Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, Chair of the U.S.C.C.B. Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, has issued this year’s Labor Day Statement on behalf of the bishops' conference. As always, the statement is a powerful call to live out our faith, and gives us “the chance to see how work in America matches up to the lofty ideals of our Catholic tradition.”
In the wake of the Great Recession, unemployment – especially youth unemployment – is a recurrent theme of the statement. Though down significantly from the alarming 2008-09 rates, the Bureau of Labor statistics counts some 10 million unemployed Americans. This is a grave challenge. As Pope Francis reminds us, work is “fundamental to the dignity of a person.” But Archbishop Wenski also recalls the words of recently canonized St. John XXIII, noting that workers are “entitled to a wage that is determined in accordance with the precepts of justice.”
Too often we hear leaders in business and politics tell us that workers cannot have both employment and a living wage. They counsel that human freedom requires a free market, and that the workings of that market mean that many working men and women must make a Hobson’s choice between poverty wages and no wages at all.
But our faith does not allow us to agree. Pope Leo XIII called the living wage “a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man…. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.”
It may be argued that not every employer earns profits sufficient to pay a living wage. It may be argued that the labor of some lacks enough economic value to merit a living wage on the free market. Be it so: as followers of Christ, shall we modify our institutions to match the imperatives of our faith, or vice versa?