July 17, 2015

Rejoice in the Lord

Jesus, a man of labor, looks on work with love

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

In 1981, Pope John Paul II wrote his encyclical, “Laborem Exercens” (“On Human Work”). In this important exercise of his teaching ministry, the Holy Father (now St. John Paul II) emphasized the Church’s fundamental teaching that “Work is for man. Man is not for work” (#6). He also reflected on the ongoing conflict between labor and capital, the rights of workers, and the spirituality of work.

In my column last week, I called attention to the dignity of work. I also underscored one of the fundamental principles contained in the pastoral letter, Poverty at the Crossroads: The Church’s Response to Poverty in Indiana recently published by the Catholic bishops of Indiana. “The economy must serve people, not the other way around,” we bishops write, paraphrasing St. John Paul. “Work is more than simply a way to make a living; it is a continuing participation in God’s creation.”

Poverty at the Crossroads continues, “If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected; these include the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to organize, to private property, and to economic initiative.”

The conflict between labor and capital continues today in spite of the evident failure of Marxism as an economic and political force in the world. The Church opposes any ideology that denigrates the dignity of workers, making them instruments in a system or cogs in an economic engine. This includes forms of “rigid capitalism” or “economism,” which St. John Paul says regard human labor “solely according to its economic purpose.” The economy must serve human persons, not the other way around.

Pope Francis has continued this fundamental teaching, and has received some criticism for it. But the Holy Father stands squarely within the tradition of previous popes who have spoken and written about the dignity of work and the rights of workers.

He believes that the abuse of human labor, and the scourge of unemployment, are serious obstacles to the flourishing of human society and the growth of a humane and productive economy.

In Poverty at the Crossroads, we bishops write:

“To address the serious challenges facing our economy in the state of Indiana today, we must look carefully at the impact of policies, legislation and governmental regulations on real people, the women and men who struggle to earn a living, support their families and make ends meet. We cannot fix the economy by employing abstract theory that is detached from those whose lives are at stake. As St. John Paul tells us, we cannot simply look at material needs [food, shelter, clothing, health care, etc.], as important as these are for individuals, families and communities. We should also foster a spirituality of work, which recognizes its profound impact on the intellectual, social, cultural and religious life of individuals, families and communities.”

Critics of Church leaders who speak out on matters that affect the political and economic policies of our country (and of the increasingly global community) wonder why we don’t stick to internal Church business.

As Pope Francis never tires of saying, a Church turned in on itself is not being faithful to its mission. Jesus was himself a man of labor. He cares deeply about the dignity of work and the conditions of human labor. What’s more, he commanded us, his disciples, to proclaim his “Gospel of Work” to the whole world!

It’s true that the Church does not propose detailed programs aimed at creating jobs or promoting economic development. However, we do remind governmental, business and community leaders that the only truly effective measure of sound economic policy and practice is the extent to which real people thrive and grow as persons and as workers.

As we write in our pastoral letter:

“In addition to the economic benefits of stable employment, work offers individuals increased opportunities to enhance their personal dignity. Work should be the primary means by which parents provide for their families and contribute to a healthy community. Governmental programs should exist principally to provide an adequate safety net for individuals who are in transitional situations or suffer from incapacitating illness or injury. Therefore, we propose that the state of Indiana dedicate resources toward improving the opportunity for Hoosier families to find meaningful, economically rewarding work. Plans for economic development ought to include strategies aimed at breaking the cycle of multi-generational poverty.”

Work is for us. We are not for work. Let’s pray that for the sake of all our children and grandchildren, we will do our part to break the cycle of poverty here in Indiana and throughout the world. †

Local site Links: