August 30, 2013


Labor Day 2013

Labor Day, which we will celebrate on Monday, has been a federal holiday since 1894. Its purpose is to celebrate the economic and social contributions of workers. It is not a religious holiday, but somehow it seems more than coincidental that the Catholic Church’s first social encyclical, “On Capital and Labor,” was issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891.

The Church has championed the welfare of workers ever since, with some of Pope Leo’s successors—Popes Pius XI, Blessed John XXIII, Paul VI, Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI—issuing their own encyclicals on social justice.

Pope Francis hasn’t done so yet (his first encyclical was on faith), but he has already talked about the dignity of workers. He said earlier this year, “Work is fundamental to the dignity of a person. … It gives one the ability to maintain oneself, one’s family, to contribute to the growth of one’s own nation.”

The U.S. bishops, over a period of about 80 years, have also issued a great number of statements about economic matters. The most extensive statement, calling for Catholics in the United States to work for greater economic justice in the face of persistent poverty and growing income gaps, was passed and issued in 1986. Titled “Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy,” it included 10 principles drawn directly from Catholic teachings on economic life. They included the following:

  • The economy exists for the person, not the person for the economy.
  • All people have a right to life and to secure the basic necessities of life (e.g., food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, safe environment, economic security).
  • All people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages and benefits, to decent working conditions as well as to organize and join unions or other associations.
  • All people, to the extent they are able, have a corresponding duty to work, a responsibility to provide for the needs of their families and an obligation to contribute to the broader society.

In 2013, although our economy has experienced some recovery from recent recessions, too many families are still feeling the effects of unemployment and underemployment. More than 4 million people have been jobless for over six months, and many others have simply given up looking for jobs.

The bishops’ Labor Day statement for 2013 tells us how bad the situation still is. “More than 46 million people live in poverty, including 16 million children. The economy is not creating an adequate number of jobs that allow workers to provide for themselves and their families.”

One of the results of the continued high unemployment and underemployment is the rise in income inequality, something that Pope Emeritus Benedict warned against in his encyclical “Charity in Truth”: “The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner, and that we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone.”

We recognize that businesses have a tough time competing in our global economy. We understand that products can be produced cheaper in other countries because wages are lower in those countries. However, there are businesses out there that continue to employ local workers rather than ship jobs out of the country. As consumers, we should support those businesses to the extent that we can.

We realize, too, how difficult it can be these days for consumers to buy things made by American workers. It seems that everything in the stores is marked, “Made in China.”

We don’t pretend to have the answers to the best way to improve the economy, to eliminate unemployment and the widening gap between the wealthy and those in poverty. We believe that most employers are ethical and moral business men and women who understand that it’s wrong to chase profits at the expense of workers’ dignity.

As the bishops’ Labor Day statement says, “On this Labor Day 2013, let us renew our commitment to promote the dignity of the human person through work that is honorable, pays just wages, and recognizes the God-given dignity of the working person.”

—John F. Fink

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