Wisconsin public workers have found an important new ally in U.S. Catholic Bishops.

In a letter, dated Feb. 23, to the leader of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, the chair of the USCCB’s Committee on Justice and Human Development says, “As you insist, ‘hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.'”

The letter from the committee’s chair, Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of the Diocese of Stockton, was in response to a Feb. 17 statement, signed by Rev. Listecki, on behalf of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference.

“It is especially in times of crisis that ‘new forms of cooperation’ and open communication become essential,” the statement says. “We request that lawmakers carefully consider the implications of [Gov. Walker’s] proposal and evaluate it in terms of its impact on the common good.”

The diocesan statement says that, while unions are not perfect, “it is equally a mistake to marginalize or dismiss unions as impediments to economic growth. As Pope John Paul II wrote in 1981, “[a] union remains a constructive factor of social order and solidarity, and it is impossible to ignore it.”

Also quoted in the statement is the current Pope, Benedict XVI, who said in his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in veritate, “Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labor unions. … The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine … for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past.”

The letter from Rev. Blaire, which represents the official position of the U.S. Catholic Church, notes, “[T] hese are not just political conflicts or economic choices; they are moral choices with enormous human dimensions. The debates over worker representation and collective bargaining are not simply matters of ideology or power, but involve principles of justice, participation and how workers can have a voice in the workplace and economy.”

According to the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, considered the infallible bedrock of the Catholic Church’s 2,000 years of teachings, “The principle of ‘solidarity,’ also articulated in the terms “friendship” or “social charity” is a direct demand of human and Christian brotherhood.” It further states, “Solidarity is manifested in the first place by the distribution of goods and remuneration for work.”

Not only must workers be allowed to form unions, but they also have the right to strike, says the church.

Several hundred paragraphs later, the catechism continues, “Recourse to a strike is morally legitimate when it cannot be avoided, or at least when it is necessary to obtain a proportionate benefit.”

Explicit Catholic teachings on labor go back to 1891, when Pope Leo XIII issued his encyclical Rerum Novarum, which was subtitled “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor.” The document was partially a Catholic rebuke to communist philosophy (the catechism now condemns only “atheistic communism,” however) and the subsequent rise of the socialist movement, but also a Vatican teaching against the abuses of the industrial revolution. For example, it called for a living wage.

Meanwhile, the USCCB hasn’t officially called on dioceses to do anything specific in solidarity with Wisconsin or other workers; instead the group left the details up to local bishops.

Ohio’s bishops issued Feb. 28 a statement calling for their state’s governor and legislature not to remove the right to collective bargaining, adding that “that the economy exists for the person, not the person for the economy.”

Several religious organizations – Jewish, Protestant and others – have also joined in on the demand that collective bargaining be preserved.