This week, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette ran a story about the negative impact many churches are experiencing because of their positions on social issues— particularly gay marriage, contraceptives, and abortion rights. Young people are especially turned off. Of course, young people have been leaving the church for many years; this is not news. Most of young people I know really do not see the point in going to or belonging to a church. But what is news is that a lot of middle aged adults have dropped out of church as well. Like their children, they have come to view church as a pointless exercise; or worse, they view it as a negative influence. That is not to say these folks are not spiritual, but they view the church as more of a political institution than a spiritual one, and they view politics as bad.
Here in Pittsburgh one of the recurring issues has been whether the Catholic Church should have to pay for contraceptives for its employees. As in many cities, the Church here owns businesses such as hospitals and universities. When the ACA required all medical insurance plans to include reproductive health services, Bishop Zubic cried foul, and has continued to do so ever since. He stated plainly that religious organizations should not have to pay for services that violate their ethical code. He went so far as to say that President Obama was waging a war on the Church. Many church lay members have stood with him. The unfair requirement to use Church money for abortion would seem to be a valid complaint, except that it’s NOT the Church’s money! From the very beginning, this argument has been misrepresented and as a consequence the worker comes out on the short end.
When a person accepts employment there is a contract, whether written or implied, that she will give x number of hours of labor in exchange for certain compensation. That compensation is often a mix of salary and benefits. What she does with her compensation is her decision. The employer doesn’t say, “Betty, we agree to pay you $500 per week but you are not allowed to buy alcohol, cigarettes, or movie tickets.” It is generally understood that Betty can spend her pay as she likes because it’s HER money. Likewise, her benefits belong to her. If she gets a 401k, she can pick the investment she wants, because it’s HER money. And lastly, Betty should be able to use her health care benefits the way she chooses, because it’s HER money. She earned those benefits; they belong to her. It is not the Church’s money, it’s Betty’s.
There was a time when the Church was more friendly to the working class, although we note that the Vatican has routinely and continuously expressed support for workers in their struggles with their capitalist masters. So perhaps I should be more specifically pointing to the American Catholic leadership. We recall fondly Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. Where is today’s Day? Where is today’s Monsignor Charles Owen Rice, co-founder of the Catholic Radical Alliance? Rice was our labor priest here in Pittsburgh. He helped form the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists. But today’s Catholic leadership seems more aligned with the likes of Tom Monaghan, billionaire former owner of Domino’s Pizza. Monaghan is politically very conservative and he has a lot of money to give to the right Catholic charities. He even built and owns an entire town in Florida where merchants are prohibited from selling contraceptives. This seems to be the new model of the Church— if we can’t convince our members to follow our ethical code, let’s have the government do it for us. In this regard, the Church is not different from other right wing churches who want government to enforce morality. There are very wealthy right wingers out there who will give buckets of money to churches who will preach the Right gospel. Rather than trying to retain or grow their membership, the Church has opted to look for pots of money. I’m not saying it would be easy to stem the tide of people quitting church. People today don’t seem to want to join any organization, make any commitment. They especially don’t want to join political organizations. But, it would have been easy for Bishop Zubic to have told his parishioners, “Look, we pay our employees benefits. We don’t dictate how they use them.” But that’s not what is happening. Perhaps, as the Church is doing its business analysis it’s seeing that having a few very wealthy members is a better deal than a million poor members. That path will eventually turn the Church into a wealthy think tank with no churches. This is similar to what another Pittsburgh institution did. Mellon Bank decided it didn’t actually need banks, just a big office building. So it closed ALL of its branches! And they are doing very well today, partnering with BNY to serve a small but wealthy group of customers. If that’s where the Church wants to go, so be it. But the working person on the street is struggling today and she could use some old-time Catholic rabble rousing.