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Justice in Catholic Hospitals, Yes, and All Catholic Institutions

By Msgr. George G. Higgins

The Yardstick
January 31, 2000

A working paper titled "A Fair and Just Workplace: Principles and Practices for Catholic Health Care" was released last August by a subcommittee of the U.S. Catholic Conference Domestic Policy Committee. The document's labor-management guidelines were developed by representatives of the Catholic bishops' conference, Catholic health-care administrators, women's religious orders and union representatives.

The product of almost two years of dialogue, the working paper says clearly that it "is a statement of principles from Catholic social teaching about the dignity of work and the rights of workers, not a response to a particular situation. It is an attempt to find common ground, not an opportunity to advance the agenda of either side."

Recently a number of religious superiors from several communities of nuns that sponsor Catholic health-care facilities reviewed the document as a group and, while praising its good intentions and supporting some of its recommendations, raised questions about it which call for an objective hearing.

I will comment here on only the first of their concerns, which they state as follows: "The first question that arose in our dialogue ... is 'why only health care?' The implication, which we believe was unintended, is that employment in Catholic hospitals is somehow less just than that in Catholic schools, parishes and social agencies.... We can imagine that employees of other Catholic institutions are wondering whether or not there is concern on the part of the church for justice in their settings."

My response to this legitimate concern is twofold:

  --No. 1, the working paper was drafted at the request of a nun who is a member of the USCC Domestic Policy Committee and is herself a prominent leader in Catholic health care.

 --No. 2, the employees of other Catholic institutions, including schools, know there is concern on the church's part for justice in their settings.

Long before I ever wrote a word about labor-management relations in Catholic health-care facilities, I spoke to this issue in other Catholic institutions. Checking my files, I find that my first public statement on labor-management relations in Catholic schools came 25 years ago at a meeting of the National Catholic Educational Association.

An abbreviated version of that address is reprinted in a new documentary, "Public Voices: Catholics in the American Context, edited by two competent Catholic historians, Steven Avella of Marquette University and Elizabeth McKeown of Georgetown University (Orbis Books).

I would respectfully refer the religious superiors to this timely volume. I think my brief chapter in the book demonstrates my concern about labor-management relations not only in Catholic hospitals but Catholic schools too.

There are two additional reasons why so much attention currently is being given to labor-management relations in Catholic health-care facilities.

 --First, that's where all the action is. The longstanding dispute between Catholic Healthcare West and the Service Employees International Union has understandably made the headlines in both the secular and the Catholic press. There are no comparable disputes at the moment in the field of Catholic education. There have been some in the past, and my files reveal that they too made headlines and were addressed by Catholic spokespersons.

 --Second, Catholic health-care facilities employ far more workers than do other Catholic institutions, perhaps more than all the others together. It is almost inevitable, then, that labor-management relations in Catholic health-care facilities should generate more labor-management problems and make more dramatic headlines than other Catholic institutions.

 This does not mean, however, that the guidelines issued by a USCC subcommittee apply only or even mainly to Catholic health-care facilities. They apply across the board to all Catholic institutions.

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