By John Lloyd
Two of the western world's great organizations, the AFL-CIO and the Roman Catholic Church, decided last week to tackle two of the world's great problems differently than they had for decades before. This might just be another proof that they're getting weaker (they are). Or it might be a big, good shift.
The two groups are hardly alike. One is concerned with the material; the other occupied with things spiritual. But last week they were united, as the leaders of both appeared ready to break with tradition and leave behind a history of exclusion. These moves haven't attracted much notice: but if the two leaders follow through, the consequences will be enormous.
Let's address the AFL-CIO's action first. At its convention in Los Angeles last week, the confederation's President Richard Trumka noted that CEO pay had gone up 40 percent since 2009, and invited the delegates to imagine "what kind of country we would live in if ordinary people's incomes went up by 40 percent. Almost no one would live in poverty!" True, but an expected line from a union boss. But then he moved on to say — extraordinarily, for a union representative — that "we cannot win economic justice…for union members alone. It would not be right and it's not possible. All working people will rise together, or we will keep falling together."
This appears to mean — as aides explained — that the AFL-CIO will extend some kind of membership to NGOs that organize low-paid workers and build coalitions with any group that advances workers' pay and rights. For the first time, the organization seems set to see itself not as the protector of an ever-shrinking, relatively privileged group — but as the vanguard of a movement for greater equity.
Anyone who is or has been a union member will recognize how big a statement this is. Unions are mechanisms for raising their members' living standards — and to do so, they must also be mechanisms for keeping non-members out. Members pay their dues to be special; to get the raises and better conditions that their leaders have negotiated, sometimes by going on strike. Now, the leadership seems to be saying, we're not just a membership organization, we're an organization for workers everywhere.
The Pope is similarly breaking new ground. Last week Pope Francis, in office for a mere six months, exchanged letters with the Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, founder of left-of-center daily La Repubblica. Scalfari had written first, speaking to the dilemma of non-believers (like him) who nevertheless think they live moral lives. What extra does Christianity offer in the way of moral teaching, he asked. At the core of Francis' answer, splashed across four of La Repubblica's pages, was not a defense of Catholic exclusivity in the way of salvation. Instead it was the astonishing declaration that "God's mercy has no limits" and that "if you follow your conscience you will have God's pardon."
It's not wholly clear that the official Church that Francis leads agrees with what its divinely-appointed leader appears to be saying. This is a novel interpretation for Catholics of God's will and mercy. When, in May, he said something similar, a Vatican spokesman did one of those "what the Pope meant to say…" numbers, to the effect that "those who do not believe in God cannot be saved."
But that isn't what the Pope said, and he has now said it twice. He has put an atheist's sincere effort to live a good and moral life without God on the same footing as a believer's efforts to do the same — by extending God's mercy to the unbelievers. For the real unbeliever, of course, that invites a "so what?": why be pleased to be pardoned by an entity in which one doesn't believe? But for the believers it's a bombshell.
Fervent Catholics are placed in a quandary: why be observant, attend mass regularly, observe the saints' days, say the rosary, revere the Pope, pray to the Madonna — if the atheist next door, who may, to be sure, be a good person but doesn't stir from his bed till long after the church bells have tolled on a Sunday, can enjoy God's grace too? The same applies for union members: why pay the dues, attend the meetings, and sacrifice the income when on strike when all workers, dues-paying or not, may benefit?
But the importance of these two leaders' statements — if they stick by them — is much greater than the discomfort of the fully paid up, and the faithful. The Pope and Trumka have recognized that the walled gardens that they and their predecessors have tended now cannot survive unless the walls are breached. If, as they believe, their offerings to society are so precious, how can they keep them to themselves? As Trumka says, it is neither right nor possible. The spirit of the times is hostile to walled gardens. Even, it now seems, the Holy Spirit.
(Any opinions expressed here are the author's own.)