Monday, September 7, 2015

Labor Day 2015

For many of us, labor Day has long come to signify the imminent end of summer. As such it is eagerly welcomed by people like me who dislike summer's heat and lamented by those who rather revel in it. Be that as it may, some sort of "end of summer" final fling seems to be called for - a post-modern replacement for the autumn harvest festivals that were once ubiquitous when people were still connected enough to the land and to the rhythms of the natural year for such holidays still to make sense.

As a civic holiday, however, our American Labor Day originated in the 1880s as an affirmation of the American labor movement and a celebration of the economic, social, and political achievements of workers and their essential contribution to the prosperity and well-being of our country. (The photo, shows the Labor Day parade at New York's Union Square in 1882). Labor Day is thus an appropriate occasion to reflect upon the social teaching of the Church and its application to our present economic, social, and political situation. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes some of the elementary principles of Catholic social teaching that are particularly relevant to recall on Labor Day. 

The Church’s social teaching comprises a body of doctrine, which is articulated as the Church interprets events in the course of history, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, in the light of the whole of what has been revealed by Jesus Christ. … The Church’s social teaching proposes principles for reflection; it provides criteria for judgment; it gives guidelines for action [The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2422-2423].

The development of economic activity and growth in production are meant to provide for the needs of human beings. Economic life is not meant solely to multiply goods produced and increase profit or power; it is ordered first of all to the service of persons, of the whole man, and of the entire human community [CCC, 2426]

Economic life brings into play different interests, often opposed to one another. This explains why the conflicts that characterize it arise. Efforts should be made to reduce these conflicts by negotiation that respects the rights and duties of each social partner: those responsible for business enterprises, representatives of wage-earners (for example, trade unions), and public authorities when appropriate [CCC, 2431].

Access to employment and to professions must be open to all without unjust discrimination: men and women, healthy and disabled, natives and immigrants. For its part society should, according to circumstances, help citizens find work and employment [CCC, 2433]

A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice. … Agreement between the parties is not sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages [CCC, 2434].

These basic principles and others have been developed and elaborated especially in the modern social encyclicals – from Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum (1891) to Pope Francis in Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home

Consider, for example, the following from 50 years ago - from Gaudium et Spes, 68 (The 2nd Vatican Council's "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World"):

In economic enterprises it is persons who are joined together, that is, free and independent human beings created to the image of God. Therefore, with attention to the functions of each—owners or employers, management or labor—and without doing harm to the necessary unity of management, the active sharing of all in the administration and profits of these enterprises in ways to be properly determined is to be promoted. Since more often, however, decisions concerning economic and social conditions, on which the future lot of the workers and of their children depends, are made not within the business itself but by institutions on a higher level, the workers themselves should have a share also in determining these conditions—in person or through freely elected delegates.
Among the basic rights of the human person is to be numbered the right of freely founding unions for working people. These should be able truly to represent them and to contribute to the organizing of economic life in the right way. Included is the right of freely taking part in the activity of these unions without risk of reprisal. Through this orderly participation joined to progressive economic and social formation, all will grow day by day in the awareness of their own function and responsibility, and thus they will be brought to feel that they are comrades in the whole task of economic development and in the attainment of the universal common good according to their capacities and aptitudes.

When, however, socio-economic disputes arise, efforts must be made to come to a peaceful settlement. Although recourse must always be had first to a sincere dialogue between the parties, a strike, nevertheless, can remain even in present-day circumstances a necessary, though ultimate, aid for the defense of the workers' own rights and the fulfillment of their just desires. As soon as possible, however, ways should be sought to resume negotiation and the discussion of reconciliation.

It will be interesting to hear how the Pope will proclaim some of these once familiar truths during his visit to the United States later this month. This will be his first-ever visit to the United States. As an article in yesterday's NY Times, pointedly put it: "
Something of a homebody, preferring to hang out with the poor than the rich and powerful, he has waited until 78 to visit the economic giant that likes to think of itself as the center of everything."

So it will be very interesting indeed to hear how the Pope will proclaim some of these once familiar truths during his visit and to experience how his visit will in turn help our American Catholic community retrieve these somewhat neglected but fundamental truths as criteria for judgment and guidelines for action.

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