February 10, 2006

Seeking the Face of the Lord

John Paul II and Leo XIII: Champions of the dignity of workers

One of the repetitive themes of the late Holy Father, John Paul II, was his reflection on the dignity of work.

His youthful experience as a worker at a chemical plant and rock quarry under the totalitarian regime of the Nazis made a lasting impression on him. One of his papal encyclicals addressed the work of the individual person as a participation in the creative activity of God. He spoke of work as a defining activity of the human person.

The Church has long been a champion of the dignity of work. Late in the 19th century, in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII defined the dignity of work like this: “to exert oneself for the sake of procuring what is necessary for the various purposes of life, and first of all for self-preservation.” He made the point that work is part of the very vocation of every person. Work is an important way in which we express and fulfill ourselves as unique individuals.

Because of the deep chasm between workers and employers some hundred years ago, and because of the relative powerlessness and poverty of many workers, the pope wrote convincingly of the right of workers (and employers) to form private, professional associations. Hence, the origin of the Church’s defense of the right of workers to form trade unions.

The right to form trade unions was closely connected by Pope Leo XIII to the right to a just wage. The pope joined the right to a just wage to an understanding of two aspects of work: work is personal, it is an expression of individual ability; and work is necessary to preserve life. He wrote: “Every individual has a natural right to procure what is required to live; and the poor can procure that in no other way than by what they can earn through their work.”

A person has a right to wages which enable him or her to support a family. Pope Leo wrote: “If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accepts harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.”

Pope Leo XIII also wrote of the right for workers to fulfill their religious duties as human persons. He wrote of the importance and need for Sunday rest for workers. It is not fair to compensate for unjust low wages by merely increasing the quantity of hours, e.g. to a seven-day work week.

On the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Pope John Paul II published his encyclical, Centesimus Annus. He wrote: “Would that these words [of Pope Leo XIII] written at a time when what has been called ‘unbridled capitalism’ was pressing forward, should not have to be repeated today with the same severity.”

He affirmed capitalism as a free enterprise system, but he called attention to the fact that abuses of free enterprise continue at the unjust expense of workers in too many places in our contemporary society.

I personally believe the more recent and growing phenomenon of “buyouts” of smaller enterprises by larger companies may well raise ethical questions, if and when the buyout is followed by the wholesale termination of employment for great numbers of people. Often enough, enormous profit in these buyouts is achieved with little regard for the workers who have helped build the enterprise and, worse, for their need for employment.

As a matter of balance, it is also true that in recent decades some trade unions have lost credibility for a reason. In some cases, analysts believe that union leadership did not make the interests of member workers their first priority. In others, analysts credit unreasonable union demands as a cause of a loss of confidence.

At the same time that he championed the right and dignity of work, Pope Leo XIII underscored the right to private property. He didn’t mean only land ownership. Every person has the right to own what is necessary for one’s personal development and the development of one’s family. Free enterprise in a free economy is a human right. Pope John Paul II called attention to the prophetic vision of Pope Leo XIII, noting his prediction that a socialist system was doomed to failure. Pope Leo XIII was prophetic in his denunciation of political or social systems that imposed collective ownership. He was also prophetic in proposing moral principles to govern free enterprise.

In this age of mega-corporations and incredible technological advances, it is wholesome for us to keep in mind the moral principles enunciated by two great popes of the modern era. Societal change and development can be good. Yet it must not be achieved by denying the good and the dignity of the human person. †


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