The Church and organized labor’s new orthodoxy

September 17, 2013

Two of the western world’s great organizations, the AFL-CIO and the Roman Catholic Church, decided last week to tackle two of the world’s great problems differently than they had for decades before. This might just be another proof that they’re getting weaker (they are). Or it might be a big, good shift.

The two groups are hardly alike. One is concerned with the material; the other occupied with things spiritual.  But last week they were united, as the leaders of both appeared ready to break with tradition and leave behind a history of exclusion. These moves haven’t attracted much notice: but if the two leaders follow through, the consequences will be enormous.

Let’s address the AFL-CIO’s action first. At its convention in Los Angeles last week, the confederation’s President Richard Trumka noted that CEO pay had gone up 40 percent since 2009, and invited the delegates to imagine “what kind of country we would live in if ordinary people’s incomes went up by 40 percent. Almost no one would live in poverty!” True, but an expected line from a union boss. But then he moved on to say — extraordinarily, for a union representative — that “we cannot win economic justice…for union members alone. It would not be right and it’s not possible. All working people will rise together, or we will keep falling together.”

This appears to mean — as aides explained — that the AFL-CIO will extend some kind of membership to NGOs that organize low-paid workers and build coalitions with any group that advances workers’ pay and rights. For the first time, the organization seems set to see itself not as the protector of an ever-shrinking, relatively privileged group — but as the vanguard of a movement for greater equity.

Anyone who is or has been a union member will recognize how big a statement this is. Unions are mechanisms for raising their members’ living standards — and to do so, they must also be mechanisms for keeping non-members out. Members pay their dues to be special; to get the raises and better conditions that their leaders have negotiated, sometimes by going on strike. Now, the leadership seems to be saying, we’re not just a membership organization, we’re an organization for workers everywhere.

The Pope is similarly breaking new ground. Last week Pope Francis, in office for a mere six months, exchanged letters with the Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, founder of left-of-center daily La Repubblica. Scalfari had written first, speaking to the dilemma of non-believers (like him) who nevertheless think they live moral lives. What extra does Christianity offer in the way of moral teaching, he asked. At the core of Francis’ answer, splashed across four of La Repubblica’s pages, was not a defense of Catholic exclusivity in the way of salvation. Instead it was the astonishing declaration that “God’s mercy has no limits” and that “if you follow your conscience you will have God’s pardon.”

It’s not wholly clear that the official Church that Francis leads agrees with what its divinely-appointed leader appears to be saying. This is a novel interpretation for Catholics of God’s will and mercy. When, in May, he said something similar, a Vatican spokesman did one of those “what the Pope meant to say…” numbers, to the effect that “those who do not believe in God cannot be saved.”

But that isn’t what the Pope said, and he has now said it twice. He has put an atheist’s sincere effort to live a good and moral life without God on the same footing as a believer’s efforts to do the same — by extending God’s mercy to the unbelievers. For the real unbeliever, of course, that invites a “so what?”: why be pleased to be pardoned by an entity in which one doesn’t believe? But for the believers it’s a bombshell.

Fervent Catholics are placed in a quandary: why be observant, attend mass regularly, observe the saints’ days, say the rosary, revere the Pope, pray to the Madonna — if the atheist next door, who may, to be sure, be a good person but doesn’t stir from his bed till long after the church bells have tolled on a Sunday, can enjoy God’s grace too? The same applies for union members: why pay the dues, attend the meetings, and sacrifice the income when on strike when all workers, dues-paying or not, may benefit?

But the importance of these two leaders’ statements — if they stick by them — is much greater than the discomfort of the fully paid up, and the faithful. The Pope and Trumka have recognized that the walled gardens that they and their predecessors have tended now cannot survive unless the walls are breached. If, as they believe, their offerings to society are so precious, how can they keep them to themselves? As Trumka says, it is neither right nor possible. The spirit of the times is hostile to walled gardens. Even, it now seems, the Holy Spirit.

PHOTO: Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter’s square at the Vatican September 11, 2013.  REUTERS/Tony Gentile (VATICAN CITY – Tags: RELIGION) – RTX13HG7


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Utterly fascinating…but, at the end of the day how will either benefit? The “day” of organized religion and organized labor is over and achieving more egalitarian societies is not the exclusive purview of either. To put it bluntly, who needs either of THEM?

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Well, Mr. Lloyd, you miss two key points: one, what irritates businessmen about organized labor is not so much that it benefits only a few workers, but that it has historically always aimed to benefit as many as possible by checking, balancing, and limiting the power of employers in the workplace, and theoretically at least still does, and might again more generally in the future. Secondly, the Catholic Church has for quite some time–well over a century–allowed that the consciences of unbelievers may not be subject to judgment on exactly the same factors on which a believer is judged, due to the doctrine of invincible ignorance and the impossibility of knowing entirely the subjective state of another’s soul in the eyes of God. The moral imputability of unbelief, in other, words is not easy to determine with certainty. Like it or hate it, this changes in no way its general claims about salvation in general. It just shows a humility about particular cases.
In fact, I have a feeling that both organized labor, and, especially, the Catholic Church will be around to irritate their detractors for a long time to come! 😉

Posted by Dracontius | Report as abusive

Too little, too late. It does make me wonder if Francis ever actually read Augustine, and how, after 1,700 years, they can depart from predestination and the primacy and necessity of the church WITHOUT dealing with their woman problem.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

The Catholic Church is no different to organized labor. It primary focus is and always has been in the realm of power, or politics if you will. When Francis goes they will return to the rhetoric of ‘we are the only way’.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

You pay the bills as a union member because you believe in the cause and want to support it.

You go to church on Sunday for the community it brings more than for a God who takes attendance.

Posted by wraith87 | Report as abusive

The pope is not saying anything new. Church teaching is that you have to follow conscience even if it takes you out of the church. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Cal. Newman said conscience is the aboriginal vicar of Christ.

Posted by lereilly1 | Report as abusive

You sound confused: as though unions predated the employers whom they organized to take some power from. I applaud both moves, though they are both mere pronouncements so far. We will see what happens in the future.

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

If what man says is in conflict with the scriptures, then he is either willingly apostate or he is in deep error or at the very least “ignorant”.
Those who have the Son have life, those who reject the
Son (Jesus) will not see life as God’s wrath remains on them.
That is scripture, that is truth. No Pope or any other will ever change the word of God. They just are pompous and proud enough to think they can. A day of judgment is coming and we will be judged by what is written in the scriptures and if we accepted the sacrifice of Christ at Calvary. What this Pope says will be of no effect and make no difference whatsoever.

Posted by Daniel77 | Report as abusive

Both unions and the Catholic Church are institutions that have long ago lost sight of their original mission. They became more interested in preserving their institution itself and acquiring power than their true mission.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

Interesting symmetry, but perhaps only for a moment: union & church are following beaten paths:

AFL-CIO becoming a class-less party as many before them,

and the other two, now equally salvageable parties, getting to decide whether ritual & prayer are the perks or the chores

Posted by A-V | Report as abusive