Protests over budget bills and their impact on unions have grown and spread from Wisconsin to other states, and will continue to erupt. Americans are getting increasingly involved and passions are flaring, aided in one way or another by popular media.

Let’s step back and take the long view.

Catholic Social Teaching has always upheld the dignity and rights of the worker, and the great and eloquent elaborations of that thought have never gone out of date nor changed perspective. Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus are the two most famous encyclicals, and now is a really good time to read or re-read them both. They’re not that long, and both the original and the anniversary document are worth the time invested, because they add to the public debate the human spiritual dimension missing from most of the rest of it.

A few days ago, in the heat of the unprecedented Wisconsin standoff between the unions and the governor over budget battles and compromise efforts and holdouts, the Wisconsin bishops and Catholic Conference emphasized the “moral obligation” of protecting workers’ rights and urged careful negotiations.

Although Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee and other bishops around the state have not spoken in direct opposition to the proposed budget, they’ve unequivocally reiterated the importance of protecting worker’s rights in light of the Church’s social doctrine.

Archbishop Listecki said in a Feb. 16 statement that even though “the Church is well aware that difficult economic times call for hard choices,” current situations “do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.”

The archbishop then quoted Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” in which the pontiff criticizes governments for limiting the freedom or negotiating capacity of unions. He also referenced the late Pope John Paul II’s observation that unions remain a “constructive factor” of social order and solidarity.

“The bishops are very careful – it’s a balanced statement,” Huebscher said. “Because you support workers or the right of unions to assert and affirm their interests, (it) doesn’t follow that every claim made by workers is valid.”

Huesbscher also qualified that unions, “just like anybody else, have to consider the good and make sacrifices.” However, he added, it’s “a mistake to cite hard times as a reason to dismiss or marginalize unions.”

“The bishops are merely reminding everybody of the teaching of the Church, over the last century or more, of the dignity of work and the appropriate place for unions without giving them carte blanche to have everything they want.”

One thing I’ve heard many people on opposite sides of this debate agree on is that it’s a difficult, complicated situation. As Josh Mercer of put it, you’ve got to peel back layers of an onion to unravel this debate.

Here’s one layer, part of an email that crossed my inbox after doing an interview on radio about this topic. It’s from a teacher in Wisconsin, a Catholic Republican, though there are certainly armies of Catholic Democrats in unions across the country. She was frustrated…

Everywhere I go, I am told how greedy and out of touch teachers are, even though the teachers in MY district were at school, doing our jobs every day. We didn’t skip school to protest. We had the best interest of the children in mind at all times.

 We didn’t hear much in any media about this type of teacher in the state system.

For the record, I helped pay for college by working in factories during my summers. It was very hard work. I know the value of a dollar. With respect, I challenge anyone to come and do my current job. As an elementary music teacher, I see 500 students, twice a week. I educate them. I evaluate their progress. I do 500 report cards four times per year. I know and care for their needs. I know their names. I support the efforts of their parents. My students know that I love them. This is who teachers are. We don’t punch a clock. We go the extra mile. No one goes into teaching for the money.

And there are so many more layers. We will see them peel back in the days to come. Let’s at least extend the presumption of goodwill to people passionately engaged in both sides of the debate, and together find a way forward that values the human dignity of everyone, and the common good at the heart of it all.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....