Although my parents never expressed it in so many words, they gave me a pretty clear idea about how they esteemed different callings. Practicing a trade to support a family was good, public service still better and a call to the religious life the most excellent. After all, “If you wish to be perfect…” (Mt 19:21).
As a child I saw my father ply a wide variety of blue-collar jobs. He might be a factory mechanic one year and a truck driver the next, or perhaps run a car wash or a coin laundry. Though we were never poor, neither were we especially prosperous. With significant sacrifices by my parents (and a bit of charity from the “men in black”), I enjoyed a Jesuit preparatory education.
Preparing for what, though? I never suffered the loss of faith or estrangement from the church common in young adults but neither did I feel a religious calling. I will not be perfect. I guess I will be just good enough. For years I drifted through a series of not entirely satisfying engagements as a factory worker, railroad employee and mailman.
It was in these experiences that I began to discern my future vocation. In the factory, I saw the health and safety of my co-workers routinely placed in jeopardy by exposure to dangerous chemicals. At the railroad, I saw the families of co-workers thrown into crisis as a corporate buyout led to mass layoffs. At the post office, I saw how an abusive management corps could turn an otherwise fulfilling job into a source of daily misery for the (generally!) dutiful men and women employed there. Modest crosses, admittedly, but consequential and important elements in my life and those of my companions. Increasingly I was drawn into the labor movement, first as a volunteer and later as my occupation.
I draw a great deal of strength and direction from the study of Scripture and the social encyclicals of the popes. Reading Scripture teaches me humility. Every time I pick up the Bible I find myself baffled by something or other about our mysterious God. Scripture reminds me how little I understand of the highest things, how high God’s thoughts are above my thoughts.
The social encyclicals complement my study of the words of Scripture almost perfectly, offering desperately needed counsel in great clarity. Think of it: Who among the laity enjoys so much guidance in their vocation as I? I searched in vain for passages in the papal letters that might tell one how to be a worthwhile machine operator or railroad clerk or letter carrier. But Leo, Pius, John Paul and Benedict are full of advice on how to be a good trade unionist.
All this definitely makes me a different sort of union representative than many of my colleagues. I hesitate to say better. I lack the passionate partisanship of many of my peers, the certitude that no demand from labor is ever unreasonable and that no concession from an employer is ever enough. Catholic social teaching ignites in me a desire to fight for justice on behalf of the working people I represent, but it also offers a vision in which workingpeople’s associations and employers can come together for the common good. That perspective can be something of a handicap in a world that seems to thrive on conflict.
It is hard to ask workers to sacrifice their particular interests for the common good of the enterprise, but most workers retain a basic sense of fairness that makes the idea comprehensible.
For the management figures I encounter, on the other hand, the notion that a firm might sometimes need to sacrifice profits in the interests of justice for their workers is often wholly foreign. Managers are schooled to believe that their obligations begin with the chief executive officer and end with the shareholders. They consider a firm to be ethical if it merely obeys the law and fulfills its contracts. Pope Leo XIII writes of “a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man” that regulates labor relations (“Rerum Novarum,” No. 45). Even the Catholic business leaders I encounter, however, tend to find this notion alien and offer a thousand reasons why it is impractical or absurd. Perhaps it is, but is not the foolishness of God wiser than the “wisdom” of men?