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Ourselves and the big little engine company

For most of us at NCR, and probably in your neck of the woods too, if the name Briggs & Stratton resonated at all it likely had to do with lawn mowers. But the words will never ring quite the same for the NCR staff.

After approximately three years under the big, expensive B & S cloud, Judge C.N. Clevert made our day by announcing, among other things, “it is clear that the defendants thoroughly investigated the facts underlying the article,” as he threw the suit out.

We wish to thank all those who supported us some of whom even sent money.

While it was no O.J. case, the lawsuit received a lot of ink. Most commentary came down on NCR’s side. This doubtless reflected the David-Goliath aspect; as well as the American regard for First Amendment rights; or maybe just the merits of the case. Almost nobody blatantly attacked us.

A curious exception was one Fr. Robert Sirico, who is described as president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich. Forbes magazine gave him a whole page to shoot at us with both barrels under the banner of “The Capitalist Ethic.” It would be easy to say this man is a puppet of big business or whatever, but this may not be true. What is true is that he distorted NCR’s position for his own purposes.

In the wake of our victory announcement, and after someone suggested champagne, and someone else -- probably moi -- threw cold water on the champagne idea, the question of magnanimity kept popping up. And the appropriateness of gloating (no, really, there was no gloating lobby, at least not openly). And Sirico’s name kept popping up. There was a strong trend toward ignoring him at this otherwise pleasant moment. On the other hand, he cried out for attention. Sirico’s is not a nuanced, understated point of view, whatever it is.

But let him speak for himself: “According to the NCR’s moral code, employers must guarantee present workers high-paying jobs for life, whether or not the workers are earning their keep.”

Several clever responses jump to mind, but the statement is more beautiful in its unvarnished simplicity. He goes on: “But people like Thomas Fox (NCR publisher but editor when Sirico wrote) -- and the rest of the religious left -- are less interested in helping workers than in making antibusiness propaganda.”

For the record, we’re not antibusiness.

And Sirico again: “It is not (Briggs & Stratton) but the NCR and the union that have violated social justice and moral precepts.”

We take this opportunity to greet Fr. Siciro and wish him well in his priestly work.

For another point of view on B & S -- ours -- please read the article on page 7 and the editorial on page 28.

You can find the entire text of Judge C.N. Clevert’s dismissal ruling on our Web site at http://www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/documents/index.htm where you can also find the original NCR articles about Briggs & Stratton which led to the legal brouhaha.

Deciding to work for the church can be a perilous career move, as the stories by Robert McClory and Pamela Schaeffer make clear.

Throughout the year, NCR editors and reporters are contacted by people who work for the church -- mostly lay people -- who feel they have been wronged. Church labor disputes are devilishly difficult stories, given that there are rarely unions or contracts involved. It is usually just the lone liturgist or music director or principal who feels he or she has gotten the unjust end of the stick from a disgruntled pastor or bishop.

There are always two sides to these disputes, and they are frequent enough that we can’t cover them all. But now and then one comes along that seems to illuminate a much larger landscape. That is the case with Aaron Milavec, the former theology professor at the Athenaeum of Ohio who is still angry after having lost his job two years ago. It is also the case with Jim and Mary Jean Smith of Lima, Wis., who gave up substantial careers and their home in Connecticut to take the position of ministers/pastoral associates in a small rural parish. Seemingly successful, they recently were fired with little explanation and discovered that what they thought was a contract was, legally, a meaningless document.

The Smiths ran into a modern church dilemma -- increasingly the church needs lay people to fill significant leadership roles but is not willing to give lay people the kind of job and financial security that should accompany such high profile positions.

And Milavec ran into a growing phenomenon: the ultraconservative who possesses ultimate truth and will stop at nothing until the rest of the church bends to his understanding of that truth. In Milavec’s case it was a lawyer who had little theological training who determined, after a few classes, that Milavec was not adhering to church teaching and started the process that eventually got the professor of 25 years fired.

One wonders if that lawyer’s church would have room for not-very-orthodox Jesus.

National Catholic Reporter, April 24, 1998