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The Catholic Hospital Leadership of Women

By Msgr. George G. Higgins

The Yard Stick
May 8, 2000
 Mercy Sister Sharon Euart, associate general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, delivered the keynote address during a March 25 Jubilee Day for Women observance in the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Stockton, Calif. Women in today's church, she said, should become active in the ministries available to them and become advocates for poor women. She urged women to be concerned about just wages, equality in the workplace, equal opportunities for education, and the values of parenting and family life.
 Sister Euart's impressive address serves to remind us that women, religious and lay, have for many years been the leading advocates for poor women in our society. This said, let me point to one area of social reform where the leadership of women religious as advocates for the poor unfortunately is being exercised unevenly: labor-management relations in their own institutions and specifically in the Catholic hospitals they sponsor and administer.

 Religious women, as sponsors and administrators of scores of hospitals and other health-care facilities, are the largest employers of labor in the Catholic Church in the United States; the majority of their employees are women. I agree that women in the church should be advocates for poor women. I am afraid, however, that this advocacy will sound hollow if they are perceived in many cases as denying their own workers' right to organize.
 Since I recently have been publicly involved on the side of workers in a number of labor-management disputes in Catholic hospitals in California, specifically in Sacramento, some hospital administrators have said they regard me as a completely partisan maverick who speaks only for himself. They argue that Catholic hospitals have an excellent record in labor-management relations. I am sure they are sincere in saying that, but I am not alone in arguing that their record is at best problematical.

 The health-care industry across the board is in a state of crisis; the economic dimensions of the crisis are obvious. However, I suspect that underneath the continuing controversy over the right of hospital workers in Catholic institutions to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining there is an internal church problem that seldom is spoken about in public.

 I have the impression that one reason some women religious and Catholic-hospital administrators are reluctant to dialogue with pro-union bishops and priests on this issue is that they are unhappy with the male domination of what they consider a heavily patriarchal church. I think I understand their negative feelings on this subject, and I am inclined to agree with them. When asked about this recently in an interview regarding the situation in California, specifically Sacramento, I noted that women religious hire more workers than do all the U.S. bishops put together. We have a great chance for women religious to assume a leadership role in the church -- on labor-management relations. Nobody would stop them.

 It's no secret that I agree with the 1986 U.S. bishops' pastoral letter on the economy, which said:

 1. "The church fully supports the right of workers to form unions or other associations to secure their rights to fair wages and working conditions....  No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself. Therefore, we firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably now seen in the country, to break existing unions and prevent workers from organizing" (No. 104).
 2. "All the moral principles that govern the just operation of any economic endeavor apply to the church and its agencies and institutions, indeed the church should be exemplary" (No. 347).

 My hope is that women religious, including those who strongly disagree with me, will be willing to dialogue about this issue in an open, free and frank manner.

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