“I will give you whatever is right,” is what the protagonist of the great parable of The Labourers in the Vineyard offered to the hired workers (Mt. 20:1-15). But when those who worked more in the field grumbled about what they thought as unfair distribution of wages, the landowner intervenes: “Why are you envious about my generosity? Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” The parable teaches us two things: a) Christians should pay just wage to the workers; b) generosity (and not law) shall be their paramount criterion to fix the just wage.

In Kerala, registered nurses are on a strike asking for just wage and job securities. The Catholic hospital managements along with others managements, who consider health care as lucrative, had been vehemently resenting the salary hike. The professionally qualified nurses are reportedly receiving a starting salary scale as low as Rs. 8000 per month, which is too meagre for a decent living. The nurses complain that their wage is insufficient to meet the ends of life together, which for most of them include the monthly repayments of their educational loans.

Condition of Labour: Church Stance

First and foremost, the strike brings the social teachings of the Catholic Church on just wage to the fore of social discussions. From the times of industrial revolution when the number of labourers and labour problems increased unimaginably, the Catholic Church had chosen to be highly sensitive to labourer’s plight and to walk along with them giving them a voice.

The celebrated encyclical of pope Leo XIII namely Rerum Novarum (1891), which emphatically proposed the worker’s right to just wage, and the importance of worker associations, have eventually become the foundational document of Catholic Social teaching. The subsequent papal teachings have reiterated and added several other dimensions of labour issues, which have enriched the Catholic Social teaching to a great extend. In Caritas In Veritate (2009) pope Benedict XVI is concerned about the threats to “workers associations” in a very competitive global market. He defined “decent work” as “work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard” (CV 64).

A Church in Crisis

The strike of nurses in Kerala indeed raises a double-edged situation for the Church. On the one hand, a significant number of striking nurses hail from the Christian communities and on the other, a number of health facilities are owned by the Church.

In their desperate attempt to continue with the exploitation of the unorganised nurses whose majority include poor and middle classed women, the managements sought several tactics from neglecting the strike to threatening with legal provisions like ESMA (Essential Service Maintenance Act) and even threatening to shut down the hospitals.

The Church also missed some valuable opportunities for authentic Christian witness due to its characteristic sloth, sluggishness and insensitivity to human issues. It was sheer coldness that they did not align with a Muslim management – Daya – that was isolated for expressing their willingness to increase the salary.

The hesitating Christian managements now excuse themselves for the government’s decision. Who should guide the moral choices of the Church: Jesus or the Government? The decisions of governments are not always guided by right moral choices whereas the Church is to follow a conscience formed by Christian moral values. Governments may also delay decisions, which in effect equals denying justice. Indeed Christian righteousness should “surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.”

It is disheartening for the faithful to appreciate a Church that values profit over protection of its own ailing sheep, whose significant contributions have built these institutions. Today many members of the Church feel that the Church in Kerala has drastically deviated from the mission of Christ.

Salvation: The Labour of Jesus Christ

It is not contentious that the primary objective of the Church is to become the tangible channel of God’s mercy, forgiveness and love, which the Church summarily calls the ‘experience of salvation.’ This is the central point of the Biblical story of both Old and New Testaments whose climax is the self sacrifice of Christ Jesus (Lk. 4: 18:20; Jn. 3:16; Is. 61: 1; Ps. 146: 6-8). Salvation involves the integral development and liberation of everyone from all dehumanising, oppressive and wretched situations.

Biblical story also reminds us that God does not take pleasure in any pastoral commitment that does not focus on protecting and providing for people especially the weak and the oppressed. Isaiah condemns Israelite’s preoccupation with religious observances and invites them to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for widows (Is. 1: 11, 17). He also condemns those who resort to forging laws as well as looking for loopholes in the laws for oppressing the poor (Is. 10:1). Similarly Micah reminds that the most appropriate religious observance is nothing more than doing justice, and being merciful (Mic. 6:8).

Jesus was a hard critique of religious hypocrisy at the cost of ignoring justice and mercy (Mt. 23). He is emphatic about the primacy of mercy over sacrifice (Mt. 12:7). The final judgement is absolutely on the basis of our dispensing justice (Mt 25:30-46). According to John’s gospel, Jesus presents three closely related themes of Salvation: shepherding, door and salvation (Ch. 10). Jesus is the good shepherd and the true door. The door opens salvation to people who listens to his voice. Jesus reminds that good pastors know the sheep by name, protect them and search for the lost ones. He resonates prophet Ezekiel who decries the false shepherds of Israel who had fattened themselves at the cost of the sheep (Ez. 34).

The Laborious Task Ahead

The agitation of nurses has clearly exposed a Church that is facing a missionary crisis. The predicament is not simply about increasing wages but about Church’s concern for its own faithful. It’s about Church’s mindfulness to provide with physical and spiritual wellbeing to all people than protecting its establishments. It’s about Church’s vision and mission of the healing ministry than viewing it as an opportunity for exploitation.

At this juncture, some kind-hearted pastors have come up with political and pastoral support for the striking community, Bishop Remigeos Inchananical being a prominent one among them. The Major Arch Bishop George Alenchery also voiced a strong position: ‘justice first, and charity next.’ Eventually, some priests dared to speak up for the nurses and deeply wished if the Church leadership solved the issue in the spirit of charity and mercy. Some other courageous priests visited the strike pavilions.

Though these expressions of warm support from pastors had been greatly welcomed by the nurses the online discussion sites continue to inundate with hostile comments towards the uncaring pastoral leadership. Even the most God-fearing and practicing Catholics do not hesitate and fear to criticise the Church. They openly reproach the Church for not walking by them and empowering them in their afflictions. They realise that celebrations such as Year of Mercy remain as mere spiritual exercises and does not really affect the being of the Church. The faithful feel that Church’s door of mercy is tightly closed.

While the most charismatic pontiff pope Francis puts all his efforts to reform the Church, the coldness and obstinacy of the Kerala Church worries every member of the Church. How long should people wait to see the Church of pope Francis’ dream: “a poor church, and a church for the poor.” This would remain as an unfulfilled wish so far as the pastors are unwilling to take the “smell of the sheep.”

The nurse’s agitation should wake the Church up to rethink about its mission i.e., to be the door of salvation. It should also provoke us to rethink about the truthfulness and the honesty of the ‘labourers in the vineyard.’ When the labourers are reluctant to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, care for the injured, bring back the strayed, and seek the lost, the Church would miserably struggle to be the door of salvation.

The nurses’ strike might be primarily a labour issue for them as well as the hospital managements. But for the Church it has turned to be predominantly a moral, spiritual and pastoral litmus test whose looming results are yet to be awaited.

This article was published in Indian Currents 24th July 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 30