This week STEP class is about church teachings on morality. As Catholics, we distinguish between mortal and venial sin. The readings inform that:
There are three conditions for a sin to be a mortal sin: grave matter, full knowledge, and deliberate consent (freedom). Mortal sin destroys the loving relationship with God that we need for eternal happiness. If not repented, it results in a loss of love and God’s grace and merits eternal punishment in hell, that is, exclusion from the Kingdom of God and thus eternal death.
Is becoming intoxicated a grave matter especially when one knows the consequences from past experience? But can one deliberately consent if one's judgment is impaired as one gradually becomes intoxicated? Is it the ex ante consent to the first drink that matters?
Relatedly, suppose one commits what would ordinarily be a mortal sin when one is intoxicated. Does being intoxicated negate deliberate consent? But what if you got intoxicated on purpose?
Frankly, I often get confused when one digs down into the weeds of Catholic theology on (among other things) sin. The best advice a priest ever gave me on this issue was to make frequent use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, tell the priest everything on your conscience and let God sort it out.
As previously noted, I'm enrolled in Notre Dame's STEP program and currently taking the Core Course: Introduction to the Catholic Faith. This week's class focused on Morality.
One of the discussion questions asked "What are the Theological Virtues," which sent me to the Catechism (para, 1803 ff):
Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good.
Four virtues play a pivotal role and accordingly are called "cardinal"; all the others are grouped around them. They are: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. "If anyone loves righteousness, [Wisdom's] labors are virtues; for she teaches temperance and prudence, justice, and courage."
The human virtues are rooted in the theological virtues, which adapt man's faculties for participation in the divine nature: for the theological virtues relate directly to God. They dispose Christians to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity. They have the One and Triune God for their origin, motive, and object.
The theological virtues are the foundation of Christian moral activity; they animate it and give it its special character. They inform and give life to all the moral virtues. They are infused by God into the souls of the faithful to make them capable of acting as his children and of meriting eternal life. They are the pledge of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the faculties of the human being. There are three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity.
I was unaware of that distinction. So, yet again, I've learned something new and, at least to me, interesting from this course. It's been a great experience. I'm sad that this is the last week, but a new course starts next week.
I am saddened to learn that Michael Novak has passed away. The American Enterprise Institute, where he was a resident scholar for many years, reports that:
Michael was an AEI scholar for three decades until his retirement in 2010, and remained a close friend of the Institute.
Michael arrived at AEI in 1978. ... And once here, he built a hugely distinguished career as our George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy.
The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982), likely Michael’s most important book, advanced a bold and important thesis: America’s system of democratic capitalism represents a fusion of our political, economic, and moral-cultural systems. No facet can exist apart from the others. This thread ran through Michael’s whole career, including his most recent book, a co-authored work entitled Social JusticeIsn’t What You Think It Is (2015).
George Weigel writes that:
Michael Novak loved the Catholic Church and the United States passionately. And with his death at 83, both Church and nation have lost one of their most imaginative and accomplished sons: a groundbreaking theorist in philosophy, social ethics, religious studies, ethnic studies, and economics; a brilliant teacher; a winsome journalist and apologist; a great defender of freedom, as both ambassador and polemicist; a man of striking energy and creativity, some of whose books will be read for a very long time to come, and in multiple languages.
And from the Wall Street Journal:
Over a long life Michael Novak traveled from writing speeches for George McGovern to serving as Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, reflecting an intellectual journey from socialism to capitalism. He died Friday at age 83, but in many ways he remained the boy forged in Johnstown, Pennsylvania: a working-class town of steel mills, coal mines and immigrant Slovak families trying to find their way in this new land called America.
Raised as a Roman Catholic, Novak believed as a young man that socialism was the ideal economic arrangement. But he began to notice a flaw: While socialism sounded good in theory, in practice it didn’t work—and non-elites fared the worst.
Capitalism had little high-minded theory, but in practice it literally provided the goods. If ordinary folks did so much better under capitalism, maybe the caricatures—e.g., that it is all based on greed—were wrong. Maybe free markets had their own virtues and were defensible, and even superior to other economic systems on moral grounds.
From this recognition sprang his most important work, “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism,” which changed America’s public debate when it was published in 1982. “Democratic capitalism,” he wrote, is “neither the Kingdom of God nor without sin. Yet all other known systems of political economy are worse. Such hope as we have for alleviating poverty and for removing oppressive tyranny—perhaps our last, best hope—lies in this much despised system.”
I only had the privilege of meeting Novak on one occasion, but he had a huge impact on my life. It was reading his work on Catholic social thought as it relates to the corporation that provided the normative foundation for my own work but also provided the impetus and interest in Catholicism that eventually led to my conversion. Indeed, if one had to single out one person who pushed me across the Tiber, it was Novak.
Michael Novak, Toward a Theology of the Corporation https://t.co/70RnJTeb97— Professor Bainbridge (@ProfBainbridge) February 19, 2017
Rest in peace, Michael Novak. “As human lungs need air, so does liberty need virtue.”https://t.co/qiqpOFGSB4— First Things (@firstthingsmag) February 18, 2017
As previously noted, I'm enrolled in Notre Dame's STEP program and currently taking the Core Course: Introduction to the Catholic Faith. This week's class focused on the Liturgy. This week's assignment question is:
What is meant by the term, "Real Presence," with respect to the Eucharist?
As always I am limited to the stated maximum of 200 words.
The doctrine of the Real Presence asserts that in the Eucharist, while the bread and wine appear to be bread and wine, Jesus is literally and wholly present—body and blood, soul and divinity—in them. This is a stumbling block for many non-Catholics, who look at the bread and wine and see a rather tasteless cracker and a (usually) bad tasting glass of wine.
But Jesus himself (Luke 22) declared that “This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.” And, again, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you."
That Jesus was not merely speaking of the Last Supper as a unique event is confirmed in 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul wrote: "Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord."
If Jesus were not truly present in the bread and wine, why should it matter whether we are free of grave sin when we partake of it? It would be a mere symbol. But because it is not just a symbol, but rather the literal body and blood of Christ, those who are unworthy take him into themselves at grave risk.
Dolan is unquestionably what most people would regard as a “conservative.” His closest friends and advisers are conservatives, he’s by-the-book when it comes to faith and morals, and he’s unabashedly proud of being a “John Paul II bishop.”
In other words, Dolan has strong personal views which some would see as fairly partisan.
However, another defining quality of Dolan is a relentless determination to keep lines of communication open, never to demonize or alienate anyone, and to demonstrate that one can have strong convictions without forever going to war against people who don’t share them. ...
Dolan suggests another America, one in which people who disagree can still be friends, still talk to one another, still recognize one another’s fundamental decency, and where disputes don’t have to end in shoving matches and handcuffs.
Among many reasons I crossed the Tiber back in 2001 was the prevalence of praise music in Protestant churches here in Los Angeles. I had an instinctive reaction against worship services that seemed more like rock concerts (not, of course, that I'm against rock concerts, but there is a time and a place). I was thus struck by this passage from John O'Malley's wonderful history of the Council of Trent, Trent: What Happened at the Council:
Embedded in the decree, however, was a sentence exhorting the bishops to “keep out of their churches the kind of music in which a base and suggestive [lascivum et impurum] element is introduced into the organ playing or singing, and similarly all worldly activities, empty and secular conversation, walking about, noises and cries, so that the house of God may truly be called and be seen to be a house of prayer.”
I'm not saying all Protestant churches are like that, of course, but it was in large part a desire for traditional High Church liturgy that sent me to Rome.
As previously noted, I'm enrolled in Notre Dame's STEP program and currently taking the Core Course: Introduction to the Catholic Faith. This week's class focused on the Church. This week's assignment question is:
Explain the link between the Holy Spirit and the Church.
As always I am limited to the stated maximum of 200 words.
I believe that, prior to Pentecost, the Church was merely inchoate. Acts 1-2 tells us that they were gathered together in the upper room (it just occurred to me to wonder of that was the same room as where they held the last Supper?), but they had not really launched on the tasks set out in the Great Commission. Apparently, it was only when the Holy Spirt came upon them at Pentecost that they began preaching to the public rather than praying amongst themselves.
Today, the Holy Spirit sustains, guides, and empowers the Church. As the Catechism explains (para. 736), "By this power of the Spirit, God's children can bear much fruit. He who has grafted us onto the true vine will make us bear 'the fruit of the Spirit: . . . love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control..'"
We encounter the Holy Spirit in the sacraments. The baptism seals us with the Holy Spirit. In the Eucharist, it is the Holy Spirit who effects the transubstantiation of the bread and wine. The Holy Spirt convinces us of sin and prompts us to seek Reconciliation.
As previously noted, I'm enrolled in Notre Dame's STEP program and currently taking the Core Course: Introduction to the Catholic Faith. This week's assignment focused on the Church.
There were some discussion questions this week that I found quite interesting. Bear in mind that I'm space constrained in my answers, so some of these deserve longer treatment at some point.
What Biblical image or metaphor do you think best fits the Church?
The Bride of Christ, which will be united with Him for eternity. "The Bridegroom’s love, or rather the love which is the Bridegroom, asks in return nothing but faithful love. Let the beloved, then, love in return. Should not a bride love, and above all, Love’s bride? Could it be that Love not be loved?" -- Bernard of Clairvaux
Explain why the image of the Church as "People of God" is important.
To me this is a really interesting and timely question. My personal politics tend towards the Tory version of classical liberalism, in which there is great emphasis on the autonomy of the individual. I was brought up as a Baptist, so my religious formation also emphasized individuality. Indeed, one definition of the very word Baptist says that a "Baptist is an individual who has experienced salvation through personal faith in Jesus Christ." Each believer is said to be a priest, which in turn leads to an emphasis on individual interpretation of Scripture. Granted, they do not deny the communal aspects of faith, but the emphasis is on the individual.
In contrast, I understand Catholicism to be emphasize the communal aspects as against the believer as autonomous individual. We are one people, one body. We come together with communion at the center of every Mass. This was long a barrier for me, but I have come to understand that Catholicism rarely presents us with 'either/or" choices. We remain individuals in community.
This is such a timely issue, with people like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan suggesting that it is possible to adhere to the radical individualism of libertarian thinkers like Ayn Rand at the same time as adhering to traditional Catholic beliefs. I just don't think that is possible, but getting into that issue would extend an already far too long comment many more pages. [NB: I want tor effect some more on this and then write at greater length.]
Why is the hierarchy (ordained ministers) essential to the Church?
What does essential mean in this context? There are successful churches that are independent of any larger church body, which last a long time and do good works. Likewise, there are large church bodies that are functionally democratic without an established hierarchy. If essential means that the hierarchy is an existential requirement, I think experience teaches that it is not.
Instead, I would understand essential here to mean "of the essence." Even Protestant churches that deny the sacrament of Holy Orders typically ordain their ministers. This idea that the physical church here on earth has a head thus replicates the spiritual body of the church of which Christ is the head. We see evidence that this was an early tenet of the church in Acts, for example, where Paul and Barnabas are ordained.
What makes the Catholic Church unique, of course, is that our essence include episcopal ordination and the episcopal hierarchy headed by the Bishop of Rome. If you say you are a Catholic but you deny the headship of the Pope, you might as well pack it in and become an Anglican or Orthodox.
How would you respond to critics who claim "Catholics worship Mary"?
Wow. This was the big one.
I must confess (and I mean that literally, I intend to take it up the next time I go for confession) that Mary was/is an obstacle for me. As someone whose education and professional life has been heavily influenced by economics and rational choice, and who tends towards a certain cynicism, the Church's embrace of Mary struck me as a tactic the Church used in early times to help ease the transition of pagans who believed in an earth mother goddess into Christianity, just as setting Christmas at the time of the winter solstice was a way to ease pagans who celebrated winter festivals into faith.
In coming to Catholicism, I came to acknowledge that there doubtless was something special about the woman chosen to be the Mother of God.
But I still worry that the Church walks a very fine line in encouraging Marian devotions that easily can step over that line into idolatry especially when practiced by illiterate or poorly formed Catholics. Excessive Marian devotions seem to distract people's attention from Jesus.
This is and remains an issue for study and reflection.
As previously noted, I'm enrolled in Notre Dame's STEP program and currently taking the Core Course: Introduction to the Catholic Faith. This week's assignment focused on the dual nature of Jesus Christ. We were tasked with answering the question, "Why is it important to proclaim that Jesus is fully divine and fully human?" As usual, the 200 word limit drove me nuts, but here was my answer:
There is a classic formulation in Christian apologetics of a "trilemma." Christ claimed to be divine. As CS Lewis therefore put it, “Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.” You thus cannot say “Christ was a human who was a great moral teacher,” for if he is not divine, he was either a liar or insane, neither of which are characteristics of great moral thinkers.
Conversely, if Christ also were not fully human, he could not have suffered and died for our sins. It is precisely because Jesus was human that his death atoned the sins of all humanity. “For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God?” Hebrews 9:13-14.
Which loops us back to Christ’s divinity. After all, if Christ were not divine, Christianity would be saying that suffering of a human provided atonement for sin. Why then would not our own suffering do so?
What should I give up for Lent? I've narrowed it down to 3:— Professor Bainbridge (@ProfBainbridge) February 2, 2017
As previously noted, I'm enrolled in Notre Dame's STEP program and currently taking the Core Course: Introduction to the Catholic Faith. This week's assignment contained a number of readings on catholic understanding of Scripture and Tradition and then tasked us to answer the question "What is meant by the term, 'Inspiration'? Would you say that everything in the Bible is true?" in 150-200 words. I managed to stop myself at 197.
As I understand the term, “inspired” does not even remotely mean “dictated.” Instead, it means that the Holy Spirit brought concepts and ideas to the minds of the authors (illuminating revelation), prodded the author to write, and helped call to mind felicitous phrasing.
As Catholics, we believe that inerrancy follows inevitably from inspiration. The Catechism says “The inspired books teach the truth.” (¶ 107)
But there are many kinds of truth. In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a “mustard seed,” which He said was “the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants.” (Matt. 13:31-32) A botanist would tell us that there are smaller seeds and larger plants, so the statement is not literally true in the scientific sense.
But the mustard seed was the smallest seed of which 1st century Jews in Israel knew, so the analogy aided them in understanding that the Kingdom of God starts very small and becomes very large. In that sense, the parable is morally true.
Discerning the genre of the specific passage is thus the first step in discerning the way in which it is true.
This week's online class discussion raised some interesting issues:
As previously noted, I'm enrolled in Notre Dame's STEP program and currently taking the Core Course: Introduction to the Catholic Faith:
In the documents of Vatican II, the baptized are called to holiness and to greater understanding of their unique role in building the Kingdom of God. An informational and enriching introduction to the Catholic faith and theology, this course will enable you to take greater responsibility in promoting the life and mission of the Church. Using the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults as a primary text, this course will explore six core areas and will serve as a good foundation for those who seek to continue theological studies or develop theological competency for ministry. Theology is a fascinating and vital subject that challenges those who study it to think critically and personally about human existence, the world we live in and our relationship with God and one another. It is recommended (but not required) as a first course for those new to theological study.
Week 1's topic is faith development. The weekly assignment was to write 150-200 words on the question "How is faith both a gift and a human act?" As regular readers might expect, my weekly comment ran a bit long. Don't expect anything terribly profound. It's just my musing on the assigned topic:
In creating man and woman, God endowed us all with a yearning for the infinite. As the quotation from St Augustine reminds us, “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Yet, on our own, we grope toward knowledge of God feebly and imperfectly. And so another step in the process by which God gives us faith is Revelation of himself.
God reveals himself to all through creation. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the works of his hands. Day unto day pours forth speech; night unto night whispers knowledge.” (Ps 19:2-3).
God most fully reveals himself in scripture. God inspired the prophets, apostles, and others who wrote the bible to provide a true account of God’s revealed nature. God granted insight to the Church Fathers who determined the canon of Holy Scripture, separating the wheat from the chaff, and thus giving us a rich foundation of revealed truth upon which to construct out faith. And, of course, the Church has built the Magisterium upon that foundation as God continues to reveal himself to the saints and scholars of the Church who grapple with how the eternal truths of scripture apply to an ever-changing world.
Yet, faith must also be a human act. If God granted justification to an elect few—if he predestined some for salvation and some for damnation—there would be no free will.
God invites us to join his company. Some (we may hope many or even most) will accept the gift he offers. In doing so, they complete the act of faith. There has been a proffered gift and a freely given acceptance thereof.
We may think of this as faith rather than knowledge, for faith is defined as “is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1). Unlike St. Thomas, who believed only after seeing the nail marks on Jesus and the hole in his side, we who have faith are blessed because we “have not seen and have believed” anyway. (John 20:29)
I've enrolled in the University of Notre Dame's Satellite Theological Education Program (STEP) to pursue their Certificate in Doctrine. The STEP program is an online educational program:
We use digital technology to offer theological education to pastoral ministers and other adult Catholics across the United States and beyond. We are part of Notre Dame's McGrath Institute for Church Life, which serves the University's larger mission of teaching, research, and service to society and to the Church.
Our staff members work with Notre Dame professors and other highly qualified instructors to assemble lectures, readings, and supporting materials for Web-based courses. We train and coordinate facilitators, who in turn guide STEP students as they interact with each other and with Notre Dame's online learning environment. From registration to course completion, we strive to provide you with a friendly, supportive place to grow in faith and understanding.
STEP Certificates of Catholic Theology recognize those who have completed a set of courses and a final assignment in a given area of theological study. A Certificate of Catholic Theology may enable you to:
Demonstrate competence in a given theological discipline.
Meet diocesan or national certification standards for the intellectual dimension of faith formation for diaconate or lay ecclesial ministry.
Certificates of Catholic Theology are available for the following areas of study: Doctrine, History, Liturgy, and Scripture.
The Certificate in Doctrine requires the following courses:
I'm currently enrolled in the Core Course. At the end of each week, we have to post a short discussion of the topic for that week. It's supposed to be 150-200 words. As you can imagine, that's a real problem for me. My week 1 post ran 350 words. Anyway, I plan to cross post my weekly comments here.
Let's get the usual disclaimers out of the way. As a practicing Catholic, I give religious assent to the Magisterium of the Church and all due respect to the Bishops thereof. Yet, I also note that the church encourages lay initiative “especially when the matter involves discovering or inventing the means for permeating social, political, and economic realities with the demands of Christian doctrine and life.” United States Catholic Conference, Catechism of the Catholic Church ¶ 899 (2d ed. 1997).
The Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America (which I think is fairly described as left leaning) recently held a conference at which San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy gave a keynote address. There is much in Bishop McElroy's address that is worthy of comment and I likely will have more to say about it in the future. In this post, however, I want to focus on his call for the Church to stand in solidarity with public employee unions:
One of the lynchpins of the tradition of Catholic teaching on economic justice is that the right to workers' associations is not only an essential element of obtaining justice for the workers themselves, but that it also contributes to the common good of society as a whole. There is no doubt that there will be further attacks upon the rights of public sector unions to exist and seek justice for their members in the coming years. And while the duty of all unions to seek the common good of society as a whole presents special obligations for public workers, all of the fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching which have enshrined the right to organize and bargain collectively at the very heart of the church's social doctrine testify equally to the right of public sector workers to obtain justice in pay, benefits and working conditions through robust unions.
The highlighted passage calls to mind Harry Truman's famous plea: "Give me a one-handed Economist. All my economists say 'on hand...', then 'but on the other...” On the one hand, Bishop McElroy gives (dare I say grudging) recognition of the special problems created by public sector unionism. On the other hand, he also gives (may I say full throated) support for the principle of pubic sector unionism.
We may lay it down as a general and lasting law that working men's associations should be so organized and governed as to furnish the best and most suitable means for attaining what is aimed at, that is to say, for helping each individual member to better his condition to the utmost in body, soul, and property.
One hundred years later, the great Pope John Paul II reaffirmed in Centesimus Annus that:
Pope Leo XIII's Encyclical also affirms other rights as inalienable and proper to the human person. Prominent among these, because of the space which the Pope devotes to it and the importance which he attaches to it, is the "natural human right" to form private associations. This means above all the right to establish professional associations of employers and workers, or of workers alone.19 Here we find the reason for the Church's defence and approval of the establishment of what are commonly called trade unions: certainly not because of ideological prejudices or in order to surrender to a class mentality, but because the right of association is a natural right of the human being, which therefore precedes his or her incorporation into political society. Indeed, the formation of unions "cannot ... be prohibited by the State", because "the State is bound to protect natural rights, not to destroy them; and if it forbids its citizens to form associations, it contradicts the very principle of its own existence".
As I read the relevant papal encyclicals, which form the core of CST, however, the unions at issue typically are understood as associations of workers employed by private--especially industrial--enterprise. Even in that context, moreover, the encyclicals recognize that the right of free association must be balanced against the public good. In discussing the right to strike in Laborem Exercens, for example, John Paul II wrote that:
While admitting that it is a legitimate means, we must at the same time emphasize that a strike remains, in a sense, an extreme means. It must not be abused; it must not be abused especially for "political" purposes. Furthermore it must never be forgotten that, when essential community services are in question, they must in every case be ensured, if necessary by means of appropriate legislation. Abuse of the strike weapon can lead to the paralysis of the whole of socioeconomic life, and this is contrary to the requirements of the common good of society, which also corresponds to the properly understood nature of work itself.
Public sector unionism in fact poses a direct and inescapable threat to the common good of society in a way that private unions simps do not.
As Daniel DiSalvo writes, leading labor and political figures long recognized that public sector unions were a bad idea:
Prior to the 1950s, as labor lawyer Ida Klaus remarked in 1965, "the subject of labor relations in public employment could not have meant less to more people, both in and out of government." To the extent that people thought about it, most politicians, labor leaders, economists, and judges opposed collective bargaining in the public sector. Even President Franklin Roosevelt, a friend of private-sector unionism, drew a line when it came to government workers: "Meticulous attention," the president insisted in 1937, "should be paid to the special relations and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government....The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service." The reason? F.D.R. believed that "[a] strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to obstruct the operations of government until their demands are satisfied. Such action looking toward the paralysis of government by those who have sworn to support it is unthinkable and intolerable." Roosevelt was hardly alone in holding these views, even among the champions of organized labor. Indeed, the first president of the AFL-CIO, George Meany, believed it was "impossible to bargain collectively with the government."
He further explains that:
In 1943, a New York Supreme Court judge held:
To tolerate or recognize any combination of civil service employees of the government as a labor organization or union is not only incompatible with the spirit of democracy, but inconsistent with every principle upon which our government is founded. Nothing is more dangerous to public welfare than to admit that hired servants of the State can dictate to the government the hours, the wages and conditions under which they will carry on essential services vital to the welfare, safety, and security of the citizen. To admit as true that government employees have power to halt or check the functions of government unless their demands are satisfied, is to transfer to them all legislative, executive and judicial power. Nothing would be more ridiculous.
The very nature of many public services — such as policing the streets and putting out fires — gives government a monopoly or near monopoly; striking public employees could therefore hold the public hostage. As long-time New York Times labor reporter A. H. Raskin wrote in 1968: "The community cannot tolerate the notion that it is defenseless at the hands of organized workers to whom it has entrusted responsibility for essential services."
A core problem with public sector unionism is that it creates a uniquely powerful interest group. In theory, bureaucrats are supposed to work for and be accountable to the elected representatives of the people. But suppose those bureaucrats organize into large, well-funded, powerful unions that can tip election results. With very few and very unique exceptions, no workplace in which the employees elect the supervisors functions well for long. Yet, research by Terry Moe (22 J.L. Econ. & Org. 1) into the electoral power of teachers' unions finds just such an outcome:
The first study ... provides evidence that teachers, acting through their unions, are quite successful at getting their favored candidates elected to local school boards. When a candidate is supported by the unions, her probability of winning increases dramatically, so much so that the impact of union support appears to be roughly the same as the impact of incumbency. In terms of total impact, union influence may be even greater than this suggests, because union victories literally produce incumbents—and the power of incumbency then works for union candidates to boost their probability of victory still further in future elections.
The second study ... shows that public bureaucrats' turnout advantage over other citizens is much greater than the existing literature would lead us to expect. It also offers persuasive new grounds for believing that their high turnout is indeed motivated by occupational self-interest—and more generally, that they are actively and purposely engaged in an electoral effort to control their own superiors.
The prevailing theories treat bureaucrats as mere subordinates, controlled from above by political authorities. But the control relationship can run both ways, and not just because bureaucrats have expertise and other sources of private information. In a democratic system the authorities are elected, and this gives bureaucrats an opportunity to exercise electoral power in determining who will occupy positions of authority and what choices they will make in office. It would be odd indeed if public bureaucrats and their unions did not invest in this kind of reverse control—and there is ample evidence that they do.
In effect, public sector unionism thus means that representatives of the union will often be on both sides of the collective bargaining table. On the one side, the de jure union leaders. On the other side, the bought and paid for politicians. No wonder public sector union wages and benefits are breaking the back of state budgets. They are bargaining with themselves rather than with an arms'-length opponent.
Even if the public's representatives at the collective bargaining table are not de facto union representatives, the nature of public sector collective bargaining inherently leads to inefficiencies. As far back as 1971, in their book The Unions and the Cities, Harry Wellington and Ralph Winter argued that "there are sound reasons for concluding that government is not just another industry" (Book Review, 13 Wm. & Mary L. Rev.):
Foremost of these reasons is the unreliability of transplanting the private sector labor legislation's operating assumption that the employer's superior bargaining power should be equalized. That power in a given city may already be equal or tipped in favor of public employee unions due to the very nature of the public employer who, unlike the private employer, is not subject to market restraints but is subject to political restraints. Government decisions are properly political decisions and economic considerations, although para- mount to the private employer, are but one criterion among many for the public employer. Market restraints in the private sector are such that increased benefits will cause higher prices for the employer's product which in turn, in a system of tradeoffs, causes possible unemployment of some employees. No such market restraint exists in the public sector except in theory since discharging teachers, sanitation workers, or police- men as a result of granting higher benefits raises very real political pressures from within the affected government department and from an inconvenienced public. Government employers too frequently yield to constituents by a grant of increased benefits to employees and then either bury the increases in the "bowels of an incomprehensible municipal budget," seek new funds, or reduce other services by reallocating the city's treasury. Thus, normal market restraints are often supplanted by political restraints regardless of economic or social impact. ...
Add to this political power of public employee unions the private sector strike weapon and they may have, argue the authors, a disproportionate quantum of power sufficient to distort the normal political process. Their power may be so effective a means of redistributing income that they will have "an institutionalized means of obtaining and maintaining a subsidy for union members."
In sum, public sector unionism lacks the moral and economic justifications for private sector unionism. It results in significant distortions of the political process, which have real adverse consequences for the taxpayers.
Indeed, consider the looming economic disaster coming in most states and localities as bloated public sector union benefits--especially pension benefits--are essentially bankrupting the public sector. (See The Pension Fund that Ate California for a particularly detailed account of the problem.) A briefing paper from the left-leaning Brookings Institute explains:
The Providence Journal has observed that:
“At the bottom of it all is a political culture that rewarded politicians who made unsustainable promises, working in mutually beneficial tandem with public employee union leaders who extracted remarkably generous benefits without worrying about the long-term costs to the citizenry, especially when the inevitable recession arrived.”
Public employee unions are one of the most—if not the most—powerful political actors in state politics and have used that power to protect and expand the pension benefits of their members, as one would expect. As Healey, Hess and Nicholson have observed:
“Public sector unions are often highly involved in raising funds and donating to the campaigns of political candidates, often with the goal of preserving the pension status quo ... As important as it may be to take on the challenge [of pension reform] many lawmakers are still politically incentivized to maintain the status quo for as long as possible.”
Why do union leaders support pension policies that threaten to undermine the ability of a state to deliver promised benefits to their members? Dr. Thomas H. Little from the State Legislative Leaders Foundation noted that it has a lot to do with internal union politics: “Union representatives tend not to look long-term but rather focus on the short-term interests of the current and retired members who elected them and on whom they depend for re-election. These folks tend to be adamantly opposed to cuts in their benefits.”
Public sector unionism is thus inherently at odds with the common good, as it impedes the ability of the State to provide basic services to citizens at large.
In sum, the late Cardinal Edward Egan was thus correct when he argued at a 2011 conference on work (50 J. Cath. Legal Stud. 149) that:
There is a basic difference between the public employee and the private employee. You cannot fairly say, “Here is an argument for the private employee,” and apply it without distinction to the public employee. That tactic may get you through an opinion piece in a newspaper, but it will not work in a serious discussion where the participants are free to demand precise definitions and, above all, clear distinctions.
I call on Bishop McElroy to heed that warning and address squarely whether CST's plain teaching on private unions in fact ought to extend to public sector unions in whole or part.