Faithful Catholics are rightfully concerned about how some Catholic colleges and universities have rejected their Catholic identities because so few Catholic college leaders have implemented Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope St. John Paul II’s vision for authentic Catholic higher education.
Now, the federal government, through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), has stepped into the void. In a series of rulings that might have been more appropriate coming from bishops, the NLRB has pronounced that a number of Catholic colleges are eligible for unionization because they have “clearly demonstrated that they are not providing a religious educational environment.” Not surprisingly, it has ruled in nearly every case that “the Catholic mission plays no part in the hiring and evaluation of the faculty.”
The NLRB’s new test assessing faculty support for the Catholic mission emerged as a way to circumvent the 1979 Supreme Court case, NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago. The case denied jurisdiction over lay teachers at a Church-operated school because, the justices ruled, such interference would create a “significant risk” of violating the First Amendment’s free exercise and establishment clauses.
Today, faculty contributions to the Catholic mission cannot be assumed. Beyond a few dozen faithful Catholic colleges and universities, the NLRB knows that most Catholic colleges qualify for unionization because these institutions cannot demonstrate that the faculty are actually expected to uphold and advance Catholic teachings.
In 2015, the NLRB issued a “Certification of Representation” allowing adjunct professors and lecturers at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Earlier that same year, adjunct faculty at St. Michael’s College of Vermont voted in favor of joining the SEIU, and the NLRB ordered its regional officials to reconsider labor disputes involving employees at Manhattan College in Riverdale, N.Y., St. Xavier University Chicago, and Seattle University. School leaders had attempted to block unionization, claiming that such efforts posed a threat to their schools’ religious character.
Sadly, some had already sacrificed their religious character. It’s difficult for St. Mary’s to claim that its faculty supports Catholic teachings when the school has honored abortion proponents like Amy Richards, who visited the Catholic campus to positively proclaim her decision to “selectively reduce” two of her three unborn children.
Manhattan College is also an easy target for the NLRB. Religious studies professor Judith Plaskow published a book arguing that “heterosexism is the fundamentally religious endorsed form of oppression.” Two of Seattle University’s philosophy professors published A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion, in which they argue that performing an abortion on a non-sentient fetus is like removing plant life.”
In each of these cases, the NLRB has judged that the institutions had distanced themselves so far from the authority and teaching of the Catholic Church that they no longer merited government recognition as religious institutions.
Still, there is reason for optimism as earlier this year, Carroll College in Helena, Mont., became the first Catholic college to convince the NLRB that the school “has always been and will continue to embrace and be guided by our mission.” Pointing to the faculty handbook which clearly states that a faculty member can be fired for “continued serious disrespect or disregard for the Catholic character or mission of the College,” the NLRB noted that it would “decline jurisdiction as long as the university’s public representations make it clear that faculty members are subject to employment-related decisions that are based on religious considerations.”
The SEIU is now helping to organize faculty at Loyola University of Chicago. Loyola’s interim president John Pelissero told the faculty that the SEIU was “not consistent with our deeply rooted Catholic intellectual tradition.” That may be difficult to argue as its law school hosts a chapter of Law Students for Reproductive Justice — an organization dedicated to helping to produce a new generation of abortion advocates.
Father Dennis Holtschneier, president of DePaul University (which also hosts a chapter of Law Students for Reproductive Justice), recently wrote: “Ultimately, the freedom to determine what is or is not religious activity inside our Church is at stake.” Perhaps it’s time for all faithful Catholics to reclaim the role that the state has attempted to assume in ensuring that Catholic colleges and universities protect what Pope Francis has called the “uncompromising witness” to the Church’s magisterial teachings.
ANNE HENDERSHOTT is an author, a professor of sociology and director of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.