Politics Thursday: Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers

Today, we examine a tenet of Catholic Social Teaching that underlies a lot of the Church's work in the economic realm, that is, the dignity of work and the rights of workers.

The following paragraph is from US Catholic Bishops "A Century of Social Teaching", as taken from the Diocese of Juneau web site:

Work is more than a way to make a living; it is an expression of our dignity and a form of continuing participation in God's creation. People have a right to decent and productive work, to decent and fair wages, to private property and economic initiative. Workers have the strong support of the Church in forming and joining union and worker associations of their choosing in the exercise of their dignity and rights. These values are at the heart of Rerum Novarum and other encyclicals on economic justice. In Catholic teaching, the economy exists to serve people, not the other way around.

This has been a counter cultural stance of the Church for centuries. Despite lip service paid to the value of hard work, societies since antiquity down to our present day tend to look down on our laboring classes. We reward the celebrities, the business tycoons, our professional sports players. We have lotteries and game shows to give the working a person chance to break out of their dull existence and live a "real life" without the tedium of actually working for a living. I think it is also hard to argue that the people who work hardest in our society - the maids, the janitors, restaurant help, child care workers, etc are not only not valued for their hard work, but are too often looked upon as losers.

The Church says NO to this view of work. Work is seen as taking part of God's continuing process of creation. Work is seen as an essential part of spirituality, as judged by the number of religious orders who incorporate manual labor into the life of their community. "Prayer and Work" is the motto that guides the Benedictine order in their spiritual journey. Work isn't a necessary evil brought on by the Fall of humankind, it is sacred.

Because work is sacred, the Church has held, at least since Rerum Novarum, that a day's work should at least bring a day's room and board. It would be unjust to do otherwise. That's the motivating spirit behind many just wage campaigns around the country being waged or aided by local Catholic dioceses.

Another area that this part of Catholic Social Teaching touches is the Church's work with undocumented workers. Many undocumented workers face harsh working conditions and often go unpaid. They cannot complain about these conditions or they would be deported. The Church in many parts of the country work for better work conditions because the undocumented themselves cannot.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that while the US Catholic Church has been at least somewhat effective in preaching this principle to others, it has more work to do in living it out. Many diocesan workers and especially those in Catholic education and health care work for low wages and in some cases the religious run institutions have resisted the unionization that many Popes have said is the right of all people.

As I've noted in other posts, the Catholic Church is a very large and very human institution. I also believe that it is one guided by the Holy Spirit, or we would have never made it through the Popes of the 1400s and 1500s. This guidance is often subtle and painful. But in the end I think most of the Church works very hard to uphold the rights and dignity of workers.

Next time (hopefully Thursday, but I've said that before), we will examine the principle of Solidarity, which places many obligations on us Christians here at home and to people in every nation.

Selected Resources:

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