July 30, 2012

Labor’s Love Lost?

As the editors note in “Union Sunset?” (Editorial, 7/2), there are reasons for concern about the future of organized labor, the failed recall of Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin being an important one. That will fuel an anti-union movement already under way that ignores the significant contributions of labor unions to the high standard of living of working women and men, whether they belong to a union or not.

There is no doubt that union leaders have not always led prudently or wisely. Nonetheless, I share the editors’ concern that the gains of the working class in the 20th century may fall away “in this new century,” which would be a serious blow to many people trying to escape the degradation of poverty.

The editors refer to a “muted response” from the church. Perhaps one reason for that is that the church’s traditional support of organized labor, led by such luminaries as Cardinal James Gibbons and Msgr. George Higgins, is not well known among Catholics today, including some young bishops and priests.

An important step was taken during the June bishops’ meeting to address this lacuna. The bishops voted overwhelmingly, 171 to 26, to issue a special message entitled “Catholic Reflections on Work, Poverty and a Broken Economy.” This important teaching document should be ready for a vote at the bishop’s meeting in November. The proposed statement is timely because there are public Catholic voices who claim that the church’s teaching on unions has been overstated. They go so far as to say that Pope Leo XIII’s groundbreaking encyclical, “Rerum Novarum” (1891) is time-bound and not applicable today. Such an outlandish statement seems to ignore that popes since Leo XIII have referred to this encyclical as foundational for the church’s teaching on the rights of labor to organize and to engage in collective bargaining.

It is also amazing that these same voices seem to ignore the very strong support for unions in the magisterial teachings of both Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The forthcoming bishops’ special message is needed because too many are influenced by these public Catholic voices rather than by the teachings of the church, proclaimed by the U.S. bishops, on unions and poverty.

Joseph A. Fiorenza

Archbishop Emeritus of Galveston-Houston

Houston, Tex.

Union Blues

Your editorial blames the demise of unions on everyone except yourselves, the unions and their leadership. Unions, America and Catholic social activists have lost their focus on workers’ rights. What about the right of workers not to join a union; the right of union members to oppose their union leadership without fear of intimidation and coercion; their right to a say in what political causes their leadership spends their dues money on or their freedom from having the state collect their dues money from them whether they want it to or not? If corporations were abusing workers’ rights the way the union bosses do, America would be screaming about the injustice. Would you want the Teamsters managing your pension fund?

James Collins

Farmington Hills, Mich.


Re the reflection by John P. Schlegel, S.J., in Of Many Things, 7/2: Being in nature can surely be restorative. Father Schlegel reminds me of the elaborate gift of being able to witness so much beauty on so many different continents. My call to action is to appreciate more deeply every opportunity I have had and to work harder to help others have the same opportunities, knowing full well that there will always be people fenced in by circumstance who will never see the sun set on a different environment.

Noelle Fitzpatrick

Cavan, Ireland

A Neglected Work of Mercy

Thanks to Kerry Weber for “Theology Behind Bars” (7/2). Matthew 25 calls us to feed, clothe, shelter, minister to the sick and to visit “Christ” in prison. We Catholics invest heavily in all these works of mercy except prison ministry, which in most instances appears to be a near-afterthought. Surely shortages of priests and distances to jails and prisons make the ministry difficult, but anecdotal evidence suggests that incarcerated persons are among the very last attended to and rarely ministered to or visited.

We are extraordinarily fortunate to have writings of the U.S. bishops, including their statements in 1973, 1978 and especially 2000, on criminal justice, that are rich in insight and in guidance. Now we need preaching in our parishes and from our bishops, along with structures and personnel and budgets to find Christ in prisoners, in their victims, families and communities and in public policies affecting crime, responsibility, rehabilitation and restoration.

Thomas Petersik

Richmond, Va.

Not Forgotten

As the chairperson of the prison ministry for the American Association of the Order of Malta, I read with great interest Kerry Weber’s excellent article pertaining to the work of George Williams, S.J., among the incarcerated at San Quentin. What Father Williams, a chaplain of the Order of Malta, is offering is hope to men largely forgotten in our society.

In 2007, the American Association of the Order of Malta embarked upon prison ministry as its national work. We now have some 200 knights, dames, auxiliary and volunteers working in prison ministry. This encompasses visiting inmates and bringing the Word of God to them, mentoring their children and helping ex-offenders find a place to live, regain their driver’s license and find a job. We distribute approximately 125,000 Bibles and prayer books annually to prisons and jails in the territory of the American Association of Malta, which is primarily the Eastern United States. In this way we hope to convey to our incarcerated brothers and sisters and their families that the Catholic Church is praying for them and has not forgotten them.

Robert J. Fredericks, K.M.O.b.

Morristown, N.J.

Failure to Communicate

Re “U.S. Bishops: How well Are They Being Heard?” (Signs of the Times, 7/2): The problem is not the message. The problem is the messenger. Doesn’t the bishops’ “wondering aloud” if they need to hire professional public relations managers show how far they are from understanding the purpose of the church and their role in it? If the church is only a corporation, then there is reason to “wonder.” If the church is the body of Christ, led by the Spirit, then something else needs to be done.

Save our money! Here are six things I hope will help:

1. Communicate to God’s people as compassionate leaders. Stop talking down.

2. Recognize how deeply the evil (sin) of clericalism is ingrained in clerical leadership.

3. Spend time contemplating the crucified, powerless Jesus. This is the true model of leadership.

4. As Jesus did, treat women as equals; treat them with dignity.

5. Take off the outdated clothes that distinguish your levels of power. They hinder you from communicating.

6. Show your sincerity by public penance.

(Rev.) Wilfred Steinbacher

Madison, Tenn.

Due Credit

Re “Pathfinder,” by Jon Sweeney (7/2): I wonder what the author’s frame of reference was for the claim that Rabindranath Tagore was India’s greatest poet. No doubt Tagore was a giant for his time, but others before him were already enshrined among India’s classic poets. I wonder if Sweeney would try to substantiate his claim for Tagore in comparison with the poet Valmiki, composer of the classic epic “Ramayana,” or Kalidasa, composer in verse of the famous play “Shakuntala,” and even poetry attributed to the renowned Bhartrihari.

Sweeney’s article gives due credit to the breadth of Tagore’s accomplishments, but Tagore would not have seen himself as outdoing the other “greats” of the Indian tradition or the other classic writers of Asia and the West.

Wm. Theodore de Bary

John Mitchell Mason Professor and

Provost Emeritus, Columbia University


New York, N.Y.

Octavian Restoration?

Concerning the lament by Drew Christiansen, S.J., for “the now-suppressed octave of Pentecost” (Of Many Things, 6/18): Why couldn’t Pope Paul VI have reinstituted the octave? I think that moving the feast of the Epiphany and the dropping of the Pentecost octave is detrimental to the overall appreciation of liturgical celebrations on the part of the laity.

Is there anything that can be done to restore what has already been changed? We have Advent preparing us for Christmas and Christmastide after that; Lent preparing us for Easter and Eastertide after that, leading to Pentecost Sunday. But I bet dollars to donuts that at least 90 percent of the faithful attending Mass that day did not realize it was Pentecost until it was announced from the altar or read in the bulletin. And it was probably just as easily forgotten a day or two later.

Dick Ryan

Waldwick, N.J.

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