The Scandal of Catholic Teachers' Pay
April 2000By Rupert J. Ederer
Rupert J. Ederer is Professor Emeritus of Economics at Buffalo State College and author of Economics as if God Matters.
Lay teachers in America's Catholic primary and secondary schools are some of the lowest-paid high-achievers around. Their rate of pay is a problem that needs urgent solution. The problem is to some extent inherited from the time when vowed religious predominated in such schools. After vocations to religious life plummeted during the post-Vatican II turmoil, laypersons were hired to fill the gaps, until they eventually came to predominate in parochial elementary and high schools. Poorer parishes and dioceses were faced with a difficult situation. There was simply no way they could dun their parishioners for sufficient funds to pay even a minimal just wage to lay teachers. Many pastors made the difficult decision to close their schools a measure that was painful to both them and their parishioners. It was also burdensome, deservingly so, for the public school districts which now had to absorb what were formerly parochial school pupils "deservingly," because, as we shall see, those districts should have been contributing their fair share of the parents' tax money they received to maintain or help maintain those Catholic schools. Meanwhile, other parishes, especially among the well-heeled, kept their schools open, and they either began charging tuition or ran vigorous bingo programs, or both. However, they also invariably maintained their schools partially at the expense of the lay teachers who were now asked to accept far less than even the minimum pay level at the public school down the street.
While there are significant variations from one diocese to the other, salaries paid to teachers in Catholic schools are rarely on par with those paid in tax-supported public schools. Sometimes they are as low as one-half of what the public school teachers earn. Granted that the latter probably deserve some salary differential based on what is generally a more difficult job one could call that "hardship pay" or even "combat pay" the disparity is far too great. What Catholic school teachers are paid, therefore, represents a scandalous injustice, and it is high time for it to be eliminated.
What we are dealing with here is not simply social justice, but even the more basic strict justice that governs exchange transactions. In the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition this is called commutative justice. In other words, it is the same justice involved in purchase and sales transactions, and in borrowing-lending contracts. In normal sales transactions we forgo purchasing what we cannot afford; we do not ask the merchant to accept less than a just price, nor do we ask him to do so in the name of charity. In other words, depriving a worker of his just wage is in the same category as short-changing someone in a sales transaction. As persons trained to be confessors know, such violations call for restitution; and as those versed in Scriptures are aware, depriving a worker of his rightful wage cries to Heaven for vengeance.
Periodically then, where there is organization of sorts, a quasi-union petitions the employer for an increase in pay. Depending on the circumstances, the employer here may be the individual parish or the diocese. Typically, when such negotiations are underway, all of the proverbial stops are pulled out on both sides, and the Church's laundry gets hung out for all to see. Letters to the editors in local papers reflect the pathetic plight of the teachers. The failure of local school officials to live up to their Church's own social teachings is paraded before the public. Pastors and bishops lament the plight of their employees, pleading their own inability to do anything about it in the given context. That context is based on the ongoing twisted interpretation of the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which makes any state aid to church-run schools appear unconstitutional.
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