For America’s Catholic workers September 6 marks the second of two ‘labor days’ of the calendar year. Most of the world honors the laboring man and woman on May 1, a feast duly marked in our liturgical calendar as the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. Later, the first Monday in September is not only an American national holiday but an occasion when the US Catholic Bishops reflect on labor and Catholic social teaching in light of current events. This year’s statement, A New “Social Contract” for Today’s “New Things” was issued over the signature of Bishop William Murphy, Chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.
Bishop Murphy begins by noting that the past year has been a harsh one for American workers – perhaps most strikingly for the dozens who died in West Virginia’s Mine disaster in April, but more broadly for the tens of millions who have suffered unemployment and loss of income. (A recent Pew study discovered that a whopping 25 percent of American workers lost their job at some point in the current recession!)
Bishop Murphy uses these stark facts as his point of departure. For perspective he turns to both the oldest and the youngest of the major Papal Social Encyclicals: Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1893) and Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate (2009) Murphy calls for “a new social contract,” and in doing so, illustrates the gulf between the Catholic perspective on society and economy and that of contemporary secular discourse.
In today’s television and newspaper coverage, political and social argument revolves around the limits and efficacy of government regulation of the economy – as if the state and the market were the only relevant actors on the scene. But they are not. Bishop Murphy observes:
The role of the market is clearly the major force for the development of a sound economy. The state has played and continues to play an important, perhaps increasingly important, role in the economy and in the regulation of markets. At times, the market and the state seem to be the only two factors; sometimes in collaboration, other times in tension with each other. Perhaps the most undervalued and overlooked sector in this framework is that of civil society. Could a reawakening and new development of the roles of intermediary institutions, including voluntary associations and unions, be a force to call the market to a greater understanding of the centrality of the worker? Could they be a means to restrain, mediate, or hold accountable both the state and the marketplace? Could their voices help create greater economic and social justice, a more mutually respectful and collaborative stance by all the actors toward the economy, work, and wealth creation around the world? Pope Benedict believes this. He suggests that the various components of civil society can work, along with those in the market and the state, to introduce elements in favor of an economy of gift and gratuitousness. Without excluding the essential roles of market and state, “civil society” may well be a different, but also essential voice to advance the good of all.
In the marketplace we trade our goods (or labor) with others to get what we want; we are impelled to look at others as means to our private ends, to value others for what they have and what we can get from them. In the state, ideally, we employ democratic deliberations and seek the common good instead of private interests; even so, these are not ultimately voluntary relations but carry the force of law.
But in civil society we have a remarkable sphere in which we can voluntarily come together to deliberate upon and pursue the common good. And it is important, as Murphy observes, that labor unions are institutions less of the market than of civil society. (Note that unlike markets, where individuals calculate advantage and make decisions for themselves alone, trade unions are institutions where workers are called to deliberate together, electing leaders and voting on contracts using democratic procedures.)
The rich civil society that flowered between state and market has been the glory of American culture since the founding, so it is perhaps curious that it should take a German pope to remind us of its enduring value. Curious, but not unprecedented. After all, was it not the French Catholic visitor Alexis de Tocqueville who, in his classic study of Democracy in America, explained to us and to the world that the American genius for forming voluntary associations was the essential foundation of our successful republic?
Murphy cites another important Benedictine nugget from the encyclical: “I would like to remind everyone, especially governments engaged in boosting the world's economic and social assets, that the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity (Caritas in Veritate #25, emphasis in original).” For those who might be tempted to miss the point, Murphy offers a more prosaic version of his own. “A good job at good wages for everyone who is willing and able to work should be our national goal and a moral priority.”
This is indeed a sound Catholic starting point for the discussion of American economic and social policy. A family-supporting income is a critical support for enduring marriages and healthy child-rearing. Equally important, when a parent is willing to work yet cannot command a living wage, we teach children that hard work and playing by the rules is for suckers and that the way to get ahead is by gaming the system. (Whether one does that by selling subprime mortgages or other illicit substances is a matter of taste and opportunity.) Abstract discussions of the role of government and the rights of property have their place, but are secondary to this rather fundamental premise of social justice. A nation as wealthy as ours that will not find a way to guarantee a respectable income to every working man and woman mocks the work ethic and dishonors the worker.
Finally, Bishop Murphy’s special observations on the shocking prevalence of unpaid labor in our society should not escape notice. Though every worker deserves a living wage, each year millions of workers perform work for which they are paid no wage at all, living or otherwise! The problem stretches the gamut from the small contractor who issues his workers a paycheck that bounces to chains like Wal-Mart that demand employees work off the clock at the start or end of their shift. The practice is not just monstrously unjust but unlawful, yet in this terrible recession many workers fear to refuse such demands, not to say report them to the authorities. While community and labor activists across America have been struggling with this issue for years, today’s campaign against ‘wage theft’ by Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) has secured new prominence for this pressing issue. Congratulations to IWJ, and blessings to Bishop Murphy and the USCCB for drawing attention to this very basic premise of worker justice.