ought to surround this process, if they really are to learn.

The matter, in the end, is one of fairness, and a culture governed by the dictatorship of relativism cannot agree on what the word “fair” means. What is left is the emotion which displays itself over and over again with increased lack of the civility to which President Obama recently, rightfully, called all of us.

Church teaching

Please pray carefully about the decision of your own conscience on this matter. It is an excellent exercise for a responsible conscience. And please pray for peaceful demonstrations in our Capitol City. Please refer to Archbishop Listecki’s letter as well, which articulates the two horns of the dilemma, with supportive texts from official Church teaching.

To the documents quoted by Archbishop Listecki I would also offer a quotation from the encyclical of Pope John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, which gives us even more “food for thought” on this matter:

“Just efforts to secure the rights of workers who are united by the same profession should always take into account the limitations imposed by the general economic situation of the country. Union demands cannot be turned into a kind of group or class ‘egoism,’ although they can and should also aim at correcting — with a view to the common good of the whole of society — everything defective in the system of ownership of the means of production or in the way these are managed. Social and socioeconomic life is certainly like a system of ‘connected vessels,’ and every social activity directed towards safeguarding the rights of particular groups should adapt itself to this system.

“In this sense, union activity undoubtedly enters the field of politics, understood as prudent concern for the common good. However, the role of unions is not to ‘play politics’ in the sense that the expression is commonly understood today. Unions do not have the character of political parties struggling for power; they should not be subjected to the decision of political parties or have too close links with them. In fact, in such a situation they easily lose contact with their specific role, which is to secure the just rights of workers within the framework of the common good of the whole of society; instead they become an instrument used for other purposes.”

Thank you very much for reading this, God bless you. Praised be Jesus Christ.