Friday, July 18, 2003

The Church as an Employer

The hot personnel issues in the Catholic Church in this country have mostly involved clergy of late:

  • priestly pedophilia (and how many bishops mishandled the issue)
  • the increasing shortage of priests, and
  • the quality of American bishops (the first and second issues lead to the third).
There is an ongoing conflict in Texas that outlines another problem: the treatment of lay church employees, especially parish staffs. David Morrison of Sed Contra blogged nicely about this last week -- my post is becoming a longer essay for some reason, in three parts: how it started, the most recent explosion, and what may mean for the Church. I don't have any pretty answers yet, just questions.

The Rio Grande Valley of Texas is one of the poorest places in the United States, with a population that is 85% Roman Catholic (at least in some sense). Dominated by agriculture and immigration, it reminds me strongly of the San Joaquin Valley where I live. For the past year, several parishes have been in conflict with Bishop Raymundo J. Peña of the Diocese of Brownsville over contracts with the United Farm Workers of America representing parish workers.

Last Year - The Background

The open breach came a year ago, as reported in the McAllen Monitor, when four parishes (reportedly, another joined them later) signed UFW contracts covering about 30 workers, providing improvments in job security and pension benefits - the issues that started it all:
"I’m 65 years old. I’ve worked for the church for 24 years," said Angie Peña, who works for St. Joseph the Worker in McAllen. "Then they told us our pension fund is over. I want a future. I want security. And I want justice."

Last year, Bishop Raymundo Peña switched the Brownsville Diocese’s pension plan to a new retirement plan, without any consultation with the diocese’s many workers, said Rebecca Flores, a spokeswoman for the UFW, AFL-CIO.

"We continue to be left out of many decisions that affect our living in our diocese," said Delia Ortiz, who works for Holy Spirit church.Father Robert Maher, vicar general for the diocese, said the plan was changed to help all diocese employees.

"It became evident that people would not have a healthy income from that pension plan," Maher said. "The diocese acted in the best interest of the employees. According to the provisions of that plan, employees were given everything they had coming — nobody was cheated."

But many workers received much less than they expected when it was cashed out, said Father Sam Arizpe of St. Joseph the Worker in San Carlos. Angered, they turned to the UFW, AFL-CIO for help.

"When I retire, under this contract, I’ll have a regular monthly income to help me," said Ann Williams Cass, who has worked for Holy Spirit church since 1981.

Workers also expressed concern about job security, because priests have the power to hire and fire parish workers at will.
Note: the switch in pension plans was from defined benefit to defined contribution, a change made by many corporations in recent years as it eliminates the problem of overfunding or underfunding pension benefits. It can also eliminate any real corporate contribution to that pension benefit, and moves market risks from the employer to the employee. Also, there was reportedly a history of new pastors firing parish employees upon taking over at a parish. To be fair, none of these reports include any information on the financial state of those parishes -- for all we know, the stories could be based on parishes that were near bankruptcy.

This Year - The Explosion

But recent events seem to confirm the fears of those workers, as reported in last week's Washington Post:
The family fight burst into public view June 18 when the Rev. Ruben Delgado, newly assigned to Holy Spirit by the bishop, arrived at the church for his first day on the job and fired four of the unionized workers.

The fired workers received little explanation. One, Ann Cass, had been a key member of Holy Spirit's administrative staff for 22 years and played a central role in building the church's new building in the 1980s. Another, Edna Cantu, a young secretary who is several months pregnant, had been dismissed last fall from yet another parish church shortly after she and her co-workers unionized there.

The United Farm Workers (UFW), which represents the employees, received a court order temporarily halting the dismissals; the church then placed them on paid administrative leave. In the ensuing uproar, Delgado resigned as pastor of Holy Spirit after a week. Aside from a written statement defending the firings as an administrative reshuffle designed to replace some paid staff with volunteers, he did not communicate with his parishioners and never celebrated Mass there.

Peña said he had no hand in the firings, noting he was out of town when they took place. He has reaffirmed his opposition to unionizing parish lay workers, whose minimum wage of $7, he said, is well above the average in the Rio Grande Valley.

"I honestly do not believe that it is necessary or beneficial for church employees in the Valley to join a labor union," he said in an e-mailed response to questions from The Washington Post.

Hundreds of parishioners at Holy Spirit have accused Peña of engineering the firings to break union contracts that he publicly denounced as "invalid in church law" because he, as bishop, was not consulted and did not approve them.

The character "Otter" Stratton said it best in the movie Animal House: I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part. Yep, that seems to sum up what now is regarded nationally as Fr. Delgado's brief foray into union busting. And the bishop was out of town so he wasn't responsible -- oh that sounds wonderful . . . just the kind of leadership we need.

There is now a restraining order reinstating the employees, which comes up for review next week.

The Conflict, and the Opportunity for Scandal

Now it is clear that there is more to this story on both sides. I think that the bishop may well have a case in canon law, and with midnight candlelight processions, informal communion services in front of churches, and opinions being thrown around, the pro-worker side may be a bit off center as far as eccesiology is concerned. But the scandal here is real, and it is a very public sign of a growing problem. This is not a matter of bashing one side or the other -- it is a matter of understanding the social and economic structures that have helped create this situation.

The drop in priestly and religious vocations over the past 40+ years is old news, along with the move by well educated men and women religious into parish adminstration and pastoral roles augmenting the supply of priests. (I wonder if anyone has ever worked out the actual numbers on the migration from parochial schools to parocial offices over the past 30 years. Just curious . . .) One important point is that both priests and religious are mobile -- they can be moved around at the will of a bishop or superior as needed. Also, the long term welfare of these workers were the responsiblity of a diocese or order. If you elminated a job, they were generally taken care of until the next job came open.

But the the number of both priests and religious available has now dropped to the point that more and more work in the hands of paid lay workers, people who have homes and families and often deep ties in a particular community and parish. You can't just move them around or eliminate their jobs -- not without consequences that the Church is not used to facing. (I am told that the previous bishop in my area did not want permanent deacons for just that reason.) These workers cannot look to the diocese or an order for job security, security that they need to raise families.

And the Church teaches that those workers have a right to a decent wage and job security, and to unions to secure them. From the USCCB A Catholic Framework for Economic Life:
4. All people have a right to life and a right to secure the basic necessities of life (e.g., food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, a safe environment, and economic security).
5. All people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages and benefits, to decent working conditions, and to organize and join unions or other associations.
As others have pointed out, even many workers at the Vatican are unionized.

There is a serious risk of scandal when the Church as a visible human organization fails to live up to its own teachings. That risk is only greater when that failure is justified in terms of those teachings -- that somehow the work of the Church requires that those who do that work not be treated with the dignity that all persons deserve. And I am speaking of scandal in more than simply bad press; this is the creation of social conditions that make Christian conduct and obedience to the Commandments difficult . . . (Catechism 2286). This can be a situation that creates a barrier between people and Christ.

The Challenge

But this is not something that can simply be blamed on a bishop, as so many problems seem to be lately. This is also not simply a Texas problem, it is a national problem that is worse in poor dioceses, in areas where there simply is not much money. It is simple to say that there should be an uniform living wage policy across the American Church. But who will pay for it in McAllen? Bishop Peña is trying to, with the money he can gather in a very poor diocese. We need personnel policies that give parish employees more effective status than personal employees of the pastor (which is effectively how it works now, and legally makes little sense as the only real legal entity in most states is the diocese). Those policies will mean very little if the rest of us, the laity, do not provide the practical financial support that makes such policies possible. And that support will, at times, have to extend beyond diocesan boundaries.

Like I said, more challenges and questions than answers. But if we don't get cracking and start praying and searching for answers, this kind of scandal will occur in many more places.

No comments: