The collision of an election year with economic distress - a housing slump, soaring gas prices, shaky corporate-sponsored health and pension plans, among other factors - has made the state of the American worker a campaign issue. One hundred and twelve years ago, in an era of similar uncertainty, William Jennings Bryan, fueled partly by his devout Protestant faith, ran for president on a prounion platform.
Since then, unions have ascended and waned. Now, a group of Catholic academics and clergy wants to reinvigorate them and its members, citing their church's teaching as support.
Founded by a religion professor at Manhattan College in New York, Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice has several Massachusetts residents on its steering committee. The group is strictly nonpartisan, though individual members are free to politick on their own. Thomas Kochan, a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management, supports Barack Obama, for example, and David O'Brien, a Holy Cross historian, is on a Catholic advisory committee to the Illinois senator.
"We need to think about how to rebuild an opportunity for people to make a living wage," said Kochan, a Chestnut Hill resident who worships at St. Ignatius Parish there, explaining the new group's motivation.
Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice promises to research and publish the church's teachings on economic justice, while advocating for union organizing in specific cases. For example, the group's founder attended a January vigil to support a union drive at a California hospital run by Catholic nuns. Catholic Scholars' steering committee also has endorsed a bill in Congress that would make it easier for workers to unionize and stiffen penalties on companies that violate rights.
The scholars are most concerned about companies illegally firing or disciplining workers for starting or joining unions. In 2005, the federal government ordered back pay or reinstatement to more than 33,000 workers for such union activity, according to Catholic Scholars.
"As John Paul II repeatedly reminded us, 'The hour of the laity has struck,' " said Thomas Kohler, Boston College Law School professor. "I hope that Catholic scholars might be one way of . . . doing what the laity are to do, by bringing the insights of the tradition to economic and social life."
The Rev. Thomas Massaro, of Cambridge's Weston Jesuit School of Theology, said he joined the group believing in its mission not only to help workers, but to give a clearer profile of the church's teaching in this area. "Most people, even Catholics, are largely unaware of the unequivocal support of church authorities for worker rights and especially the right to collective bargaining."
Indeed, the Vatican beat William Jennings Bryan to the prolabor punch five years before his epochal 1896 campaign. That's when Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Rerum Novarum, deploring miserable working conditions and endorsing unions. The pope wasn't anticapitalist; he denounced socialism and talked of the value of private property.
But Leo was reacting to "the worst of the Industrial Revolution, the condition of workers," said Catherine Schneider, a Boston College economist who is not with Catholic Scholars but appeared with Kochan last month at an economic justice forum sponsored by Newton's Sacred Heart Parish.
Papal interest in the matter continued through several pontiffs, she said, culminating with John Paul II's Centesimus Annus, released in 1991, the hundredth anniversary of Leo's encyclical. Locally, the Archdiocese of Boston has long embraced workers. Its Labor Guild, founded in 1945, lends help in such matters as administering contract ratifications. Its new director, Sister Mary Priniski, is on Catholic Scholars' steering committee.
Critics accuse the Christian right of becoming an arm of the Republican National Committee. Are Catholics pushing for unions flirting with the same allegation, given Democrats' perception as the prolabor party since the New Deal?
"I have long been active in Democratic Party politics," O'Brien said in an e-mail, "but in recent years, I have been far from satisfied with either party's performance on worker justice."
Massaro said Democratic support for unions "is not uniformly true. I believe that all politicians need to hear this message continually."
That encyclicals are papally signed doesn't guarantee them universal Catholic assent, of course. When John XXIII issued his 1961 text on social justice and labor rights, Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher), National Review - founded by William F. Buckley Jr., a Catholic - cracked, "Mater, Sí; Magistra, No." Many Catholics don't even bother to look at these papal pronouncements: "They're not the kinds of documents you just pick up for light reading," said Schneider. But their themes are publicized by American bishops, she added.
Harder to reach, perhaps, are her secular colleagues in economics, who focus more on the field's intensely mathematical analysis.
But it was not always thus.
"We remind students that Adam Smith was a professor of moral philosophy," Schneider said.
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