Does the church live up to its teaching?

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Article Social Justice

Does the Catholic Church Practice what it preaches about a just wage? The response of church employees, ranging from lay ministers to chaplains to hospital workers and school teachers, is a resounding no.

Catholic school teachers provide a clear case in point. Lay people now compose 85 percent of the teaching force at Catholic schools. Yet teachers in a number of dioceses across the nation earn poverty-level wages. The basic starting salary for lay teachers in Tucson, Arizona is $12,679 a year, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Catholic School Teachers. It is $11,700 in El Paso, Texas and $9,800 in Burlington, Vermont.

"Some of our teachers could qualify for food stamps, that's how bad it is," says Rita C. Schwartz, spokeswoman for the Catholic teachers association, which represents 5,000 teachers in 20 dioceses.

This is not what the Catholic bishops advocated in their 1986 pastoral letter, "Economic Justice for All." "All the moral principles that govern the just operation of any economic endeavor apply to the church, its agencies, and institutions. Indeed, the church should be exemplary," the bishops wrote.

Most people who work for Catholic institutions don't expect to draw big bucks. Teachers recognize there is no tax base to support their salaries. Workers at Catholic institutions, such as nursing homes or hospitals, know their employers operate on a not-for-profit basis. Many view their work as a calling. But that's not a license to exploit, insists William Droel, a board member of the National Center for Laity in Chicago.

"I used to think it wasn't exploitation if a person took a job with a certain sense of volunteerism and service. But I've changed my thinking over the years," says Droel, a Catholic chaplain of a Chicago-area community college. "A person's motive for taking a job has nothing to do with the justice of the wage, whether you're working in a sweat shop in Vietnam or a Catholic school."

On average, Catholic-school teachers earn 20 percent to 30 percent less than public-school instructors, according to the Catholic teachers association. The result: most Catholic-school teachers are either single or bringing in a second income for their families.

The church may talk of a family wage - one that permits only one spouse to work. Yet in practice, it provides poorly for workers with families. Most Catholic institutions extend health benefits only to the worker, not his or her dependents. Since the majority of lay employees are women, the policy is particularly hard on mothers working single-handedly to support their families.

"It's one of the serious problems that needs addressing, and it's going to happen one day," says Lucille Merlihan, director of lay pastoral ministry for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

The news is not all bad, however. A 1995 survey by William P. Daly of the National Association of Church Personnel Administrators found that salaries for professionals working in diocesan administration, such as directors of finance or communication, are comparable to those of administrative employees at other nonprofit organizations.

However, "receptionists, janitors, and food-service workers are likely to be paid below the just minimum wage, as they are in the business world," reports Daly.

A wide discrepancy also exists between pay levels of professionals working at parish-level jobs and their counterparts working for Protestant congregations. "In some cases, parish workers are earning $8,000 to $10,000 less than Protestant church workers," says Daly, who regularly monitors pay data. Salaries for support staff at Catholic parishes are equivalent to those of Protestant churches, but both "often fall below the just wage," Daly says.

But pay and benefits aren't the only concerns. "I usually don't hear about money as the first thing," says Schwartz of the teachers union. "Teachers will talk about the way they are treated, about job security, and about having a greater say in curriculum. They want to be treated with greater dignity."

No unions allowed
Citing similar concerns, an increasing number of church workers are seeking to unionize. The church's response? Although popes from Leo XIII to John Paul II have upheld the workers' right to unionize, Catholic organizations have fought to keep out unions with a zeal worthy of any Fortune 500 company.

Earlier this year, workers at Catholic Eldercare, a nonprofit Minneapolis nursing home, tried to join the Service Employees International Union after Eldercare decided to cut pay and make workers contribute more toward their health-care plans. Eldercaresaid the measures were necessary to reduce costs.

Nevertheless, Eldercare hired a management consultant to spearhead the drive against unionization. He was successful. The employee effort to unionize never made it to a vote. (Catholic Eldercare officials were not available for comment.)

At St. Therese Home, a nursing facility in New Hope, Minnesota, supervisors held one-on-one meetings with employees before they were to vote on affiliating with the service-employees union, says Zack Exley, a union organizer.

St. Therese's administrator even made a tearful plea to the employees, who were being asked to work longer hours while the home reduced their benefits. The administration also hired an outside lawfirm to battle the union. Still, St. Therese's 425 employees voted 3 to 1 last April to unionize. A spokesman for St. Therese called the drive to unionize "hurtful and upsetting" since the home cut benefits only to avoid layoffs in the face of reduced state funding.

When teachers at a Catholic school in Fairfax, Virginia tried to attend a union meeting earlier this year, the school's principal, a priest, threatened to stand at the door and take names of those who attended. "Is that the kind of Stone Age idea you would expect in a Christian church?" asks Schwartz of the Catholic teachers association.

Complicating matters for church workers is that they aren't protected by the National Labor Relations Act. The act permits unions to conduct an election at companies where 30 percent or more of employees express an interest in organizing. However, because the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that Catholic-schoolteachers are not covered by this law, bishops or pastors can intervene to block attempts to hold a union election, even if a majority of employees say they want a vote.

Why would the church encourage unions in the marketplace but not in its own workplaces?
"I think there's a feeling that you can't draw blood from a stone," says Merlihan of the pastoral-ministry office in the Chicago archdiocese. "Just because you unionize doesn't mean more money is going to be there."

Droel, the Catholic chaplain, sees a more fundamental reason. "There are people in the church who look upon unionization as a failure. We are supposed to be about human relations, and if workers are wanting to unionize, there's a feeling that somehow there's been a breakdown in communication and, as church, we should be above that," Droel says. Moreover, says Merlihan, the church has yet to adapt to the rapid changeover from a workforce of nearly all religious to one that increasingly depends on paid laity.

Ironically, salaries for many ministry jobs, such as pastoral associate, are tied directly to the laity's level of contributions. And Catholic contributions leave much to be desired. For decades Protestant churches have asked members of their congregation to give 10 percent of their salaries. Catholics, on average, give only about 1.2 percent of their annual incomes.

A 1987 study by Father Andrew Greeley and the late Bishop WilliamMcManus showed Catholic giving had declined 50 percent (as a percentage of income) between 1963 and 1984. In the same period, most parishes and Catholic schools experienced a sharp surge in paid layworkers.

Many lay workers remain at the mercy of their individual pastors or bishops when it comes to compensation. Salary levels vary widely despite efforts in recent years to set guidelines for salaries.The National Association of Church Personnel Administrators, for instance, is an independent agency that helps dioceses set pay scales for a variety of jobs.

Because individual pastors and supervisors have so much discretion, room for abuse abounds. In a 1989 study of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Father Frank Almade surveyed 458 workers, including janitors, housekeepers, bookkeepers, and secretaries. Ten percent of the diocese's workers received less than the minimum wage at the time.

A majority of full-time workers didn't receive any health benefits. Paid vacation days and pension plans varied greatly. Even the number of sick days workers could take largely reflected "the will of the pastor," Almade found.

Give them the benefits What's to be done?
Almade, currently the Pittsburgh diocese's secretary for social concerns, says at minimum church workers should be eligible for health-care coverage for themselves and their dependents, life insurance, disability insurance, personal leave time, vacation time, and pension provisions. The just wage, Almade says, must refer to a "full package of cash remuneration and benefits" available to employees.

As to how the church would pay for this, Almade says Catholics must first face up to their record on financial giving and do something about it.

Bishop McManus agreed with Almade that church officials and employees should engage in negotiations to reach consensus on just compensation for individual jobs. "When these parties reach consensus that 'this is the best we can do at this time,' their compensation package may be presumed to be just," said McManus, who was the bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne/South Bend, Indiana.

Such a process must be continuous. "This is not something you arrive at one day and it's accomplished. It's a process. There is not one perfect just wage," Almade warns. The only other moral alternative for the church, he adds, "is not to employ at all."