In honor of the worker

Tuesday, August 27, 2019 - Updated: 2:00 pm


Labor Day now pretty much means “the holiday that marks the end of summer.” Few people observe it as a celebration of labor, or know that labor unions first thought it up. Union membership is way down in America and even in this part of the country. But it's worth a quick review of what the church has said about unions.

Which is a lot more than you might think. It started with Pope Leo XIII. In 1891, he issued an encyclical called "Rerum Novarum." It's considered the founding statement of what's now called “Catholic social teaching.” In it, the pope demands that something be done quickly to remedy “the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class.”

He noted that the guilds that once protected them had been done away with many decades before. Guilds were a kind of union that looked out for the members' interests and helped them in other ways. “No other protective organization took their place,” he wrote. Both the state and the laws opposed workers associations. And, though Leo doesn't say this, the state and the law favored the owners.

The result: “Working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition,” he wrote. “The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury. … To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.”

Workers need unions to “help each individual member to better his condition to the utmost in body, soul, and property,” Leo wrote. Here's something you don't hear about these days: In doing that, he insisted, unions should “look first and before all things to God.” He declared: “Let the working man be urged and led to the worship of God, to the earnest practice of religion. ... Let him learn to reverence and love holy church, the common mother of us all; and hence to obey the precepts of the church, and to frequent the sacraments, since they are the means ordained by God for obtaining forgiveness of sin and for leading a holy life.”

In "Rerum Novarum," Leo cared not just to protect the worker, but to promote the common good. He called for managers and workers to work together. He wanted social peace as well as justice for the workers.

As in many things, with Leo's teaching, the church found herself between the human extremes. Some people at the time wanted the market to rule everything. They did not think the workers should be allowed to join together or get a living wage. Other people wanted a socialist revolution.

To the first, Leo sounded like a radical. To the second, he sounded like a right-winger. What he was was a Catholic concerned for human dignity and human rights, and the common good.

The popes after him repeated and developed this teaching. The world's bishops talked about unions at the Second Vatican Council. In their statement on the church in the modern world, they put “the right of freely founding unions” among “the basic rights of the human person.” When owners and workers can't settle a conflict, a strike can be “a necessary, though ultimate, aid for the defense of the workers' own rights and the fulfillment of their just desires.”

Pope St. John Paul II talked about unions many times. To give just one example, in his encyclical "Laborem Exercens," he called unions “an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies.” He even said they should “aim at correcting — with a view to the common good of the whole of society — everything defective in the system of ownership of the means of production or in the way these are managed.”

In "Centessimus Annus," he offered a kind of updating of "Rerum Novarum." He insisted that “society and the state must ensure wage levels adequate for the maintenance of the worker and his family.” Unions have a “decisive” role in making sure this happens.

Millsis writing a book on death and dying for Sophia Institute.

Bishop Zubik's Columns

Current Magazine

Click here to see, download more issues

Current Magazine
Current Magazine

Click here to see, download more issues

Most Popular