On the 50th anniversary of that inglorious war without an exit strategy, the war on poverty, Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development on behalf of the USCCB and Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, sent a letter to the U.S. Senate asking the federal government to raise the minimum wage.
The stated goal of raising the minimum wage of Archbishop Wenski and Fr. Snyder is to 'fix' the problem that "a full-year, full-time worker making the minimum wage does not make enough money to raise a child free from poverty."
Archbishop Wenski advocates this position on behalf of the entire US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Can a Catholic legitimately and morally oppose this prudential policy decision while remaining a Catholic in good standing and if so, should the USCCB advocate for such policies?
I believe the answer to these questions is yes and no, respectively.
It is not my intent to debate the effects of raising the minimum wage on the intended targets, but rather to establish that there is a legitimate debate as to its efficacy. Moreover, while the goal is desirable, the outcome of such a policy may be counter-productive.
Think of a struggling Catholic business owner faced with a hike in the federal minimum wage who must make the decision to maintain his 5 part-time minimum wage workers, all of whom are young people with minimum skills. These young folks are high-school or college students who use the income from these jobs during transition periods and are not intended to support a family. With this wage hike, the Catholic business owner knows that he will only be able to employ 4 part-time workers. Because of this reality, he opposes this rate hike. Is he no longer a Catholic in good standing for opposing the Bishops' stance because he knows the real world negative impact on the his workers?
While the intention of any prudential policy decision may be good, as in this case, the intentions are not always sufficient cause to support a policy. There are economists that believe that any such minimum wage hike will actually be deleterious to some of the very people it is intended to help. There are also economists that think that such hikes will exacerbate the problem of youth unemployment, a problem dear to the Pope's heart, since young people hold the majority of minimum wage jobs.
If you believe that this policy will actually hurt rather than help and therefore oppose the increase, you now find yourself in the unenviable position of being in opposition to your Bishops.
What if you are unsure if the hike helps or hurts, but think that this is a matter best left to the States? What if you think the idea of setting a federal wage standard that applies equally to Manhattan NYC and Manhattan, Kansas is foolish at best. 19 states already have minimum wages higher than the federal standard, why not let the principle of subsidiarity apply and let government closer to the people and the situation makes such prudential decisions. What if you think that in an age of runaway centralized government, those issues should be handled locally and thus oppose any one-size fits all standard for the minimum wage? Does that make you less Catholic?
Whether you suspect that hiking the minimum wage helps or hurts, I think any reasonable man must acknowledge that a Catholic can legitimately and morally oppose this prudential policy decision even if he supports the goal.
If that is the case, should the Catholic Bishops, individually or collectively, be advocating for a federal law that well-meaning Catholics in good standing and with good intent can reasonably oppose?
Archbishop Wenski and Fr. Snyder admit that they make this request "not as economists or labor market experts, but rather as pastors and teachers who every day, in our ministries and churches, see the pain and struggles caused by an economy that simply does not produce enough jobs with just wages."
By their own admission, they are not experts and such economic questions are beyond their purview as Bishops. I believe that when the Bishops advocate policy positions beyond their competency in prudential areas in which Catholics can legitimately disagree, they detract from their own God-given authority in which principles and policy are clear.
Bishops are, of course, entitled to their own opinions as men and as citizens and their votes count just as much of that of any man. But as Bishops, they should not advocate for policies that are a matter of legitimate debate and thereby set themselves in opposition to other equally concerned Catholics.
In June 2012, addressing his fellow Bishops at the USCCB, Bishop Boyea said of such policy advocacy, “I’m not sure that we have the humility yet not to stray into areas where we lack competence, and where we need to let the laity take the lead.”
Can I hear an amen?