St. Joseph Catholic Church - Toledo, OH

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September 3/4, 2016 - Dignity of Work and Rights of Workers

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Given September 3/4, 2016 (Largely transcribed and edited from Saturday Homily with additions for Sunday)

"That the spirit of revolutionary change, which has long been disturbing the nations of the world, should have passed beyond the sphere of politics and made its influence felt in the cognate sphere of practical economics is not surprising."[1]

With these words, written in 1891 - 125 years ago, Pope Leo XIII began the encyclical Rerum Novarum and ushered in a new age of teaching in the Church.  This encyclical became the foundation and standard of what would come to be known as Catholic Social Teaching.  The corpus of this teaching is focused upon 7 primary principals:

  1. Life and Dignity of the Human Person
  2. Call to Family, Community, and Participation
  3. Rights and Responsibilities
  4. Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
  5. The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
  6. Solidarity
  7. Care for God's Creation[2]

It is these 7 principles which we as Catholics are called to know and allow to form our conscience and actions as we fulfil our moral obligation of engaging in the shaping and building  of society through political and economic endeavors. It is therefore that on this Labor Day weekend, on which we pause as a nation to reflect upon and celebrate the value of human labor, that I begin a series of homilies upon these 7 principles of CST, leading up to the general election in November.


Listen again to those words from Pope Leo XIII that begin his encyclical:

"That the spirit of revolutionary change, which has long been disturbing the nations of the world, should have passed beyond the sphere of politics and made its influence felt in the cognate sphere of practical economics is not surprising. The elements of the conflict now raging are unmistakable, in the vast expansion of industrial pursuits and the marvelous discoveries of science; in the changed relations between masters and workmen (OF 2nd reading); in the enormous fortunes of some few individuals, and the utter poverty of the masses; in the increased self-reliance and closer mutual combination of the working classes; as also, finally, in the prevailing moral degeneracy.

Written 125  years ago and yet it still speaks truth today.  Just as 125 years ago there was great need to reflect on the value and dignity of work and on the rights of workers, so even so today. In 1891 as the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, there was no little strife between workmen and master; even so today. The question first and foremost is what is the nature of work why is it important.

(Begin transcription from Saturday audio - cleaned up and edited)

Keep in mind work is necessary, absolutely so. Pope St. John Paul the Great, in his encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work) said: "Work is, as has been said, an obligation, that is  to say, a duty, on the part of man. . . Man must work, both because the  Creator has commanded it and because of his own humanity, which requires work  in order to be maintained and developed."[3]  Work is necessary, and we must engage in some level of work because we need it for our own humanity. Consider the Gospel parable[4] in which our Lord speaks about the landowner who goes out at the beginning of the day hires some laborers. He goes out again at the third hour, highers more, again at sixth and ninth hours hires even more. And at the end of the day an hour before the workday is over, he goes out and finds even more standing around doing nothing. What does he say? "Why have you been standing here idle all day?" "Because no one has hired us." "Go work in my vineyard."

He easily could have just given them the day’s wage without asking them to work. But would that have truly helped them. There is a realization that standing around all day doesn't do anything to benefit their humanity; but giving the opportunity for them to fully exercise who they are through work, that does. So they are hired even at the last hour of the day to be able to fulfill their humanity. The aspect of working, then, is necessary to achieve a fuller sense of our humanity; but it is also necessary for one of the other principles of Catholic social teaching:
(#2: Call to Family, Community, and Participation)

“Man must work out of regard for  others, especially his own family, but also for the society he belongs to, the  country of which he is a child, and the whole human family of which he is a  member, since he is the heir to the work of generations and at the same time a  sharer in building the future of those who will come after him in the  succession of history.” (On Human Work Laborem Exercens).[5] So work is a necessary thing for our own human development but also because it brings about the building up of the family and the fulfillment of society. But what of the rights of workers?  

In the Catholic framework for economic life the US bishops write: “All people have the right to  economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages and benefits, to decent  working conditions, as well as to organize and join unions or other associations.”

That right to form labor unions and associations goes all the way back to where I began Rerum Novarum 1891 and every time a Pope spoke about work and dignity and society the right to unionize was always a major item. Why?

“All these rights, together with the need for the workers  themselves to secure them, give rise to yet another right: the right of  association, that is to form associations for the purpose of defending the  vital interests of those employed in the various professions. These  associations are called labor or trade unions.”

Now I know, unions can often be a contentious point.

“The discussion is not easy, nor is it void of danger. It is no easy matter to define the relative rights and mutual duties of the rich and of the poor, of capital and of labor. And the danger lies in this, that crafty agitators are intent on making use of these differences of opinion to pervert men's judgments and to stir up the people to revolt.”[8]

This contention was brought home to me very clearly a couple years ago.  Some may recall there was a ballot issue here in Ohio about public unions. As I was in an assignment in Fostoria at the time, which was a very working class community, there had been a number of articles in the bulletin written by the social justice chair at the parish talking about that issue. Unfortunately they were not well written and more unfortunately some dirty laundry got aired in a very public forum and a public attack was made on some local businessman. This upset a number of people so I stepped in to express what is truly Catholic social teaching in that regard. It had been pretty much said: “If you don't support unions you're not a good Catholic. Wow! No! that is not what the Church says.  I had to stress to these local businessman who owned non union shops that what it comes down to is what St. Paul said to Philemon "receive Onesimus as a brother not as slave, but as a brother in Christ." What the Catholic businessman has as his job, is to treat his workers fairly. But in order to protect themselves, workers have the right to form associations, unions for their protection. ideally, I would say, the Catholic position says that they shouldn't need to form unions, but they have the right to.

Unions I've always been a very big part of my family they benefited my family quite greatly. My father is a union member with the plumbers and pipefitters and the benefits that the union has provided have benefited my family greatly. Because of the benefits of the union he was able to have shoulder surgery and take the many months of recovery knowing that he and my mother would be cared for and that they would still have a steady income even while he was not working. 

And I've seen the bad side of unions. my mother worked as the office manager at a union shop (where I also worked in college) in which it happened time and again that poor workmanship was rewarded. I saw guys who should've been fired, or were fired, keep or got their jobs back because the union stepped in.  That's not fair and just for anyone. Fair and just for those who are there to work hard.  Or fair and just to those who provide the wages. So it's always a balance.

Why is this all important enough to preach upon.? Pope Emeritus Benedict in Caritas in Veritate reminds us, "The economic sphere is neither ethically neutral, or inherently inhuman or opposed to society. It is part and  parcel of human activity and precisely because it is human, it must be  structured and governed in an ethical manner."

It is important because of the reality of our city.  The U.S. Bishops’ message for Labor Day 2016 says it soberly: "this year new research has emerged showing the acute pain of middle and rural America in the wake of the departure of industry.  Once the center of labor and the promise of family-sustaining wages, research shows these communities collapsing today, substance abuse on the rise, and an increase in the number of broken families. ... The Rust Belt region now appears to have the highest concentration in the nation of drug-related deaths, including from overdoses of heroin and prescription drugs."[10]

"When we begin to look for answers to these realities, we gain less confidence from many of our political leaders these days. Instead of dialogue and constructive solutions that bring people together, we see increasing efforts to divide as a means to gain support.  But more divisions are never the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:19-21). When our leaders ought to be calling us toward a vision of the common good that lifts the human spirit and seeks to soothe our tendencies toward fear, we find our insecurities exploited as a means to further partisan agendas.  Our leaders must never use anxiety as a means to manipulate persons in desperate situations, or to pit one group of persons against another for political gain. For our dynamics to change, we must replace fear with a fuller vision that can be powerfully supported by our faith."[11]

This vision can only come into view when we allow the Gospel and the consistent social teaching of the church to inform and direct our conscience in the coming months.  I encourage you this week to look online at the bishop's website ( at the resources they have available, if you are feeling particularly ambitious read Rerum Novarum.  I will be putting the text of my homilies online with some pertinent resources.

Let us continue to pray for one another, for our country and that we can all continue to grow in knowledge of these principles, allowing them to form our conscience in the following months.

[1] Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, n.1. 1891.

[4] Matthew 20.

[5] Laborem Exercens, n.16.

[6] US Conference of Catholic Bishops, A Catholic Framework for Economic Life, n. 5.

[7] Laborem Exercens, n.20.

[8] Rerum Novarum, n. 2

[11] Ibid.


Last Updated on Monday, 05 September 2016 09:36  

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