On December 10th the Vatican released the text of still another vigorous message by Pope Francis in support of oppressed workers. “(M)illions of people today – children, women and men of all ages – are deprived of freedom and are forced to live in conditions akin to slavery,” he asserts. “I think of the many men and women laborers, including minors, subjugated in different sectors, whether formally or informally, in domestic or agricultural workplaces, or in the manufacturing or mining industry; whether in countries where labor regulations fail to comply with international norms and minimum standards, or, equally illegally, in countries which lack legal protection for workers’ rights.”
The Pope’s statement is not a call to reflection but to action, “Every person ought to have the awareness that ‘purchasing is always a moral – and not simply an economic – act’.” Francis wants us to buy as if someone else’s life depended on it. And he wants us to act not only as individuals but collectively. “We ought to recognize that we are facing a global phenomenon which exceeds the competence of any one community or country. In order to eliminate it, we need a mobilization comparable in size to that of the phenomenon itself.”
When he personally delivers this message on January 1st I trust the Pope will point out that there is no other institution more capable of generating a “mobilization comparable in size to that of the phenomenon itself” than the one he himself leads.
The statistics are very impressive. In 2014 there were over 220,000 Catholic parishes serving 1.23 billion Catholics worldwide. The Church directly employs 414,000 priests, 53,000 religious brothers and 705,000 religious sisters. There are 140,000 elementary and secondary Catholic schools. The Church has some 18,000 clinics, 16,000 homes for the elderly and those with special needs, and 5,500 hospitals. The Church's Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers has estimated the Catholic Church manages more than a quarter of the world's health care facilities.
In 2012 the Economist concluded the Catholic Church spent about $170 billion a year making it one of the world’s largest purchasers of goods and services. Catholic organizations already exist that aggregate the purchasing power of parishes and dioceses. The Catholic Purchasing Services, for example claims to “consolidate the buying power of over 40,000 Catholic institutions in the purchase of a wide variety of equipment, furniture, supplies, and services.” Currently CPS does so to obtain the highest quality at the lowest price. The Pope could order them to take into account the human dimensions of their purchases.
I say “order” not “suggest” because the Pope is the CEO, President and Chairman of the Board of the Catholic Church all rolled into one. He and the Vatican have never been reticent about telling Catholic institutions what to do. The clearest example is in the health area. Catholic hospitals are prohibited from buying or prescribing contraceptives or engaging in a number of procedures, such as sterilization or abortion. Those who want to make their own end of life decisions should avoid Catholic hospitals, which are directed to ignore an individual’s advanced health directives.
If the Pope were to order his institution to heed his message he would find a ready network of government agencies and non-profit organizations that have already done the spadework. The US Department of Labor regularly releases a list of products made with forced labor. The list is long and contains many products the Catholic Church would regularly purchase, including carpets, garments, cotton, coffee, rice, rubber.
Many non-profit organizations try to monitor factories suspected of treating their workers poorly. But their resources are small and their network thin. The track record of businesses monitoring their own contractors is very spotty. The Catholic Church’s worldwide network of parishes and parishioners could become the eyes and ears on the ground to ensure these workers are treated decently.
The Pope demands action on a global scale to protect tens of millions of ill-treated workers. Will he order his own institution to take the lead?