How the Church Measures Up to Its Teaching

U.S. Catholic, September 1997 | Go to article overview

How the Church Measures Up to Its Teaching


Does the Catholic Church practice what it preaches about a just wage?

The response of church employees, ranging from lay ministers to chaplains to hospital workers and school teachers, is a resounding no.

Catholic school teachers provide a clear case in point. Laypeople now compose 85 percent of the teaching force at Cathohc schools. Yet teachers in a number of dioceses across the nation earn poverty-level wages. The basic starting salary for lay teachers in Tucson, Arizona is $12,679 a year, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Catholic School Teachers. It is $11,700 in El Paso, Texas and $9,800 in Burlington, Vermont.

"Some of our teachers could qualify for food stamps, that's how bad it is," says Rita C. Schwartz, spokeswoman for the Catholic teachers association, which represents 5,000 teachers in 20 dioceses.

This is not what the Catholic bishops advocated in their 1986 pastoral letter, "Economic Justice for All." "All the moral principles that govern the just operation of any economic endeavor apply to the church, its agencies, and institutions. Indeed, the church should be exemplary," the bishops wrote.

Most people who work for Catholic institutions don't expect to draw big bucks. Teachers recognize there is no tax base to support their salaries. Workers at Catholic institutions, such as nursing homes or hospitals, know their employers operate on a not-for-profit basis. Many view their work as a calling. But that's not a license to exploit, insists William Droel, a board member of the National Center for Laity in Chicago.

"I used to think it wasn't exploitation if a person took a job with a certain sense of volunteerism and service. But I've changed my thinking over the years," says Droel, a Catholic chaplain of a Chicago-area community college. "A person's motive for taking a job has nothing to do with the justice of the wage, whether you're working in a sweat shop in Vietnam or a Catholic school."

On average, Catholic-school teachers earn 20 percent to 30 percent less than public-school instructors, according to the Catholic teachers association. The result: most Catholic-school teachers are either single or bringing in a second income for their families.

The church may talk of a family wage -- one that permits only one spouse to work. Yet in practice, it provides poorly for workers with families. Most Catholic institutions extend health benefits only to the worker, not his or her dependents. Since the majority of lay employees are women, the policy is particularly hard on mothers working single-handedly to support their families.

"It's one of the serious problems that needs addressing, and it's going to happen one day," says Lucille Merlihan, director of lay pastoral ministry for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

The news is not all bad, however. A 1995 survey by William P. Daly of the National Association of Church Personnel Administrators found that salaries for professionals working in diocesan administration, such as directors of finance or communication, are comparable to those of administrative employees at other nonprofit organizations.

However, "receptionists, janitors, and food-service workers are likely to be paid below the just minimum wage, as they are in the business world," reports Daly.

A wide discrepancy also exists between pay levels of professionals working at parish-level jobs and their counterparts working for Protestant congregations. "In some cases, parish workers are earning $8,000 to $10,000 less than Protestant church workers," says Daly, who regularly monitors pay data. Salaries for support staff at Catholic parishes are equivalent to those of Protestant churches, but both "often fall below the just wage," Daly says.

But pay and benefits aren't the only concerns. "I usually don't hear about money as the first thing," says Schwartz of the teachers union. …

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