Gospel of Wealth | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Gospel of Wealth

When Catholic schools run afoul of Catholic teaching

Saith the Good Book, "Behold, the hire of the laborers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries ... are entered into the ears of the Lord."

Saith Duquesne University unto its 130 liberal-arts adjunct instructors: "To hell with that."

Duquesne's adjuncts, like adjuncts elsewhere, are academia's leper class: part-timers who typically lack health insurance, let alone tenure. At Duquesne, instructors earn a paltry $10,000 teaching four classes a year. So like adjuncts elsewhere, they've sought to form a union, under the United Steelworkers.

You'd think Duquesne, a Catholic university, would approve. Its security and maintenance workers are already unionized, and support for unions is a tenet of Catholic faith. As Pope Benedict XVI affirmed in 2009: "[R]epeated calls within the Church's social doctrine ... for the promotion of workers' associations that can defend their rights must ... be honored today even more than in the past." 

Or not.

More than half of Duquesne's adjuncts have signed union cards. But in May, rather than recognize the union, Duquesne demanded an election be held under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board. Then, weeks after making that demand, Duquesne demanded the election be voided. 

The reason? Thanks to the First Amendment and a 1979 Supreme Court ruling, university filings assert, government "cannot exercise jurisdiction over Duquesne because Duquesne is a ‘church-operated school.'" 

Steelworkers attorney Dan Kovalik, who grew up Catholic, was stunned. "Not only did they make a deal with us and go back on it," he says, "but they are disregarding their own canon law." 

Duquesne did not respond to requests for comment. But in a campus-wide email, Duquesne President Charles Dougherty maintained the school was "committed" to paying teachers fairly, adding, "We are not unmindful of the teachings of the Catholic Church on labor." After this confession of faith, however, he continued, "in the case of faculty, who are central to ... who and what we are, concerns for our religious mission are a higher priority." His letter raises fears that "the Steelworkers appear to be opening a path that could lead to the ... loss of our Catholic identity."

In other words, because it's so important that our instructors preach our values, we can't afford to practice them. 

Duquesne's defenders say the problem isn't unions per se. (Dougherty's letter doesn't mention it, but teachers at dozens of local Catholic grade schools are already unionized — without anyone teaching Wicca at Central Catholic.) 

"There's no problem with religious identity if a union is formed," says Patrick Reilly, who heads the Cardinal Newman Society, which seeks to "renew and strengthen Catholic identity" at Catholic universities. "The question is whether a federal agency should be involved with personnel matters that entangle the government with religious issues," like curriculum requirements. 

Kovalik counters that setting course requirements is a management prerogative. Duquesne's adjuncts, he adds, want just "three things: better wages, health insurance and job security." 

In any case, it was Duquesne that forced the workers to go through the NLRB in the first place. It wouldn't let them unionize on their own, and it won't let them do so under government supervision. That doesn't leave workers any options.

But for Catholic institutions, it seems, religious freedom often means denying freedom to others. When "Obamacare" required employers to offer health insurance covering contraception, the bishops argued it violated their pro-life convictions. Now Duquesne — and two Catholic colleges in other cities — have filed legal challenges against rules coinciding with their beliefs about labor. Duquesne, meanwhile, also wants to be exempt from agreements it made weeks ago.

This isn't about freedom of conscience. It's about freedom from it. 

Duquesne hasn't explained why it agreed to elections it now says violate its religious freedom. But labor advocates fear the church is becoming increasingly concerned with the prerogatives of bosses — including themselves — rather than the rights of workers. 

Father Jack O'Malley, a local priest and AFL-CIO labor chaplain, says Duquesne is acting much like any other employer: "They don't want to lose control, [or] pay employees as much as the employees want."

"Ideally, you practice what you preach," O'Malley says. "But we don't all want to do that."  

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