December 16, 2011

Indiana’s bishops offer statement on state labor issues

Indiana Catholic Conference logo(Editor’s note: With the start of the 2012 Indiana General Assembly less than a month away, proposed bills have prompted a public discussion regarding labor unions and workers’ rights. Because these topics affect the common good, the Catholic bishops of Indiana issued the following statement, which outlines principles of Church social teaching that can guide deliberations and those people involved. This statement was recently shared with Gov. Mitch Daniels and each member of the state legislature.)

In 2011, a number of new laws were passed in the Indiana State Legislature concerning labor unions. Additional legislation is being proposed concerning workers and labor unions.

These laws and the proposed new legislation have certainly generated significant debate and emotion within our community. As a Church, we Catholics always seek to promote justice and the common good, and foster goodwill and harmony within our community.

The Catholic Church has a long history of promoting workers’ rights and justice in the market place.

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII outlined the basic principles in his encyclical letter “Rerum Novarum.”

Among other things, the pope clarified Catholic social teaching on the protection of basic economic and political rights, including the right to a just wage and the right to organize associations or unions to defend just claims. To that end, we offer a brief review of key principles from Catholic social teaching that should be kept in mind.

The intrinsic dignity of the human person

The intrinsic dignity of the human person is the core value of Catholic social teaching. “Men and women, in the concrete circumstances of history, represent the heart and soul of Catholic social thought” (“Centesimus Annus,” 11).

The whole of the Church’s social doctrine, in fact, develops from the principle that affirms the inviolable dignity of the human person (“Mater et Magistra,” 220).

This dignity grounds certain rights including—but not limited to—the right to a just wage (“Laborem Exercens,” 19), the right to a working environment that is not harmful to the workers’ physical health or to their moral integrity (“Laborem Exercens,” 19), and the right to assemble and form associations (“Rerum Novarum,” 49ff).

Rights have limits that are shaped by the rights of others, and by the responsibilities that come with the exercise of those rights.

The right to a just wage

“Remuneration is the most important means for achieving justice in work relationships” (“Laborem Exercens,” 19). Workers must be paid a wage that allows them to live a truly human life and to fulfill their family obligations in a worthy manner.

However, the right to a just wage is not absolute and other factors shape the assessment of a just wage—namely, the effective contribution which each individual makes to the economic effort and the financial state of the company for which he or she works (“Mater et Magistra,” 71).

The right of free association

Church teaching supports the right of groups of employees to freely associate and to form unions. “They [unions] are indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice … but it is not a struggle ‘against’ others” (“Laborem Exercens,” 20).

“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” (“Laborem Exercens,” 20).

Of particular concern are unions that use their resources to support politicians or political parties that clearly devalue the sanctity of human life or the institution of marriage. The protection of human life, and the integrity of any marriage as the union of one man and one woman, are foundational elements of the common good.

The Church has a sacred reverence for the dignity of conscience and for the right to act in freedom to make moral decisions (“Gaudium et Spes,” 41 and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1782). In keeping with this, any form of coercion on the part of ownership, management or a union is to be condemned.

Closing thoughts

We offer our teaching and principles. How these are applied is another matter altogether, best discerned within the political and public forums. “The Church’s social doctrine teaches that relations within the world of work must be marked by cooperation: hatred and attempts to eliminate the other are completely unacceptable” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, #306).

It is our prayer that legislators, owners, managers, workers, unions and associations continue to engage in constructive dialogue that puts the dignity and free will of the human person first, while working cooperatively for the common good.

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne
Apostolic Administrator
Archdiocese of Indianapolis

Bishop Charles C. Thompson
Diocese of Evansville

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades
Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend

Bishop Dale J. Melczek
Diocese of Gary

Bishop Timothy Doherty
Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana †

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