Justice in the Church: The Unfinished Business of Catholic Social Teaching
National Association of Catholic School Teachers Convention, Philadelphia
Richard P. McBrien,
October 12, 1996, Keynote Address
University of Notre Dame
More than thirty years ago the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World pointed out that "Today,
the human race is passing through a new stage of its history. Profound and
rapid changes are gradually spreading around the whole world .... hence
we can already speak of a true social and cultural transformation, one
which has repercussions on our religious life as well" (n. 4).
Among the signs of the times that the Second Vatican Council touched
upon were contemporary advances in technology and in biology, psychology,
and the social sciences, population growth, changes in the family and
other basic social groupings, the spread of industrialization and
urbanization, the expansion of the media and other forms of social
communication, the migration of large numbers of people from country to
country, the struggle for freedom, and the implications of all these
developments on social institutions, laws, and traditional ways of
thinking, including religion and the spiritual life.
Even though the world has changed dramatically since 1965 - the
dismemberment of the Soviet Union and the collapse of world Communism
are among the most extraordinary changes - all of the signs of the times
that the council identified are still with us, to be read and interpreted
"in the light of the gospel."
But in comparison with 1965, there are also new signs of the times
that are directly applicable to the Catholic Church of the mid 90's.
Few might have been able to spell the word pedophilia in those days, much
less have imagined it might ever have anything at all to do with the
priesthood. Few might have expected in 1965 that by 1996 the appointment
of bishops would be based almost exclusively on institutional loyalty and
ideological purity (for example, opposition to birth control and the
ordination of women) rather than on ministerial aptitude or pastoral
credibility. How many of you can say that your own diocesan bishop would
have been selected if the process had been open and accessible to all the
active laity, religious, and clergy of your diocese? If any of you are
nodding affirmatively, you must be from places like Milwaukee, Saginaw,
Rochester, Albany, New Ulm, Austin, or Richmond.
Few might have expected in 1965 that the Church would eventually
admit into the Catholic priesthood married Episcopal priests, opposed
to the ordination of women, allowing these former Episcopal priests to
remain married in the fullest sense of the word, while continuing to
exclude from the active ministry thousands of willing and able married
Catholic priests, and this in spite of the Church's increasingly urgent
pastoral needs. And few might have expected some three decades ago that
so many millions of Catholics, not just in North America but all around
the world, would come to support the ordination of women to the priesthood,
while, at the same time, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops would
not be able to say anything sufficiently credible about women in the Church
and in society to pass a pastoral letter on the subject--and this after
9 years of deliberation.
Indeed, no one could have expected in 1965 that the Catholic Church
would have three popes in a single year, 1978, and that one of them would
serve only a month, thereby opening the way to the election of the first
non-Italian pope in four-and-a-half centuries and the first Slavic pope
in history--a pope, it soon became clear, committed to the restoration
of much of pre-Vatican 11 Catholicism: its authoritarianism, its
clericalism, its neoscholastic theology and philosophy, its discouragement
of independent and critical thought, its mechanisms of internal control,
its maximalist Marian piety, its false idealization of women, and its
preoccupation with sexual and marital morality.
But there have also been changes of a different, more positive, kind
since 1965: a new and healthy spirit of self-criticism in the Church; an
increased involvement of Catholic laity in almost every kind of ministry,
including even the administration of parishes; a broader engagement in the
struggle for social justice, peace, and human rights, reflected, for
example, in the development of liberation theology; a renewed emphasis on
the importance and pastoral integrity of the local church; a more
ecumenically sensitive appreciation of other churches and of other
religions; a raising of consciousness regarding human dignity and human
equality, particularly as applied to the role of women in the Church.
To be sure, many of the changes in the Church since 1965 have been as
much cultural as theological or ecclesiastical. What we in North America
have been experiencing these past few decades is not simply a clash of
theologies or of ecclesiastical power-bases, but the unraveling of modern
and American culture. The counter-movement has been called subcultural
David O'Brien, historian at the College of the Holy Cross, reminded
us a few years ago that when Catholics were an immigrant, discriminated
against minority, the survival of the Church and faith depended on
organizing Catholics and keeping them out of often hostile competing
organizations. The Church itself was the primary organization, set over
against an unfriendly world and a culture it could not control. And so
by the 1950s, the Catholic Church, especially here in the United States,
had become a culture in exile that provided, in turn, a subculture, a
separate way of life complete with ethnic and suburban parishes, parochial
schools, a flourishing system of colleges, universities, and other
institutions, and strong, pragmatic leadership that was close to the people.
Some few of you may recall, for example, a remark made many years ago by
the late Cardinal Cushing of Boston in which he boasted that every American
bishop of his time had come from a working-class family.
With the Second Vatican Council, however, the Church tried to reach
out and help shape the wider human community. Its newly expansive missionary
agenda was set forth in the document from which I quoted at the beginning:
the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et
Some point out that there was a cost to this initiative; namely, the
weakening of our subcultural institutions, like schools and religious
orders. Others contend, as I do, that the Catholic subculture would have
disappeared even without the council, although the process might have taken
As fewer Catholics in America experienced themselves as an isolated and
oppressed people, the Church, and particularly the local parish, no longer
occupied the center of their social lives. And the traditional boundaries
between the various Christian churches also shifted, and in some cases
disappeared. It was no longer "us" and "them."
Whatever the precise cause or causes of the disintegration of the
Catholic subculture, Catholicism began in the 1960s to change from an
authoritarian, clerically-dominated tradition to one that was increasingly
voluntaristic and lay. The National Catholic Reporter/Gallup poll
of U.S. Catholics three years ago showed how this trend has intensified
over the past two decades. The survey results highlight the growing gap
between the leadership of the Catholic Church, on the one hand, and lay
Catholics, on the other--and not only the inactive or so-called lapsed
Catholics, but the weekly Mass-goers and those for whom the Church is the
most important part of their lives. The gap reveals itself on issues
ranging from birth control and abortion to the appointment of parish
priests and the ordination of women.
The values of community and authority are still important to Catholics,
but they are the result now of the free choices we make rather than of
decisions imposed upon us from above. While people today are more religious
than ever, Andrew Greeley, Martin Marty, and others have effectively
emphasized this point so often, at the same time people have greater
doubts than ever about institutional religion.
One of the more ominous aspects of the NCR/Gallup survey of U.S.
Catholics pertains to a glaring lack of familiarity with the bishops'
pastoral letters of 1983 and 1986 on peace and the economy. Less than
20 percent of U.S. Catholics today were even aware of these two documents.
David O'Brien saw this as a reflection of the post-Vatican 11 Church's
failure to sell the justice-and-peace approach as a "constitutive dimension"
of the mission of the Church. O'Brien doesn't know why the justice-and-peace
approach hasn't taken hold, but he's convinced it hasn't. And perhaps he's
right. Which is why I should like to devote the remainder of this address
to the issue of justice, and more specifically to the issues of in the
Church, which I call the unfinished business of Catholic social teaching.
I offer here what might be called a consistent-ethic-of-justice
approach, following both the letter and the spirit of the 1971 world
synodal document, "Justice in the World." The document declares: "While
the Church is bound to give witness to justice, it recognizes that anyone
who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their
Just as we cannot have peace without justice anywhere in the world, so
we cannot have faith without justice, for our faith is, as the 32nd General
Congregation of the Society of Jesus proclaimed, a "faith that does
justice." Without justice, there can be no peace. Without justice, faith is
I propose this morning that the question of justice in the Church, and
specifically of justice for employees of the Church, is of greater moral
and missionary consequence for the Catholic Church in our time than is even
the terribly grave problem of sexual abuse within the priesthood. (And I do
not mean to minimize that problem. It seriously and traumatically affects
young boys, older men, and many women as well.) However, far more people
are affected by injustices toward church employees, because those injustices
have an immediate and direct impact on the ability of the Church at all
levels, and especially the parish, to fulfill its basic mission. The
Church cannot function without the abiding good will, generous commitment,
and daily involvement of those who serve the Church as pastoral ministers,
teachers, staff, and other support personnel. But until there are some
dramatically successful lawsuits against priests, bishops, parishes,
dioceses, schools, and hospitals, and some costly out-of-court settlements,
as there have been to date in the tragic cases of sexual abuse by priests,
church employees--the great majority of whom are women--will continue to
be abused, intimidated, calumniated, and fired without cause or recourse.
When a parish director of religious education is unjustly terminated
by a newly appointed authoritarian, often anti-feminist pastor or when a
Catholic school teacher is unjustly terminated by order of the bishop or
his surrogate, these church employees rarely, if ever, have the financial
resources to defend themselves. As candid lawyers will readily admit the
key to the courthouse door thus to justice, is money. The institutional
Church has the money, backed by insurance. And they use it, often
mercilessly, to intimidate, to threaten, to delay, to wear down the
aggrieved party, both psychologically and financially. Of course, not a
cent of this ever comes out of the bishop's or the pastor's own pocket.
Not a penny of theirs is ever at risk. They still have their jobs. They
still have a roof over their heads, with no rent or mortgage to pay. They
still have three meals a day placed on their tables, bought and paid for
But few, if any, church employees have the money to fight back. In
most cases, these church workers slink off to lick their wounds and try to
find other means of employment in another diocese, in another state. If
they're lucky, they'll be able to remain in ministry. If not, they have to
leave their life's vocation behind and simply find a job to pay the bills.
The sequence is always painful and almost always inexorable: unjust
dismissal, then exile, and, in too many cases, banishment from one's
And what do the rest of us do--the ones like us who say, "We are
the Church"? We too often look the other way, or say a few kind, if
awkward words, as if to a patient dying of cancer, or, what is worst of
all, we assure one another that we have to "get this behind us" in order
to serve the people that remain to be served.
But one never gets and injustice "behind us." An injustice never
disappears until it is corrected, and there is no time limit on the
process. In the old moral theology manuals in use in my time in the s
eminary, there was a Latin expression, "res clamat domino." It means
literally, "a thing clamors for its owner." In the case of theft,
a stolen item doesn't become the property of the thief after a certain
length of time has passed. There is a kind of moral mechanism inside
the stolen item, constantly sounding the alarm, "res clamat domino."
Every form of injustice is like that. "Justitia clamat donec satisfacta."
Justice clamors until it is satisfied. An injustice never gradually
disappears over time. An injustice remains until it has been addressed
The U.S. Catholic bishops insisted in their 1986 pastoral letter on
the economy that the Church must practice in its own household what it
preaches to others about justice. "All the moral principles that govern
the just operation of any economic endeavor apply to the church and its
agencies and institutions," the bishops declared, and in italics. "Indeed,
the church should be exemplary."
"All church institutions," the pastoral letter continued, "must also
fully recognize the rights of employees to organize and bargain
collectively with the institution through whatever association or
organization they freely choose .... In seeking greater justice in wages,
we recognize the need to be particularly alert to the continuing
discrimination against women throughout church and society, especially
reflected in both the inequities of salaries between women and men and
in the concentration of women in jobs at the lower end of the wage scale."
But teaching and practice do not always coincide. Indeed, in
far too many places and in far too many instances in today's Catholic
Church teaching and practice do not coincide. To illustrate the point,
I shall offer a few real-life cases from Catholic hospitals first, then
schools, then parishes.
Regarding Catholic hospitals, Msgr. George Higgins offers several
depressing examples in his 1993 autobiographical work, Organized Labor and
the Church: Reflections of a "Labor Priest". There is the case of a
Catholic hospital in a northeastern city that resisted the union organizing
activities of its employees by distributing a series of anti-union
bulletins. The sister-administrator of the hospital conceded in one of
the, letters that unions had done some good "in the old days," as she put
it, but that now they were nothing more than "rabble-rousers," promoting
hostility "so that they can continue to justify their existence." They
also engage in "strong-arm, violent, and intimidating strike tactics,"
she charged. And "don't forget about union dues," she added. "The more
you make, the more they take, just like the IRS." At the bottom of the
hospital's official stationery were the words: "Compassion, Hospitality,
Commitment to Excellence."
When it came time for the election in 1990, the union lost by a few
votes, but the hospital's tactics had backfired. Within a year, the
nurses started another drive and the hospital once again cranked up its
anti-union machine to launch a frontal attack on the union. One of the
handbills it circulated was headlined: "How Does the Union Spend Money?"
It pulled several items out of the union's national budget, including
what it related as $750,000 for "purchase of Israel bonds." In bold letters
at the bottom of the flyer were the words, "Would you want your money
spent this way?"
"I find it hard to imagine," Msgr. Higgins writes, "that the hospital
would have ominously called attention to the 'purchase of Polish Solidarity
bonds' in a city with a major presence of ethnic Poles." In a subsequent
letter released for publication, Higgins charged that the reference "smacks
of anti-Semitism. I have been observing the labor scene at close range
for almost fifty years. In all that time I have seldom if ever seen
anything quite so reprehensible." The next day, the nurses voted
overwhelmingly in favor of the union.
"The campaign of resistance by this hospital," Msgr. Higgins reports
in his book, "was not an isolated incident. I get phone calls nearly
every month from union leaders wondering what to do about a Catholic
hospital that has hired a firm to destroy their union."
Let's take, secondly, the case of Catholic schools, which is close
to your hearts. A Catholic school teacher wrote to me some time ago,
after reading one of my annual Labor Day columns on justice in the Church.
She is a parish elementary school teacher in the Midwest, at the time in
her 14th year of service.
This is what she wrote: "The contract signing of most Catholic
elementary teachers are usually accompanied with the 'I wish we could
do more, but...' speech and most of us have accepted the inevitable and
continued on with our duties. More recently, however, I have come to
realize that perhaps there is a way to do 'more' but no one has ever
vigorously investigated the possibilities or attempted to change the
"Teachers are beginning to question and wonder why major building
funds and renovations are possible in parishes that 'just can't do more'
but wages that allow them to live and raise their families in other than
near-poverty conditions are not.
"Before the school year our teachers were informed that their annual
raise would be reduced from 6% to 4% due to the economy. In a meeting,
requested by the staff with the parish school board representatives, when
teachers asked why alternative methods of funding were not being
investigated, they were told, 'If you have any suggestions as to how we
might accomplish this feat, please let me know.' I wonder how many
corporations ask their employees for suggestions on how their salaries
might be funded? I believe this is a perfect example of the mind-set you
referred to in your article....
"I have shown your article to a number of my colleagues on the faculty
here and you have no idea what it means to have someone of your stature
publicly recognize a situation that has existed for a very long time ....
Our schools are staffed with dedicated professionals who really want to
teach in Catholic schools. They live their faith and are anxious to share
it with their students. It is, however, increasingly difficult for them
to do so and over the years I have watched many really top-notch people
leave the field of Catholic education for employment in the public schools
or in other more lucrative fields. We are cheating ourselves with the
short-sighted 'we just can't do more' attitude."
That letter was written three years ago. Just a few weeks ago, I
received another letter from the same Catholic school teacher. "I am a
long-time employee of our local parish school and must say that things
haven't changed much. However, with the continued growth of Catholic
schools nationwide I find it most interesting and somewhat ironic that
our underpaid, overworked but highly motivated teachers are suddenly
becoming the model for inner city public schools that cannot seem to
educate the children in their care. Even more ironic is the great
success of the voucher system presently in place in Wisconsin. The
Cleveland area has also begun a similar program this fall with great
expectations from both parents and school officials. Of course, the
only reason the voucher system works is because in particular, the
Catholic schools have much lower costs because of you guessed it their
very low pay scale. A statistic not very often mentioned by either
proponents or opponents of the plan. Wouldn't it be a great time to
begin a national move toward more creative funding of our schools? Further,
wouldn't it be great to see a major Catholic University like Notre Dame
at the forefront of this investigation and study? This would be a perfect
time to bring these issues of social justice forth to the public so that
all of our employees could be paid a just and living wage!"
Finally, the parish. Three or four years ago I received a letter
from a recently discharged parish employee. Fired without warning,
without explanation, and without recourse after 7 years of service, she
said the experience was like that of one being thrown off a moving train,
with no one looking to see where I was or what happened.
But the most important and pertinent part of her letter had to do
with the reaction of others to her firing. "I think the deepest pain
of all," she wrote, "has come from the response of the people I served.
It is amazing how the laity think that religious men and women 'wouldn't
lie therefore my firing must have been warranted. 'You must have done
something to deserve being fired.' Of course, those who ask for an
explanation are usually told that 'painful decisions are made for the
good of the parish, school, Church, etc.' Since Father would only do what
is right, then any firing must be for a greater good and must be 'ok.'
Our hierarchy's system of operation, in which no one is told details
surrounding events and no one is held publicly accountable, allows the
laity to not be burdened with any guilt about not speaking out for
justice. it's much easier to swallow the 'it was for the best' explanation
and not have to think about it anymore than it is to hear that priests
and bishops and chancellors are up to dirty tricks.
I almost have to laugh when I see or hear the pious 'peace and
justice' messages from our bishop and chancellor. The adage that 'People
in glass houses shouldn't throw stones' definitely applies.
"My circumstance is not unique," she concluded. "As I have worked
through my pain and experiences, I have heard story after story that
parallels mine .... Please know that what you have written in your column
is absolutely true, and perhaps your continued speaking out will do some
If we do indeed mean what we say, that we are the Church, then it is we,
not just the bishops, the clergy, and the sister-administrators of
hospitals who are called to act justly. Because we are the Church, we
cannot turn our backs on those who are being treated unjustly in the Church
by insensitive, authoritarian, anti-feminist clerics. We can't ever allow
such words as these to pass our lips, "Let's get this behind us," when we
really mean, "Let's act as if it didn't happen."
An injustice that is unrectified is an injustice unrectified. We
never get an injustice behind us until it is addressed and resolved.
That is, until justice is done. "Justice clamors until it is
Justice clamors for satisfaction in our Catholic parishes. Justice
clamors for satisfaction in our Catholic schools. Justice clamors for
satisfaction in our Catholic hospitals. Justice clamors for satisfaction
in all of our Catholic agencies and institutions, of whatever kind.
Are we, in fact, a Church without justice, holding to a faith
that doesn't do justice? What reason do any of us have for remaining
in such a Church rather than leaving it?
The Church is a voluntary community. One belongs to it because
one freely accepts the call of God to belong to it. But one is called
to the Church for a purpose. The Church is not an end in itself. It is
not simply an organization for people who have a penchant for religion
and its related activities, who like the smell of incense and the sound
of bells, who are transfixed in the presence of the tabernacle, who
are enthralled by the sound of church music, who crave the friendship
and approval of priests, who have an unquenchable appetite for certitude
We belong to, and remain in, the Church because we believe in
Jesus Christ and his Gospel and feel compelled by conviction to
proclaim it and to be part of the community that proclaims it.
We belong to, and remain in, the Church because we believe that we
are called to participate in Christ's worship of God our Creator, the
source of all that we are and all that we hope to be.
We belong to, and remain in, the Church in order to give thanks to
God for all that is and all that will be. As such, we are a eucharistic
community. To be separated from the Church, therefore, is to be separated
from the Eucharist. Our place is there, at the family table. Our place
is around the altar of thanksgiving, in the company of one another.
We belong to, and remain in, the Church because we believe ourselves
to have been called to offer the rest of the world--our families, our
friends, our neighbors, the wider human community--a credible and
compelling sign of hope. By the quality of our own lives and the
integrity of our own faith we proclaim that created reality is ultimately
good and gracious, that there is more to life than meets the eye, that
we are called to eternal life around the heavenly banquet table, a table
that knows no artificial boundaries of gender, of race, of ethnicity, of
income, of class, of sexual orientation.
Finally, we belong to, and remain in, the Church because we believe
ourselves called not only to faith, but to justice, indeed to a faith
that does justice. Justice for the world. Justice for the Church. Justice
in the world. Justice in the Church.
"The first means of evangelization," Pope Paul VI declared in what was
perhaps his best and most enduring papal document, ("Evangelization in
the Modern World"), "is the witness of an authentically Christian life....
Modern men and women," he continued, "listen more willingly to witnesses
than to teachers, and if they do listen to teachers, it is because they
What the Church needs, indeed what the world itself needs today more
than anything else is a lived spirituality of martyrdom, that is, the
corporate witness of a people who actually practice what they preach,
who act as they speak, whose faith issues in justice.
We are the Church, indeed. But if we mean what we say when we say,
"We are the Church," we will put our bodies and our money on line for
justice. But it's never enough simply to pray in our richly elaborated
grace-before-meals for those suffering injustice in Bosnia, or Burundi,
or for the homeless and those with AIDS.
To be for justice is to stand up for the DREs and other pastoral
ministers who have been underpaid, maligned, abused, and unjustly
fired in our parishes.
To be for justice is to stand up for the Catholic school teachers
for whom the social teachings of the Church are a dead-letter, and to
defend their right to unionize, even against the well-funded power of
anti-union law firms employed and directed by the local bishop.
To be for justice is to stand up for the Catholic hospital employees,
similarly beaten down by withering anti-union blasts, orchestrated by the
same types of anti-union law firms at the direction and in the pay of
Catholic hospital administrators.
To be for justice, in the final accounting, is to be serious about
our faith and about our participation in the faith community that is
the Church. Otherwise our Christian faith is a pious fraud, and our
affiliation with the Church, an illusion of righteousness.
I began my remarks this morning with a quotation from the first part
of Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,
Gaudium et spes. I conclude with a quotation from the end of the same
"Not everyone who cries, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter into the kingdom
of heaven, but those who do the Father's will and take a strong grip on
the work at hand. Now, the Father wills that in all people we recognize
Christ our brother and sister and love them effectively in word and in deed.
By thus giving witness to the truth, we will share with others the mystery
of the heavenly Creator's love. As a consequence, men and women throughout
the world will be aroused to a lively hope that they will finally be caught
up in peace and utter happiness in that homeland radiant with the splendor
of the Lord" (n. 93).