Here’s a story that amuses me no end. In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Patrick J. Reilly, the president of the Cardinal Newman Society, complains about two recent decisions by regional offices of the National Labor Relations Board allowing certain professors at Catholic colleges to form unions. The colleges, St. Xavier University in Chicago and Manhattan College in New York, had argued that such unions would interfere with their autonomy as religious institutions and thus that application to them of the relevant provisions of the National Labor Relations Act would violate their religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. Having lost at the NLRB’s regional offices, the colleges are appealing.
Mr. Reilly agrees with the colleges and thinks that the NLRB’s action is a “serious overreach by the government,” but he recognizes one of the ironies here: “Colleges that have deliberately watered down their Catholic identity, in part to help themselves compete for governmental aid” are now arguing that their religious mission is so critical to what they do that a faculty union would disrupt it. Mr. Reilly is more charitable than I am, so I will say what he doesn’t: Given the extremely meager religious content of much of Catholic higher education nowadays, the colleges’ position is going to be a tough sell.
There is another irony here, however, that Mr. Reilly doesn’t mention, and this is the one I really like. To wit, one part of Catholic doctrine that most Catholic colleges and universities like to play up is Catholic Social Thought, which is readily hijacked to support left-wing political and economic causes congenial to many in academia. One of the key tenets of Catholic Social Thought, however, is the right of workers to form unions. Thus, in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, there is a whole section entitled “The importance of unions” in which we read such sage pronouncements as, “The Magisterium recognizes the fundamental role played by labor unions, whose existence is connected with the right to form associations or unions to defend the vital interests of workers employed in various professions” (no. 305), and “unions are promoters of the struggle for social justice” (no. 306). At least according to St. Xavier University, Manhattan College, and Mr. Reilly, however, this is apparently not the case when the Catholic Church or one of its affiliated organizations is the employer.
Don’t get me wrong. I have no love for the unions. I think that, under current conditions in developed economies, unions are almost always destructive, harming consumers and low-skilled workers a good deal more than they benefit their unionized members. In a fight between self-interested and self-righteous labor cartels and Catholic colleges that have effectively abandoned the Catholic religion but now wish to hide behind it to protect themselves financially from such cartels, I say, may they both lose.