Wisconsin dispute exposes Catholic split on unions

(RNS) The fierce budget battle in Wisconsin that's pitting unions
against Republican Gov. Scott Walker has also pitted the state's top
Roman Catholic bishops against each other in a series of public
exchanges over the church's historic support for unions.

The war of words -- however polite -- has exposed a longstanding
rift between the church's progressive and conservative wings, reopened
in the birthplace of the modern labor movement.

Walker's budget-repair bill requires public employees to pay more
for their pensions and health care, and restricts collective bargaining
power for most. The plan has prompted impassioned protests by thousands
at the state capitol in Madison, and sent Democratic lawmakers into
exile to prevent a vote.

Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki kicked it off with a
statement on Feb. 16 that, quoting Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI,
said it was "a mistake to marginalize or dismiss unions as impediments
to economic growth."

A week later, Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Madison issued his own statement, emphasizing the church's neutrality. That same day, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops publicly sided with Listecki, praising him for his “clear statement.”

Morlino, writing in his diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Herald, said he and the statewide Wisconsin Catholic Conference were neutral, even though the Catholic Church has long sided with the rights of unionized workers.

"The question to which the dilemma boils down is rather simple on
its face: Is the sacrifice which union members, including school
teachers, are called upon to make proportionate to the relative
sacrifice called for from all in difficult economic times?" Morlino

"The teaching of the church allows for persons of good will to
disagree as to which horn of this dilemma should be chosen because there
would be reasonable justification available for either alternative."

To be sure, Morlino has emerged as a hero of the Catholic right. In
the heat of the 2008 campaign, he blasted vice presidential nominee Joe
Biden and then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi for "stepping on the pope's turf --
and mine" in appealing to church fathers for their support of abortion

In 2009, Morlino fired a female church worker for using male and
female imagery for God in her 2003 Master's thesis.

Morlino argued that unions should not be subjected to the decision
of political parties or be too closely linked with them. Conservative
Catholic activists soon rushed to Morlino's defense, with the Rev.
Robert Sirico of the Michigan-based Acton Institute praising him as a
"model of clarity" in the fractious debate.

"It is also useful to keep in mind that the Catholic position on
unions is not an endorsement of all unions, in all places at all times
and under every circumstance," Sirico wrote at

The Rev. Bryan N. Massingale, associate professor of theological
ethics at Marquette University in Milwaukee, doesn't necessarily see a
conflict between Morlino and Listecki -- at least from the statements.

"That's not the way Catholic bishops tend to operate," he said.
"They tend to want to present a unified public voice."

But Michael Fleet, a political scientist at Marquette, sees it

"Obviously (Morlino) wouldn't have written (his letter) unless some
clarification or reframing was necessary," he said. "If you think about
it, Morlino would write a short letter if he agreed with Listecki, but
he wrote a longer letter articulating how (Listecki's statement) should
be understood."

For their part, priests in Listecki's archdiocese sided with their
archbishop. The Milwaukee Archdiocese Priests Alliance released a
statement Feb. 25, that noticeably made no mention of Morlino's
statement in calling for the governor to restore collective bargaining
rights for the unions.

This article was corrected on March 1.

Piet Levy

Piet Levy writes for Religion News Service.

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