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Bishops Are Bosses
And there's only one thing you should do with a bad boss.
Hi everyone. I had drafted this piece for another publication, so you'll notice that it doesn't have any swear words in it. The other publication ended up not running it, so now it's here, with some small tweaks and one additional joke about Publix. I hope you find this piece interesting; this is my response to FemCatholic's recent and very good reporting into maternity leave policies at Catholic diocese, which honestly you should read instead of this.
At the time I wrote the piece, the archdiocesan teachers in St. Louis were still threatening to strike, but they have since reached a contract agreement.
Happy May Day.
On March 25, FemCatholic published their new study on family leave policies across the American church. Reporters Isabella Volmert, Kelly Sankowski and Renée Roden contacted all 176 dioceses in the country to ask about their policies, and wove their findings into an excellent piece with powerful stories from diocesan employees who could not raise a family with the meager support from their bosses in the church. Critically, the FemCatholic report includes the full searchable data set on which policies are in effect at which diocese. While not every diocese has responded yet and the data set will continue to grow, diocesan employees now have a nationwide view of the church’s family leave policies all in one Google Sheet.
The state of family leave in the Catholic church is, predictably, bleak. Of the 176 American dioceses, only four offer new mothers twelve weeks of paid leave at full salary; over ten times that many dioceses confirmed that they offer no paid family leave whatsoever. Representatives for these dioceses shrugged off family leave policies as being too costly or too complicated, and a representative for the diocese of Portland, Oregon - which does not offer employees any paid family leave - offered that "if it were the law to offer paid leave, we would offer that", apparently satisfied to top out their benefits package at "not actively violating federal labor law". Catholic dioceses aren’t exactly out of step with other American employers, who can also have terrible or nonexistent paid leave policies, but Catholics should hope that their own church, given its teachings on the dignity of work and the importance of the family, could hold itself to a higher standard than other workplaces.
The gap between the teachings of the church and the actual execution of those teachings in diocesan policy is obvious, bordering on trite. A church that vocally and agressively opposes abortion and birth control does not invest in measures to support working mothers and families, and does not invest in programs supported by its own body of social teaching on the rights of workers. It is very easy for liberal- and left-leaning Catholics to look at this and say to our bishops "gee that's not very pro-life of you", as we often do, for good reason. But this reporting highlights another critically important problem with immediate and material consequences: Catholic dioceses can be terrible places to work, run by bosses who do not treat their employees with a bare minimum of respect, dignity, or even concern for on-the-job safety.
These bosses are the bishops, men who, because of how dioceses are structured, basically have unilateral control over the employment policies and compensation for thousands of workers in parishes, ministries, and schools across the country. These are places where the church builds communities and serves the poor and educates young people, and if we want these institutions to be good at those things, they should be places where people actually want to work, where they want to work over the course of years as they raise families and set down roots in their communities, and where they can be treated with respect as they do their work. We need to look at the church as a workplace, and address its shortfalls as a workplace, if we are to be part of a church that effectively preaches the Gospel in the world.
And the FemCatholic report highlights a massive failing of the church as a workplace. Every bishop leading our 176 dioceses has the power to announce tomorrow that they will start taking steps to implement 12-week paid family leave policies, to support the families of diocesan employees, to meet the paid leave standards of the international Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, to better practice the social doctrine taught by the church, to respond to Pope Francis’ explicit demand from 2015 that employers “include special attention to women’s employment, as well as to maternity assistance which must always defend new life and those who serve it daily,” and to live up to the “Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers” ideals listed on the bishops’ own website. That all but four dioceses in the country haven't done this is a choice; it's a choice that each bishop has made to not invest in the employees and families that do the work in every diocese, and to put their own teachings on the back burner.
Or rather, it's a choice for the bishops who are actually aware that they've made that choice at all. The FemCatholic report also includes a few soundbites from Bishop William Wack, who "was appointed Bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida, in 2017. But he only learned his diocese didn’t offer paid maternity leave when someone asked him about it a few months ago." Wack owns his employee policies, and has ultimate responsibility for their structure and implementation, just like every other bishop who heads a diocese; that it took him over four years to learn about his own employees' leave policy is inexcusable. Reading this was infuriating, and made me feel that Wack should quit being a bishop and start stocking shelves at his local Publix supermarket, which, as an employee-owned company, will likely offer him better benefits than he has ever given to his own employees. Bishop Wack highlights the failing of the Catholic church as a workplace: bishops are bosses, and they're usually not very good at being bosses. And diocesan employees suffer as a result, as they struggle to raise a family with little to no safety net from their workplace.
But this isn't the only issue on which bishops have failed as bosses and the church has failed as a workplace. The work of some bishops to undermine public health and vaccination efforts during the COVID pandemic have presented direct threats to the health and safety of Catholic employees and communities. Bishop Donald Hying of Madison, WI dismantled vaccination clinics at diocesan schools (the diocese of Madison does not offer any paid family leave). Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, TX, with characteristic stupidity, actively spreads vaccine misinformation and defies the moral direction of the Vatican on vaccinations (the diocese of Tyler does not offer any paid family leave). Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco refuses to get vaccinated himself because "my immune system is strong", and his own parishes have to bar him from visiting so he doesn't endanger elderly churchgoers (the archdiocese of San Francisco did not respond to FemCatholic's questions on family leave policies). These are bosses with employees, making decisions that put the health of their own employees at risk. These aren't only instances of appalling rhetoric, but also examples of bishops not doing anything to stop preventable illness among the people they serve and employ.
But there are other ways that these bosses show their disregard for the dignity of their employees and the people that their dioceses are supposed to serve. Archbishop Charles Thompson of Indianapolis has worked aggressively to fire individual Catholic teachers for being gay - bypassing the actual people who usually hire and fire teachers in his archdiocese - and implemented policies at diocesan schools that could force gay and transgender students into conversion therapy (the archdiocese of Indianapolis does not offer any paid family leave). Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, IL denies all sacraments to any LGBT Catholics, including funeral services, in a policy that appears designed to spite grieving families (the diocese of Springfield does not offer any paid family leave). More recently, archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee has mandated a bizarre and sweeping new “Catechesis and Policy on Questions Concerning Gender Theory” that goes so far as to issue a blanket ban on any discussion of preferred pronouns in diocesan settings (the archdiocese of Milwaukee did not respond to FemCatholic’s questions on family leave policies). These policies don’t appear related to the effective running of a diocese, support for diocesan employees, or any sort of catechesis or evangelization beyond trying to make marginalized people feel miserable and alone. And “making people feel miserable and alone” is not likely to be among the qualities you feel are important to being a good boss.
If your boss paid you poverty wages with no paid leave as you started your family, if your boss discouraged your coworkers from getting vaccinated and personally risked infecting you every day at the office, if your boss wrote policies that echoed Fox News talking points and targeted you or your coworkers for firing because of your private sex life, you would correctly think that you had a bad boss, one that was making it difficult for you to do your job well. Diocesan employees across America, the people who do the work of the Catholic church every day, who put together our liturgies, who educate our children, who perform the corporal works of mercy, have these men as their bosses. Those bosses have no meaningful oversight as they exercise their power to hire and fire workers and set the conditions in which they work. So if those workers have bad bosses, their best option is to start organizing.
FemCatholic, as part of their broader project to push for family leave policies across the church, has also published helpful summaries of Catholic teaching and social science research into the benefits of these policies. All of this work is great, but the most important tools that diocesan workers will have to fight for better policies are each other. Bishops are bosses, and a worker needs more to win over her boss than the right quote from the right encyclical; a boss can ignore a single worker very easily, no matter how good her theology is. So she needs to talk to her other workers and start organizing, and the data set on leave policy provided by FemCatholic can help start those conversations between workers. Bishops are just like all other bosses: they don't like negative attention, they hate feeling uncomfortable, and they can be pressured when workers stand together and demand better. And now, thanks to the reporting at FemCatholic, those workers know exactly what they’re getting and not getting in terms of leave benefits, how they compare to other diocesan employees across the country, and how those policies stack up against the reported assets of each diocese. In particular, the data reveal that the diocese of Omaha and the archdiocese of New York each provide 12 weeks of paid family leave to diocesan employees while having less than $300 per Catholic in diocese assets, on the lower end of the nationwide spectrum. There are no excuses for better-resourced dioceses to put off implementing paid leave policies, and workers now have a publicly available story to organize around.
Now is the time for a new wave of organizing among diocesan employees, mainly because it's time for a new wave of organizing among all employees. For many workers, the COVID pandemic crystallized how their bosses truly saw them: "essential" to keeping businesses and institutions alive, but not "essential" enough for bosses to cough up enough wage increases or benefits or workplace protections. Workers, whether unionized or not, realize that they have to fight for all of that, and have accelerated their organizing in all industries: media and manufacturing, white collar and blue collar, cashiers and construction workers. The front line of the labor movement, in a matter of months, has moved to two employers thought to be impervious to worker organizing: Starbucks and Amazon. The Catholic church isn't impervious to worker organizing, either.
In the Catholic church, some groups of employees are unionized - teachers in the archdiocese in New York have struck over wages and proposed school closures, teachers in the archdiocese of San Francisco smacked down the archbishop when he tried to gut their collective bargaining rights, and teachers in the archdiocese of Saint Louis are currently threatening a strike to defend their grievance and seniority protections - but most diocesan employees are not unionized, and all of these workers can still organize to pressure their bosses. The FemCatholic piece even includes examples from the diocese of Harrisburg and the archdiocese of Washington where non-unionized workers started talking to each other about their leave benefits, collectively asked for something more as workers - as people saying "we are the ones who do the work around here, and we deserve better than this, because you really don't want to start doing all of our jobs for us" - and got it. That can happen in any diocese in the country, although it will take time and effort. Every fight for a more just workplace ends differently; not all of them need to end with formal unionization or striking, although those are powerful tools for workers. That said, every fight for a more just workplace starts the same way: with workers talking to each other, understanding their relationship to their bosses, and deciding that things don't have to be like this. FemCatholic’s new report is exactly what diocesan employees need to get a new wave of organizing started.