September 1, 2006

Faith, Hope and Charity / David Siler

Work hard to make work holy

In 1891, at the beginning of the industrialization of society, Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical titled Rerum Novarum (“On capital and labor”).

This encyclical has been seen as so important that it has been revised every decade by each pope since 1931, and Pope John Paul II updated the encyclical on its 100-year anniversary in 1991.

This instruction has laid the foundation for the fifth principle of Catholic social teaching that is referred to as “the dignity of work and the rights of workers.”

Pope Leo XIII explained that work is seen as much more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. The encyclical rejects socialism, and instead asks for justice.

This principle explains that we are to do what we can to ensure the protection of the dignity of work. It also says that the basic rights of workers must be respected. Further, we are instructed that everyone has a right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to organize and join unions, and to own private property.

The theory and practical implications are that when people are given work that fulfills them, and in which they have some input, it enhances their human dignity. To feel valued is one of the most basic of all human needs.

We find related instruction in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC #2424), “a theory that makes profit the exclusive norm and ultimate end of economic activity is morally unacceptable.”

We do not have to look far for an example of the violation of this principle (i.e., Enron). Instead, what if the primary aim in business was to balance profit and the human dignity of workers?

Workers should not be misused as things to pursue profit. The good of their souls must be considered as business decisions are made.

There are many examples of corporations that work hard to strike a balance between making a profit and caring for their workers, the environment and society in general. These companies should be held out as models of what is possible, good and right.

When Pope Leo XIII published his encyclical over 115 years ago, he could never have imagined the tremendous power wielded by huge multinational corporations and the ultra-wealthy. (Today, the top 225 wage earners in the world combined make as much as one half of the entire world’s population).

And he never could have imagined the mass consumerism that has gripped many nations—most notably the United States.

But the pope’s instruction guides us still today to look at these complex situations and structures from the perspective of the individual worker.

All of us need to be a voice crying out in the wilderness to ask the tough questions of our employers about how decisions made by companies will affect workers, and to do what we can to influence public policy that supports and sustains employees who are vulnerable to abuse.

Let’s work hard to make work holy.

(David Siler is executive director of the Secretariat for Catholic Charities and Family Ministries.)


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