Homily for the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 20, 2011
Fr. Patrick Norris, O.P.
You would have thought that a Wisconsin team winning the Super Bowl or a Wisconsin team upsetting the number one team in the country in basketball last weekend would be a sign that Wisconsin had arrived! But no, it took legislators fleeing the state to avoid pursuit of state troopers to bring us to an extended stay in the national limelight.
In our city, in our state, in our world–especially in the Middle East--there has been great upheaval. If today’s Gospel reading about turning the other cheek suggests a type of passivity in the face of conflict–we are far from the Gospel vision of Jesus these days in a world permeated by tension and strife.
But was Jesus referring to passivity in the face of true injustice? If faith is to have any importance in our lives, it must be able to address the very real circumstances of our lives such as the protests down at the Capitol. The words of Jesus today must be interpreted carefully. They were not meant so much to promote passivity in the face of injustice. Jesus himself constantly confronted injustice in his day. No, today’s reading was Jesus’ attempt to curtail the vengeance and violence that characterized the “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” ethic of society. Of course, the original Mosaic law of an eye for an eye was an attempt to curtail the escalation approach to vengeance that Moses confronted.
The parts of today’s readings that are applicable to the current situation in the Capitol emphasize the law of love–love of friend and enemy. This love flows from the recognition of the inherent dignity of each person made in the image and likeness of God. It is this insight that provides the context of all Catholic social teaching and our reflection on the relationship between labor and management in particular in our fine city of Madison.
So how would this insight of faith relate to the rights of workers and the relationship between labor and management at the Capitol? In the back of Church in the pamphlet racks, I have put a letter sent out by Archbishop Listecki of Milwaukee about the issue that provides a fine summary.
Today, let me try to delve even deeper into the issue. The love of neighbor in Catholic thought leads to a fundamental concern for justice for those lacking power in society. This was affirmed by Jesus’ own ministry. Jesus exhibits what the Church terms a preferential option for the poor–recognizing when we do something for the least of our brothers and sisters in Christ–we do it for him. Consider then the world post-industrialization in the 19th century when religious people and others started to become concerned about the rights of workers in the face of exploitation by industrial giants. Pope Leo XIII in 1891 released the first papal encyclical on social issues entitled Rerum novarum (On New Things). Amongst many things, Pope Leo recognized the importance of workers’ associations and the call of labor and management to work constructively together to promote the common good by striking (no pun intended) a delicate balance between individual need and societal concerns. Popes ever since then have reiterated this vision. More recently Pope John Paul II reminded us that “a union remains a constructive factor of social order and solidarity.” The U.S. Bishops recently wrote that Catholic social thought accepts unions insofar as they serve to develop a working situation that provides “equal employment opportunities, promotes employee participation, ensures employee safety and well-being, provides just compensation and benefits, and recognizes the rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively (emphasis added),” all the while maintaining the fact that workers should be free to decide whether they wish to join a union.
How these norms are applied in any given situation is case dependent. For instance, generally unions have an ethical right to call for a strike except in cases where it would adversely impact on public health or public safety or some other essential public good. Negotiations with unions could admit of different benefit packages for different groups–for example--firefighters or police officers might be bargained with differently in terms of retirement because of certain physical requirements of the job. Of course, what constitutes a just wage that is due all employees may be subject to discussion and bargaining based on the cost of living in a particular municipality.
Although Catholic principles and norms about the rights of workers and employers do not provide concrete proposals–that is left to the people directly involved–still as Archbishop Listecki pointed out: “hard times in society and for governments do not nullify the moral obligation we have to respect the legitimate rights of workers.”
As this issue proceeds through deliberation in the days and weeks ahead, we should be attentive to make sure that the ultimate proposed legislation about limits to collective bargaining by workers does not violate the fundamental rights of workers continually recognized in papal teaching for the past 120 years.