Robert Sirico's well financed defenses of libertarian economics often rise to the level of self-parody, but his statement in the NY Times story on Duquesne University's scandalous attempt to fight a union for adjunct instructors is astounding in its ignorance or mendacious misrepresentation of the basis for the Church's support for unions.
It's hard to find the proper tone to engage so serious a distortion. It is hearbreaking to know that it will no doubt go blythely unnoticed and uncorrected by those charged with oversight for the Church's doctrine.
Sirico argues that the teaching is historically contingent, more relevant to 1891 than to today.
Rev. Robert A. Sirico, a Catholic priest and the author of “Defending the Free Market,” says that the importance of unions in Catholic teaching is historically contingent. It matters, Father Sirico said, that Pope Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum” was written in 1891, not today.
“In the industrial revolution, the church was concerned about communism, and not just capitalism but savage capitalism,” Father Sirico said. “People were being brutalized. That’s just not the case in Pittsburgh today.”
The Church's support for unions based on Natural Law. They are forms of "private society" that serve the interests of their members within the context of the common good. The argument is based on natural law, not on any relativistic read of specific needs which vary from decade to decade. The natural right of such socieities to exist is a fundamental part of the doctrine of Subsidiarity, which pundits like Fr. Sirico are so fond of quoting without ever understanding.
Leo XIII was a scholastic thinker through and through. His arguments spoke to history yes, but alway from the perspective of Thomistic philosophy and theology which he firmly believed were the only adequate answer to the questions posed by modernity. (See Aeterni Patris.) To claim his teaching is merely historically contingent betrays a stunning ignorance of the thought of the founder of the modern social magisterium.
So back to the trouble of tone here. How to respond to such a well financed, ever quoted, and oft respected figure who apparently doesn't know what he's talking about, but is always willing to offer a quote that scores one for his team? All the appropriate nouns just sound so harsh.
Below are some passages from Leo's Rerum Novarum, which perhaps Fr. Sirico should read. (Bold face added to help save time.)
49. The most important of all are workingmen's unions, for these virtually include all the rest. History attests what excellent results were brought about by the artificers' guilds of olden times. They were the means of affording not only many advantages to the workmen, but in no small degree of promoting the advancement of art, as numerous monuments remain to bear witness. Such unions should be suited to the requirements of this our age - an age of wider education, of different habits, and of far more numerous requirements in daily life. It is gratifying to know that there are actually in existence not a few associations of this nature, consisting either of workmen alone, or of workmen and employers together, but it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient. We have spoken of them more than once, yet it will be well to explain here how notably they are needed, to show that they exist of their own right, and what should be their organization and their mode of action.
50. The consciousness of his own weakness urges man to call in aid from without. We read in the pages of holy Writ: "It is better that two should be together than one; for they have the advantage of their society. If one fall he shall be supported by the other. Woe to him that is alone, for when he falleth he bath none to lift him up."(34) And further: "A brother that is helped by his brother is like a strong city."(35) It is this natural impulse which binds men together in civil society; and it is likewise this which leads them to join together in associations which are, it is true, lesser and not independent societies, but, nevertheless, real societies.
51. These lesser societies and the larger society differ in many respects, because their immediate purpose and aim are different. Civil society exists for the common good, and hence is concerned with the interests of all in general, albeit with individual interests also in their due place and degree. It is therefore called a public society, because by its agency, as St. Thomas of Aquinas says, "Men establish relations in common with one another in the setting up of a commonwealth."(36) But societies which are formed in the bosom of the commonwealth are styled private, and rightly so, since their immediate purpose is the private advantage of the associates. "Now, a private society," says St. Thomas again, "is one which is formed for the purpose of carrying out private objects; as when two or three enter into partnership with the view of trading in common."(37) Private societies, then, although they exist within the body politic, and are severally part of the commonwealth, cannot nevertheless be absolutely, and as such, prohibited by public authority. For, to enter into a "society" of this kind is the natural right of man; and the State has for its office to protect natural rights, not to destroy them; and, if it forbid its citizens to form associations, it contradicts the very principle of its own existence, for both they and it exist in virtue of the like principle, namely, the natural tendency of man to dwell in society.