LOW-PAID HIGH-ACHIEVERS
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.


You have two options:

  1. Online subscription: Subscribe now to New Oxford Review for access to all web content at newoxfordreview.org AND the monthly print edition for as low as $38 per year.
  2. Single article purchase: Purchase this article for $1.95, for viewing and printing for 48 hours.

If you're already a subscriber log-in here.



Back to April 2000 Issue

Read our posting policy Add a comment
I agree that the tax money should have rightfully been given to the school of the tax-payer (Ceasar now requires a triple+ tythe). As to the example given of GI bill money given to private colleges and universities we should remember that this got the camel's nose into the business of the college. If you accept gov. money than you accept their rules. Witness the church services that now must advise on availability of abortion and the adoption agencies that must place children with same gender couples or else. How about just going back to congressman David Crockett of TN.. "It ain't yours to take" Posted by: martillo
August 27, 2007 12:27 PM EDT
In 2009, a master’s thesis was conducted that showed the average salary a Catholic school teacher made was 80% of what their public school counterparts made. Further, this percentage was an established or implied goal of almost all Catholic dioceses. In one case, a diocese paid their teachers 50% of what a public school teacher made.
As for benefits, there was again a wide range of benefits – some had none, some were less than what priests made in their own dioceses.
The remarks attempting to placate or defend this lack of parity and justice ranged from: saying it’s a calling to it’s an obvious attempt to impose a union. “If you don’t like it, perhaps you should consider leaving,” was a response I personally received in conducting background for the thesis from my principal. It is a subject that the hierarchy is extremely reticent to discuss.
It is a well known fact that many teachers leave Catholic schools for public schools after a few years – they have been well trained and the monetary difference is important - the thesis quantified this supposition, as well.
The question of unions arises. Though every pope since Leo XIII has stated it is a right of all people to belong to a union, the Church in the United States has turned a deaf ear to this right. Some bishops and superintendents of Catholic schools are vociferous in their condemnation of unions – they’d rather not know what the popes have said. The Catholic national educational organizations don’t want to even discuss the word and you won’t find any background there. Teachers invariably serve with At-Will contracts, in which there is no recourse for the actions of administrators.
Catholic schools must be able to survive. Pretending a serious problem doesn’t exist only makes the problem worse.
Posted by: bbaker
April 19, 2012 11:59 AM EDT
Add a comment