Quebec bishops push for ‘just recovery’ after ordeal of COVID-19 pandemic

The Quebec bishops, in their annual May Day message, say the recovery from the pandemic must be a just one that recognizes the dignity of work. (Photo by Michael Swan, The Catholic Register - CCN)

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – Quebec’s Catholic bishops don’t just want a recovery, they want change.

The Quebec Assembly of Catholic Bishops’ annual May Day message calls for a basic income, higher minimum wage, an economy less dependent on fossil fuels, tax reform that redistributes wealth away from the wealthy and policies that recognize how women have been disadvantaged in our economy.

“Women and young people have been especially hard hit,” the bishops write in “Towards a Just Recovery: Paying Attention to the Lives of Workers.”

“The ordeal of the COVID-19 pandemic” inspired the bishops to take on the economic inequities that have driven a 35- to 40-per-cent increase in food bank use in Quebec.

“The first priority of any recovery plan must certainly be to foster a return to work with appropriate working conditions in those sectors that were especially affected,” the bishops wrote. “This must include an increase to the minimum wage and attention to the urgent need for paid family and medical leaves.”

As governments begin to think about a post-pandemic economy, the bishops particularly want them to think about women’s place in the labour force.

“A just recovery must start from a real recognition of the dignity and the work of those — mainly women — upon whom our public services rely at all levels,” they said.

That certainly makes sense to the president of Canada’s largest Catholic union.

“Many of what we call essential workers — either personal support workers, or working in the health industry, or working in grocery stores quite frankly — tend to be women. A lot of the time they’re immigrant women,” said Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association president Liz Stuart.

“Their work has been deemed essential and yet not essential enough to actually pay them a living wage, or not essential enough to actually provide paid sick leave for them.”

Minimum wage, paid sick days and a basic income may not be the immediate concern of well-paid, unionized teachers, said Stuart, but her union has long held these issues as priorities, “understanding that we do so from a place of privilege.”

St. Jerome’s University sociologist David Seljak sees the imprint of St. Pope John Paul II from his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens in the Quebec May Day message.

“The Quebec bishops have simply taken their cue from him and extended that to the poorest members of society, because those are the persons in society who are at the greatest risk of having their dignity ignored or violated.”

The tradition of Church thinking about labour goes back almost 130 years to Pope Leo XIII’s ground-breaking encyclical Rerum Novarum. But it gained a new basis in the philosophy of the Polish pope, who taught that work and human dignity can’t be separated, Seljak said.

Seljak finds it both amusing and mystifying that reviving a 40-year-old encyclical by a pope who is today a conservative icon “might strike people as progressive or overly-progressive.”

But John Paul II’s insights remain relevant, says Seljak.

“If you ignore the importance of work in the life of the person, you can easily lose the person and ignore their dignity,” said Seljak. “So much of our life is work. It’s not just the eight-hour work day, but the work we do in the house, in the home, the work we do for the family. You take away work, you take away a lot from the life of the person. If you refuse to recognize the dignity of labour, you refuse to recognize so much of what makes a human person.”

“A recovery that takes heed of the dignity of persons, of communities, and of our Common Home must be the fruit of a collaborative effort,” the Quebec bishops wrote. “We invite parish communities to develop partnerships in their own milieu and to participate actively in this collaboration to prepare the future.”