Last month, I had the challenging experience of making a presentation to an all-party committee of the Alberta Legislature. The presentation addressed changes to the Alberta government’s minimum wage policy.
My presentation spoke of the need for a living wage based on a respect for the dignity of human work as articulated in Catholic social teaching.
During the questions that followed my presentation, one of the MLAs asked about the role of ethics in economic policy. He said he was from Calgary, and he was thinking about the critical statements of Bishop Fred Henry concerning casinos.
The MLA chose a challenging example. Several years ago, Bishop Henry and the other Alberta bishops issued a strong statement criticizing the Alberta government’s policy of increasing its revenues from gambling to support needed government and community services.
Premier Ralph Klein quickly criticized the bishops for being hypocritical, as he tabled a list of Catholic organizations that had applied for and received government grants that were known to be from gambling sources. Since then, the Catholic bishops in Alberta have insisted that Catholic organizations distance themselves from gambling revenues.
The bishops were right to challenge the government’s increasing reliance on gambling revenues, but it became clear that the Church will have to “walk the talk” in its own practices if it is to have credibility in its public statements.
The 1971 International Synod of Bishops in Justice in the World addressed this issue explicitly: “While the Church is bound to give witness to justice, she recognizes that anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes.”
More recently, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church restates this message: “The Church profoundly experiences the need to respect justice and human rights within her own ranks” (n. 159).
After I left the legislative hearing room, I thought about what I would have said if one of the MLAs had challenged me about whether the Catholic Church “walked the talk” in respecting the human dignity of its own workers.
Respect for human dignity in work has been a consistent theme of Catholic social teaching for more than 100 years. Canon law is clear that this teaching applies to employment within Church institutions: Church administrators “are to pay a just and decent wage to employees so that they are able to provide fittingly for their own needs and those of their dependents” (canon 1286). Today this is called “a living wage.”
Another canon law refers to social security and health benefits for laypersons working for the Church (canon 231). Diocesan administrators, pastors and parish councils may not be able to offer their employees a competitive wage, but paying a living wage must be the highest priority.
However, this is not only a question for Church leadership. The U.S. bishops insist that their obligations to their workers “cannot be met without the increased (monetary) contributions of all members of the Church” (Economic Justice for All, n. 351).
Respecting the human dignity of workers is not only about money. Human dignity is best honoured in a workplace environment of mutual trust, transparency, participation and respect. Several canon law commentators speak of the importance of written employment contracts as a means to realize these values.
Contracts should include clear employer expectations, job descriptions, expected hours of work, overtime arrangements, accountability, a grievance process and procedures for employee evaluations.
Today, administrators in most of our larger Church institutions, such as diocesan centres, health care, education and social service organizations, make a serious effort to address many of these workplace concerns.
However, in Church organizations with a smaller number of employees, such as local parishes, the situation can be quite different. I still hear from parish employees who work without contracts, face unrealistic overtime demands or who receive very low salaries. Pastors, parish council members and all parishioners should check out the situation of their own workers, and make the needed changes where required.
If the Catholic Church is to continue its century-long tradition of being a public voice for workplace justice in public places such as the Alberta Legislature, it must be able to speak with integrity, and must embody the values of the Catholic social doctrine it teaches in its own workplaces.
(Bob McKeon: firstname.lastname@example.org)