The church and labor on the Feast of St. Joseph, the Worker

Yesterday was the Feast of St. Joseph, the Worker, a feast established by Pope Pius XII as a kind of Catholic rebuttal to the celebration of May Day in communist circles. Although the feast itself is modern, the focus it seeks to highlight and enflesh is ancient.

In the Bible, right at the very beginning, God commands man to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, and we learn that Abel was a keeper of the sheep and his brother Cain a tiller of the soil. The imagery of planting and sowing and work runs throughout the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. In the New Testament, Jesus is born to a carpenter, St. Joseph, about whom we know very little except that he was a tradesman. Jesus’ disciples were mostly fishermen, then and now, a challenging labor critical to mankind’s ability to feed itself. St. Benedict organized his rule around the twin duties of prayer and work, ora et labora. Even today, the monks make caskets and fudge and fruitcake and vestments to earn their keep and fulfill their spiritual legacy.

In modern times, the Church has come to reflect more deeply on work and workers, beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s seminal 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. "The following duties bind the wealthy owner and the employer: not to look upon their work people as their bondsmen, but to respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character" wrote Leo. "They are reminded that, according to natural reason and Christian philosophy, working for gain is creditable, not shameful, to a man, since it enables him to earn an honorable livelihood; but to misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain, or to value them solely for their physical powers - that is truly shameful and inhuman." He also affirmed the right of workers to organize themselves into unions, the need for laws that protect a working person’s right to a just wage, to time with his or her family, and to be free from oppressive working conditions.

Leo’s encyclical has been commemorated since by later popes: Pius XI issued Quadragesimo Anno in 1931, Pope Paul VI penned Octagesima Adveniens in 1971, and Pope John Paul II wrote Centesimus Annus in 1991, thus commemorating the 40th, 80th and 100th anniversaries of Leo’s work. Each of them focused on the dignity of work and the rights of workers. For example, Pope John Paul II said in Centesimus Annus 43, "The obligation to earn one's bread by the sweat of one's brow also presumes the right to do so. A society in which this right is systematically denied, in which economic policies do not allow workers to reach satisfactory levels of employment, cannot be justified from an ethical point of view, nor can that society attain social peace." Find me the candidate who demands full employment! In one of my favorite passages in Octagesima Adveniens, Pope Paul VI observed, "Let each one examine himself, to see what he has done up to now, and what he ought to do. It is not enough to recall principles, state intentions, point to crying injustice and utter prophetic denunciations; these words will lack real weight unless they are accompanied for each individual by a livelier awareness of personal responsibility and by effective action. It is too easy to throw back on others responsibility for injustice, if at the same time one does not realize how each one shares in it personally, and how personal conversion is needed first. This basic humility will rid action of all inflexibility and sectarianism, it will also avoid discouragement in the face of a task which seems limitless in size."

Of all the papal encyclicals on social justice and labor, my favorite is Quadragesimo Anno. You might call that encyclical the charter for some of us in our persistent efforts to highlight the incompatibility of libertarian economic ideas with Catholic Social Teaching. This passage from Paragraph 88 specifically provides warrant to our efforts:

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Just as the unity of human society cannot be founded on an opposition of classes, so also the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching. Destroying through forgetfulness or ignorance the social and moral character of economic life, it held that economic life must be considered and treated as altogether free from and independent of public authority, because in the market, i.e., in the free struggle of competitors, it would have a principle of self direction which governs it much more perfectly than would the intervention of any created intellect. But free competition, while justified and certainly useful provided it is kept within certain limits, clearly cannot direct economic life -- a truth which the outcome of the application in practice of the tenets of this evil individualistic spirit has more than sufficiently demonstrated. Therefore, it is most necessary that economic life be again subjected to and governed by a true and effective directing principle. This function is one that the economic dictatorship which has recently displaced free competition can still less perform, since it is a headstrong power and a violent energy that, to benefit people, needs to be strongly curbed and wisely ruled. But it cannot curb and rule itself. Loftier and nobler principles -- social justice and social charity -- must, therefore, be sought whereby this dictatorship may be governed firmly and fully.

Those words get me excited every time I read them! And those who denounce Pope Francis as a "Marxist" or a benighted Argentine who doesn’t really understand capitalism must recognize how completely Francis stands in the tradition of the great Pius XI.

Today, however, I should like to call attention to an earlier part of Pius XI’s encyclical, Paragraph 83, which begins: "Labor, as Our Predecessor explained well in his Encyclical, is not a mere commodity. On the contrary, the worker's human dignity in it must be recognized. It therefore cannot be bought and sold like a commodity. Nevertheless, as the situation now stands, hiring and offering for hire in the so-called labor market separate men into two divisions, as into battle lines, and the contest between these divisions turns the labor market itself almost into a battlefield where, face to face, the opposing lines struggle bitterly. Everyone understands that this grave evil which is plunging all human society to destruction must be remedied as soon as possible." Alas, for us, not everyone understands this all these years later. People still consider labor a commodity and, as Angus Sibley points out in his book "Catholic Economics," (which I reviewed here and here) ever since Carl Menger began the Austrian school of economics, and their ideas have become accepted as mainstream in business schools throughout the world, there has been a "fetish" of labor productivity that has harmed the workers, and because current economic theory places the consumer in the driver's seat at all times, has harmed the environment, creating a world dependent always on the consumption of more and newer goods, with a preference for cheap goods with a short shelf life, the better to require replacement very soon. The "throwaway culture" is of a piece with the Austrian school, and it is ruining our planet.

If this election cycle has proved anything, it is that many in our country are fed up with the establishment and distrustful of the status quo. Some have flocked to Donald Trump’s hateful response to people’s anxieties and others have flocked to Sen. Bernie Sanders proposals for drastic change. Yet, it is two institutions, the Catholic church and organized labor, which seem to me to offer the best analysis of our current social problems and point to the best solutions. Unlike Trump, we do not incite hatreds and unlike Sanders we recognize the human beneath the numbers, the importance of family and the local, about which he never speaks. We recognize the moral aspect of the crisis and, what is deeper than the moral, the anthropological aspect, so dear a theme in papal social teaching and so beautifully and trenchantly preached by Pope Francis. Ten years ago, many commentators counted both the church and labor among the walking dead, organizations whose best days were in the past. On this feast of St. Joseph, the Worker, the day after Orthodox Easter, I discern a rebirth of Catholic social teaching and of union organizing and public engagement. Just so, and only so, I believe there is hope for our country’s future, and beyond our country’s borders. It is solidarity, not hatefulness, that can heal the wounds that afflict.

It is stunning that the words of someone like Pius XI, written in 1931, could speak with all the freshness of words just spoken, still so apt and still so accurate. Then and now, the idolatry of the market and of money is the root of the problem, an economic system that is not based on work but on consumerism. If our world does not fix this, we will have no world to fix: We are literally consuming ourselves into environmental and moral oblivion. There is an alternative, an economy built upon the dignity of work and of workers, an economy that respects the human person and the natural world. It need not be gained in an instant nor in a revolution, but one step at a time. The dignity of work, championed by the church and enfleshed in organized labor, is the only way out of the mess we have made. It is the great source of hope in our time. St. Joseph, the Worker, pray for us.

[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]


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