March 1st, 2011
01:40 PM ET
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
With the Roman Catholic Church in the United States mostly identifying with conservative political causes these days - think abortion or gay marriage - seeing the American bishops come out for union workers battling Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker came as something of a surprise, a throwback to an era when the church was pretty well aligned with the American left.
“These are not just political conflicts or economic choices; they are moral choices with enormous human dimensions,” Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, California, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said in a public letter last week.
“The debates over worker representation and collective bargaining are not simply matters of ideology or power, but involve principles of justice, participation and how workers can have a voice in the workplace and economy,” his letter said.
At the same time, the bishops are not actively lobbying on behalf of labor in Wisconsin or in other states where union/statehouse battles are playing out.
“We’re not preparing anything else,” U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spokeswoman Mar Munoz-Visoso said Monday.
“The bishops of each state have the opportunity to participate in the dialogue and to bring Catholic teaching to that dialogue,” she said.
It’s a sharp contrast to how the church approaches some other issues, like abortion and immigration reform, on which the bishops have staked out a liberal line. On those issues, the bishops have used their political muscle to lobby Congress and other public officials.
The leader of the Catholic Church in Wisconsin issued a statement (PDF) on Walker’s call for curbing collective bargaining rights that sounded sympathetic to unions, but he is refraining from further activism, a spokesman says.
Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome L. Listecki weighed in on the unions’ battle with the governor in February, saying that “hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.”
It is a “mistake to marginalize or dismiss unions as impediments to economic growth,” Listecki’s statement said.
He quoted Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote in 2009 that “the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend (workers’) rights must … be honored today even more than in the past.”
But a spokesman for Listecki said Monday that the archbishop and the broader church would refrain from further activism in the fight between workers and Walker.
“The role of the church is not to be partisan or to take sides; it’s always to teach,” said Jerry Topczewski, Listecki’s chief of staff.
The archbishop has turned down many requests to appear at rallies for and against Walker’s plan, Topczewski said.
He said Listecki’s statement last week has been cited by both supporters and opponents of Walker’s proposal and noted that the statement did not offer unqualified support for unions.
“Every union, like every other economic actor, is called to work for the common good, to make sacrifices when required, and to adjust to new economic realities,” the archbishop’s statement said.
“Depending on who you talk to, you would think the archbishop is the biggest union supporter or the biggest union buster in Wisconsin,” Topczewski said.
Either way, the Catholic Church is staying on the sidelines of the nation's current labor battles for now, letting its public statements speak for themselves.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.