A column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that tries to link Duquesne University’s refusal to accept federal government authority over personnel negotiations with the tragic death of a former Duquesne adjunct professor is getting attention from labor union proponents.
The column even provoked a backlash against The Cardinal Newman Society by a columnist at the heterodox National Catholic Reporter, because of the Society’s vocal support for Duquesne’s rights as a religious institution, according to several federal court rulings. The Reporter (not to be confused with EWTN’s National Catholic Register) publicly dissents from Catholic teaching, has been asked by its bishop to cease using the label “Catholic,” and has repeatedly opposed the Newman Society’s work to strengthen Catholic identity in Catholic schools and colleges.
The author of the Post-Gazette column, Daniel Kovalik, is a senior associate general counsel for the United Steelworkers Union, which wants to represent Duquesne’s adjunct faculty members– none of them steelworkers. Kovalik describes Mary Margaret Vojtko as a former Duquesne adjunct professor who was nearly “homeless because she could not afford the upkeep on her home,” especially due to the medical expenses she was paying for her cancer treatment. Kovalik said that Vojtko had been fired from her job with no severance or retirement benefits after 25 years of teaching, and died “underpaid and under appreciated at age 83.”
But according to Inside Higher Ed, the University released a statement from campus chaplain, Rev. Daniel Walsh.
“I knew Margaret Mary well… When we learned of problems with her home she was invited to live with us in the formation community at Laval House on campus, where she resided for several weeks over the past year. Over the course of Margaret Mary’s illness I, along with other Spiritan priests, visited with her regularly. In addition, the university and the Spiritan priests at Duquesne offered several other types of assistance to her. Mr. Kovalik’s use of an unfortunate death to serve an alternative agenda is sadly exploitive, and is made worse because his description of the circumstances bears no resemblance to reality.”
Kovalik’s column, full of vivid imagery and emotion, uses the death of Vojtko as a means to harass the Catholic university about its ongoing appeal for religious exemption from oversight by the federal National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The U.S. Supreme Court and other federal rulings have determined that the NLRB’s intrusion into personnel negotiations at religious schools and colleges would violate the First Amendment, because it would necessarily involve the federal government in religious matters.
University President Charles Dougherty explains:
“We are not unmindful of the teachings of the Catholic Church on labor. The Church continues to support the right of working men and women to organize. Our history of positive relations with our existing unions is evidence of our appreciation of this fact. Nevertheless, we believe that, in the case of faculty who are central to the core of who and what we are, concerns for our religious mission are a higher priority. These concerns certainly are a higher priority than deference to the machinery of NLRB regulation, which has no explicit expression in Church social teaching. In this context, the primary concern of the Church is that the dignity of men and women be respected at work, that they have fair pay and reasonable working conditions, and that they enjoy an atmosphere of dialogue in which their voices are heard. We are committed to these ideals.”
Nevertheless, last year the NLRB claimed that Duquesne was insufficiently religious to acquire a religious exemption, using a test of religiosity that itself violates the First Amendment by allowing a federal agency to make religious judgments. The NLRB received a scolding from Congressman Phil Roe, describing the Board’s challenge to religious freedom as “disturbing.”
The Cardinal Newman Society has vigorously defended the rights of Catholic schools and colleges to be exempted from NLRB oversight of personnel matters. In “The NLRB’s Assault on Religious Liberty,” Newman Society president Patrick J.Reilly explains the long history of NLRB harassment of Catholic educators and its refusal to abide by federal court rulings.
The Newman Society’s support for Duquesne and other Catholic colleges wrestling with the NLRB – including Manhattan College in New York and St. Xavier University in Chicago – led to a column this week in the National Catholic Reporter. Describing the Post-Gazette article about Vojtko as “heart-rending” and Duquesne’s religious freedom defense as “scandalous,” the columnist from the heterodox Reporter ironically complains that “the Cardinal Newman Society has nary a word of criticism for the administration at Duquesne which should follow Catholic teaching and allow its adjunct professors to join a union. Shame on them and shame on the Cardinal Newman Society, which only calls for the enforcement of orthodoxy on issues it cares about, not the full range of Catholic teaching.”
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