March 14, 2012

Maine Voices: Catholic social justice concerns eclipse 'culture war' rhetoric

Centering on social and economic parity, essential church teachings part ways with the right wing.

By Brian Kilroy and Thomas Gruber, who both served on the Parish Council for Holy Martyrs Catholic Church, Falmouth

As lifelong Catholics who are interested in a bit more than Catholic teachings on contraception and traditional marriage, we enthusiastically support the Rev. Michael Seavey's excellent Maine Voices column ("Egg farm workers' rights should not have an expiration date," March 5) decrying the recent Republican-led partisan vote in the Maine House of Representatives stripping collective bargaining rights from workers at the former DeCoster egg farm in Turner.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Brian Kilroy is a former teacher and labor researcher who lives in Falmouth. Thomas Gruber is a retired hospital administrator and Army officer who lives in Cumberland Foreside. Both served on the Parish Council for Holy Martyrs Catholic Church, Falmouth.

Father Seavey's piece provides a poignant reminder that many of the essential social teachings of the Catholic Church are actually far-reaching and broadly inclusive. These teachings call for the creation of a fair and just society where American workers, for example, have protected rights to organize into unions, be paid a livable wage, be treated with dignity and have a collective voice in discussions with their employers about safe and healthful working conditions.

For more than 100 years, and most recently brought together in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the Catholic Church has consistently advocated that the "first principle of the whole ethical and social order" of a just society requires that all persons have access to sufficient goods to live in dignity and to develop to their fullest potential. (This principle in Catholic teaching is called the "universal destination of goods.")

While Catholic tradition is not opposed to wealth, private property and free markets, their value is instrumental rather than intrinsic, and tradition advises that these instruments should be viewed as vehicles to advance the common good and to create a widely shared prosperity, and not pursued as ends in themselves.

Church doctrine has consistently cited "equality" as a core measure of economic well-being, and warned that the growing disparity in the accumulation of wealth in our larger society violates basic principles of truth and justice, which, in turn, helps create conditions that threaten social cohesion and jeopardize the democratic process.

Contrary to the free-wheeling, regulation-free environment currently popularized and promoted by the conservative right, decades of Catholic social teaching establish that markets need government to provide laws that ensure transparency, enforce contracts in the business world, reduce corruption and prevent what Benedict XVI calls the "reckless speculation" in financial sectors that risks the security of all persons in the larger economy.

His predecessor, John Paul II, taught that markets must be "appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the state to assure that the basic needs of the whole society are satisfied."

As Catholics, we must remember that John Paul II emphatically taught that labor has an "intrinsic priority" over capital and that working (Maine) families – such as those at the egg farm in Turner – deserve the timeless right to organize into unions and protect and support themselves.

Toward this end, Catholic social teaching has considered labor unions "indispensable," as they provide a check on the unbridled concentration of wealth and economic power that threatens equality. Benedict XVI goes even further in his remarks and states that any attempt to "limit the freedom or negotiating capacity of labor unions clearly violates Catholic doctrine."

So, it seems that Catholic social and religious teaching is a bit more expansive and inclusive than the very narrow range of issues that have been carefully selected, labeled, packaged, spun and promoted by the conservative right in an attempt to further polarize the American political scene and in turn, capture and deliver the "Catholic vote" to the Republican Party in the upcoming elections.

How about an authentic and inclusive debate on all of the principles of "social and economic justice" that comprise Catholic teachings and tradition?

Maybe then, the often-quoted and often-heralded slogan hanging in many Catholic churches today ("Catholics Can Always Come Home") will be more appealing to many Catholics across the political spectrum. They remember an institution that, once upon a time, advanced – across political party lines -- traditional church teachings against social and economic injustice and fought to mitigate economic disparities between "haves" and "have-nots" in an effort to build a stronger, more united America.

After all, there should be no expiration date on truth, either. Let's get on with it.

 

- Special to The Press Herald

 

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