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Wages a Catholic responsibility

Letter to the Editor | Friday, March 31, 2006

Many Roman Catholic institutions, which served as vehicles for social mobility for poor and working class Catholics in the 20th century, are now resisting requests that they pay their workers a living wage.

The country’s 238 Roman Catholic colleges and universities are a case in point. Over the last hundred years these institutions have helped millions of families move solidly into the middle class. They have also shaped the spirituality and ethics of millions more young adult Catholics.

This story is borne out in my own family. My grandfather never finished high school. He worked in the auto factories of Detroit and ran a corner drug store in Akron. But somehow his parents managed to send him to Notre Dame in 1948. For my father and for our family, Notre Dame was a ticket to the world of business and to the middle class.

My wife and I graduated from Notre Dame in 1977 prepared for our careers and equipped with an adult faith that has served us well as we raise our own family. Two of my nieces now attend Notre Dame and are doing well academically even as they participate in a wide array of service projects.

But Catholic colleges – and indeed all faith-based institutions – cannot just live off the ideas and traditions of the past. Historian Jaroslav Pelikan has said that “tradition is the living faith of the dead” not “the dead faith of the living.”

If places like Notre Dame are to be the “living faith of the dead” they must go beyond the idea that the only things that really matter in Catholic universities are the success of the students and the quality of the research. Their challenge is to see their mission in a broader way and be leaders providing living wages to their non-professional employees.

Last fall, students at Notre Dame launched the Campus Labor Action Project to bring together students, workers, faculty, alumni and community allies to work for living wages on Notre Dame’s campus. Their work mirrors efforts in 35 other colleges and universities to raise the wages of their non-faculty workforce so they too can have a shot at owning a home, saving for retirement and sending their children to college.

The movement for just wages is rightly aimed at Notre Dame and its $4 billion endowment. But the same question should be put to all Catholic institutions – parochial schools, hospitals and congregations included. Are we practicing what we preach when it comes to our teachings about what constitutes a just wage? Are our institutions responding to the demands for justice of their prophets and saints – or to the lower bar of what the market requires?All across America, there are families like mine – only African American, Caribbean American, Hispanic and Asian – who need Roman Catholic institutions to do for them what they did for my parents. In Notre Dame’s case, instead of being forced to give its workers a living wage, it should be the national Catholic leader of the effort.

Thomas LenzalumnusClass of 1977March 26