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Kenneth R. HimesMay 14, 2021
Freelancers working at a "coworking space' in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Unsplash/ Shridhar Gupta)

May 15 will be the 130th anniversary of Leo XIII’s landmark encyclical on human labor, “Rerum Novarum.” Looking at the situation of many workers in the emerging industrial order of the late 19th century, the pope went so far as to claim that, “At this moment the condition of the working population is the question of the hour.” Of course, that was 1891. Some might say that Leo’s reflections, however helpful they may have been, are not all that relevant today. Commemorating Leo’s letter may have some purpose for those interested in the history of Catholic social teaching, but can it still teach us anything?

This brief reflection has as its aim to underscore the continuing relevance of Leo’s text, particularly with regard to comprehending the significance of work and the downside of a recent economic phenomenon.

Commemorating Pope Leo’s letter may have some purpose for those interested in the history of Catholic social teaching, but can it still teach us anything?

The ‘precariat’

One of the growing trends in the realm of work is the spread of what has been called the “gig economy.” The phrase has been used to designate a labor market where there is a prevalence of short-term or freelance jobs instead of workers in full-time employment in a more settled position that offers opportunities for career advancement, compensation that includes benefits, procedures for determining and appealing workplace rules and a measure of job security.

Alternative work arrangements have long existed, but there are more short-term jobs today without security or benefits. A common image of alternative work is that of independent contractors, self-employed workers who control their own work schedules and intensity of work. Often the popular image of these workers is of successful, talented people, rather than unhappy workers desperate for added income. And there is no question that the increase in short-term jobs can be a plus for those who have marketable skills and wish to have greater control over work hours, more freedom in selecting work sites and colleagues and an openness to different and new modes of job performance. So there ought not be a blanket denunciation of the gig economy. However, independent contractors comprise a shrinking minority of the people in alternative work arrangements.

Alternative work arrangements have long existed, but there are more short-term jobs today without security or benefits.

A worrying facet regarding the development of the gig economy is the transformation of many workers into members of what has been called “the precariat.” More commonly used in Europe, the term refers to persons in short-term jobs, without job security or benefits such as health insurance, sick time and reimbursement for vehicle maintenance. Workers who are part of the precariat lack the ability to bargain over the terms of their employment. Gig workers frequently find jobs on electronic platforms that prevent bargaining over wages. Workers in the precariat may be “on-call” and have limited control over their hours. In addition, a good percentage of on-call workers are on zero-hour contracts, meaning they need to be prepared to come to work at any time, but are not guaranteed any hours per week.

From the Catholic perspective, the dangers of work in the gig economy are substantial. First, workers in the gig economy have mainly transactional relationships with employers. The worker is not viewed in an integral way, as someone who brings a personal dimension to the world of work. Rather, work in the gig economy is viewed reductively, efficient production of a good or provision of a service is the sole aim of the employer.

From the Catholic perspective, the dangers of work in the gig economy are substantial.

The transactional nature of work means the social aspect of work is also undervalued. Workers who are untethered to long-term jobs do not develop workplace relationships; a sense of teamwork and collaborative effort is lacking. Also jobs in the gig economy can undercut personal relationships outside the workplace. The availability of only gig jobs for some people can make a worker anxious about the feasibility of marriage and family life in the face of economic insecurity. Young people can become hesitant about starting a family, seeking a mortgage or doing simple financial planning when employment is uncertain.

The role that work plays in a person’s development also suffers in a gig economy. Workers in short-term jobs do not have extensive, if any, opportunities for ongoing training and skill development. Availability of apprenticeships and programs for learning new competencies are absent for gig workers. There is little encouragement for upward movement in status and income since the goal of career advancement is almost entirely thrust upon the individual worker with no workplace or societal support. The idea of building a career can be largely stymied. Gig workers have little or no say in the design of their work. There is no ability to impact rules for worker discipline or to have a collective voice. Gig work is presented in terms dictated by the employer and avenues for workers to have a say in the job description, compensation, performance evaluation, disciplinary action or any managerial decision is relatively nil. The worker in a gig job is too often viewed not in an integral manner but simply as a tool for the production of a good or service.

Work allows a person to grow into the image of God by sharing in the process of creation, shaping and creating the world that God has shared with us.

The insight of ‘Rerum Novarum’

If one knows anything about “Rerum Novarum,” it is usually Leo’s support for labor unions and the practice of collective bargaining. That is likely due to the timeliness of his defense of organized labor, which was vital in some nations, including the United States. An early labor union, the Knights of Labor, had been condemned by the archbishop of Quebec in 1884. This was mainly due to the origins of the Knights as an organization with secret rites of membership when it was founded in 1869. By the 1880s, however, the organization was distancing itself from such practices because its leadership (and probably membership) was majority Catholic and would have been wary of similarities with freemasonry.

The Canadian archbishop’s condemnation raised alarms that a broader condemnation might ensue from the Vatican that would apply not only to Catholics in Quebec but in the United States. Several American bishops took up the task to defend the Knights and appealed to the Vatican not to endorse the action in Quebec. Leaders like Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore worried that official church opposition to organized labor could lead to substantial numbers of Catholic workers choosing their economic survival over their ecclesial membership. With the promulgation in 1891 of Leo’s encyclical, the issue was settled within the Catholic community: Labor unions were affirmed. The alliance between church and labor became a characteristic of American Catholic life, and many priests and lay people favored Catholic participation and leadership within the labor movement.

Important as that development was for Catholic workers, it is not the lesson of “Rerum Novarum” that I wish to dwell upon. I want to focus on another significant statement in Leo’s letter that put the church solidly on one side of another divide in economic life. When Leo XIII wrote “Rerum Novarum,” he gave clear support to the idea of private property and a realm of legitimate freedom in the marketplace. Yet, on a crucial issue of the day, Leo broke with capitalist ideology; he denied the doctrine of free contract as legitimate.

Simply put, some advocates of free markets extended that to mean unregulated freedom in matters of contract between a worker and employer; there was no proper interference or regulation of a contract voluntarily entered into by the two parties. Owners offered a wage and if a worker accepted it, there was no role for a third party to challenge or invalidate the agreement. This view of freedom as dominant when compared to other economic concerns had been opposed by a number of social reformers, but it was still a position espoused by devotees of a pure economic liberalism and capitalists resistant to labor rights.

John Paul II: “It is a strict duty of justice and truth not to allow fundamental human needs to remain unsatisfied, and not to allow those burdened by such needs to perish.”

Leo made clear his belief in a standard higher than voluntary agreement, that of natural justice. He reasoned first, that human labor has two aspects. Labor is personal, and each individual is free to seek the profit or benefit that comes from work. Leo agreed with that view up to a point:

Now, were we to consider labor merely in so far as it is personal, doubtless it would be within the workman’s right to accept any rate of wages whatsoever… But our conclusion must be very different if, together with the personal element in a man’s work, we consider the fact that work is also necessary for him to live: these two aspects of his work are separable in thought, but not in reality.

And this necessity is the second character of human work, “that each one has a natural right to procure what is required in order to live, and the poor can procure that in no other way than by what they can earn through their work” (No. 44). Leo went on to reason, “Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner.”

The pope concluded his argument against the ideology of free contract bluntly, “If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accepts harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice” (No. 45). The teaching that justice takes precedence in the governance of wage-labor agreements is a central way that the dignity of workers is acknowledged in the Catholic tradition.

Work gives expression to who we are; we exert our energy and talent into creation when we work.

Work as a duty and a right

Since work is not only personal but necessary, that is, it is the chief way that human beings procure for themselves the essential goods required for a dignified life, there is a duty on the part of those who are able to work. Self-preservation is a fundamental obligation; not in an absolute sense, but since it is the basis for the enjoyment of other goods, the duty to preserve and care for life is basic. Thus, people should work if they are able; it is unemployment, not labor, that is a curse.

It is also the case that work is intimately related to a person’s ability to acquire knowledge and skills, and to give expression to one’s personality. Work allows a person to grow into the image of God by sharing in the process of creation, shaping and creating the world that God has shared with us. This is part of the nobility of the worker, the fact that human labor is connected to the creative action of God.

Work is also social; part of the social nature of work is that it is a means whereby the individual can contribute to the common good of the human family and build up the society in which one lives and relies upon. Work is a participatory action in which the person can add to the development of society, enrich the lives of others and provide goods and services that enable fellow persons to attain well-being.

Owing to these necessary, personal and social aspects of work, no individual can lightly dismiss the duty to work. To ignore that duty is to fail in the relationships any individual has with God, with others and with oneself. Of course, this duty cannot be made absolute, for there are individuals whose physical and/or mental limitations override the obligation to work. The duty to work, however, ought not be restricted simply to paid work. There are those who may not be capable of productive work that is remunerated, yet a person may work in some other mode of labor whereby they grow as persons and make a contribution to the good of others.

Within Catholic social teaching, there is a mutual correlation between duties and rights. It is not morally acceptable to insist that a person has a duty if that person does not have the ability to act in such a way as to satisfy the duty. Individuals cannot be told that they must work in order to eat and then be sidelined in the labor market, nor can they be told they must have specified skills and training to work, yet be denied the opportunity to acquire necessary skills and training. The social teaching of the Catholic community cannot be reduced to a Catch-22.

Despite the great attention given to human work in the social teaching of the Catholic Church, it is important to acknowledge that work in some cases does not provide adequate income for a household, or that in other cases work is not available, or that in still other cases work cannot be undertaken because of age, illness or disability. Indeed, at the outset of the papal tradition on the matter, it was precisely the predicament of so many workers and their dependents that led Leo XIII to address the topic of human work. It was the inadequacy of wages in the industrial economies of the 1800s, the overabundance of workers in urban settings and the plight of those who could not be “productive” in the marketplace that drew Leo’s attention and concern. It was the threat to human dignity occasioned by the labor conditions of the emerging industrialized order that moved the pope to write his social encyclical.

Upon the centennial of Leo’s encyclical, John Paul II stated in his encyclical, “Centesimus Annus:” “It is a strict duty of justice and truth not to allow fundamental human needs to remain unsatisfied, and not to allow those burdened by such needs to perish.” He made this comment in the context of talking about the limits of markets, despite their admitted efficiency. Those limits include the fact that no market addresses the needs of all persons, and there will always be some who, for whatever reason, are unable to enter into market exchanges that will meet their needs. Such persons are not to be forgotten or neglected for their non-utility in the market, because “even prior to the logic of a fair exchange of goods and the forms of justice appropriate to it, there exists something which is due to man because he is man, by reason of his lofty dignity. Inseparable from the required ‘something’ is the possibility to survive” (No. 34).

Pope Leo XIII issued “Rerum Novarum” precisely because he saw significant injustice in the plight of the working class.

Work and the human person

If we employ the categories of Leo, that work is necessary, personal and social, we can appreciate how this multifaceted view of work derives from Catholicism’s understanding of the human person. However, it is this perspective on the person that is undermined by the negative aspects of the gig economy.

It comes as no surprise that the Catholic tradition wishes to safeguard and promote the spiritual dimension of the human person, but we are not disembodied spirits. Human beings are material as well as spiritual; we have physical needs for food, water, shelter and the like. We are also relational or social beings, needing to both give and receive affection, to enjoy the company of others in a variety of groups, e.g. family, friends, co-workers. As persons, we all have an inner life as well: We have memories, a personal history, a self-narrative, an identity that situates us in our journey through life. There are additional facets to the human person: We are historical and change over time; we are free and able to both change aspects of ourselves as well as factors outside of ourselves; we are contingent and vulnerable beings who cannot live forever nor be immune to threats to our inner and exterior wellbeing.

The list of dimensions that constitute the human person is substantial. The danger is that rather than hold on to the full range of our humanness, we lose sight of one or more essential dimensions. Then follows the error of reductionism, making one or another dimension of the person the essence of the person. It is a common error of our age to embrace some aspect of homo economicus and equate that with the full humanity of the person. The error of consumerism reduces the person to a mere acquirer and user of material goods. We can also so strongly emphasize our role as workers that we lose sight of who we are when not at work; we measure our worth by what we earn or produce; we sacrifice leisure or relationships for more and more work; we find no satisfaction in life outside the workplace.

We can say that because work is personal, it is a human good that should play a role in an individual’s growth. Work gives expression to who we are; we exert our energy and talent into creation when we work. We join in the continual act of creation that God sustains; we join our efforts in the process of transforming creation into what God desires it to be. By the means of work, we acquire new skills and refine existing ones, and we develop new qualities of character, such as self-discipline, thrift, perseverance and ingenuity.

Secondly, because work is not only personal but necessary, we labor in order to provide for the satisfaction of basic needs and enhance our material condition. We are able to provide for others dependent upon us, including children, the elderly, the infirm. Work becomes a way for us to express care and give support to others unable to care for themselves. Creation can be transformed into a more hospitable place for humans to survive and prosper through the medium of work, which secures necessary goods and services.

Thirdly, the tradition of Catholic social teaching about labor that Leo initiated recognizes that work is social as well as personal and necessary. It is a cooperative process that is exhibited by specialization of skills and the division of labor, by economies of scale and organized workplaces that heighten efficiency. In so doing, human work affords opportunities for community, fostering bonds of colleagueship and friendship and developing a sense of responsibility and accountability.

When examining the gig economy, it remains especially helpful to recall Leo XIII’s assessment of the dynamics of free contracts.

Leo XIII and justice for the worker

Leo XIII issued "Rerum Novarum” precisely because he saw significant injustice in the plight of the working class. Today, many associate the idea of justice with fair and impartial rules, what is called procedural justice; if the rules are fair, whatever emerges as the end result is deemed just. However, Catholic social thought, informed by the biblical tradition, tends toward seeing justice as more of an end state; it is the establishment of shalom, a community that exhibits a fullness of life as right relationships are created and maintained.

Justice in the realm of work entails ready access to employment, safe working conditions appropriate to the dignity of each worker, adequate compensation to secure for a worker and dependents sufficient income and benefits to maintain material well-being and a balance of work and leisure to ensure that the spiritual, relational, intellectual and recreational needs of the worker can be satisfied. Finally, justice in the realm of work entails making provision for those who cannot work, so that no one is abandoned or put outside the bounds of decent society. In sum, Leo maintained that labor must serve the good of the worker; in other words, work that promotes the human development of the individual worker and contributes positively to the good of society. Good work must be measured by its adequacy to the necessary, personal and social dimensions of human labor.

When examining the gig economy, it remains especially helpful to recall Leo XIII’s assessment of the dynamics of free contracts. He noted that if, from necessity, workers accept harsh conditions due to an employer’s unwillingness to offer better conditions, then the worker is not freely consenting but is the victim of unjust coercion. Consent is problematic when there are few better options for members of the precariat. Increased pressures for labor market flexibility may effectively mean transferring financial risks and economic insecurity onto workers and their communities.

The threatening possibilities of the gig economy as the future of work for many persons is a moral challenge for theorists and practitioners of the Catholic social tradition. The plight of the precariat and their experience of human work is a reminder to us today that 130 years ago, Leo XIII was right to see the nature of work and justice for the workers as key to the entire social question.

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