Recent Catholic convert Newt Gingrich is challenging Pope Pope Benedict XVI and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops over workers' rights to organize. In an encyclical released this week (hat tip to the AFL-CIO Now blog), the Pope embraced the right to form unions as essential to economic justice. The Pope declared: Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labor unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome…their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level. While stopping short of explicitly endorsing the Employee Free Choice Act that Gingrich and Big Business groups have demonized, the Pope's encylical adds to the growing array of Catholic scholars and organizations that are endorsing union rights -- and, in some cases, the proposed bill -- as a moral imperative. In contrast, while the twice-divorced Gingrich who notoriously sought a divorce from his wife dying of cancer in her hospital bed, promotes himself as supporter of traditional values and economic freedom, he doesn't think that freedom should extend to workers' rights, so he also has denounced the Employee Free Choice Act as a "mortal threat to American freedom." But as a newly converted Catholic, how does he square his anti-union views with the reverence he shows for his church and this new Pope, whose visit to the U.S. inspired him to join the faith of his latest wife, Callista: The moment that finally convinced me [to convert] was when Benedict XVI came here [to the United States] and Callista in the church choir sang for him at the vespers service and all the bishops in the country were there. As a spouse, I got to sit in the upper church and I very briefly saw [Benedict] and I was just struck with how happy he was and how fundamentally different he was from the news media's portrait of him. This guy's not a Rottweiler. He's a very loving, engaged, happy person. I'd first seen Pope John Paul II when he came to the U.S. when Carter was president and I was a freshman congressman. And I [later] met him as Speaker. The other sense is that the church has had two of its most powerful popes back to back, in their intellectual ability to engage the secular world on behalf of Christ. He admires the Pope engagement in the secular world, of course, except when the Pope supports the workers' right to organize. Even as clergy of all faiths are backing the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, the newest Senator, Al Franken, made co-sponsoring the Employee Free Choice Act his first official act in the Senate. As he told a reception at the AFL-CIO, as reported by the AFL-CIO now blog: Franken, a strong supporter of workers' freedom to form unions and bargain, said his membership in four unions--AFTRA, SAG, WGAE and DGA--gave him, wife Franni and his family the opportunities that all working families deserve: "Because of my membership in those unions, Franni and I had health care during the campaign. Because of my membership in those unions, we have a pension. "We need to level the playing field. Unions built the middle class in this country, but we've seen the playing field become a steep hill. We've seen a great risk shift in this country." You can see his remarks here and the cheering response to his support for the legislation: In supporting the legislation and adding to a potential filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, he's also joining a majority of the public, as shown in independent polling, that believes workers have a right to organize and who accept the key principles of the Employee Free Choice Act. Just like the Pope, in fact. So that raises another question for Newt Gingrich: Is it time to make another confession, but this time, about opposing your church's teachings on union rights? ******** Cross-posted to Art Levine's blog at Huffington Post.
Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate.com, Salon.com and numerous other publications.