The Catholic Thing
Making It Work Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 03 September 2012

Today is Labor Day, the traditional date for the end of summer vacations and the beginning of regular work. In presidential election years, it’s also thought to mark the end of the “silly season” and the start of serious campaigning. Or maybe it’s the point of entry to another kind of silly season. Depending on the candidates, it can be hard to tell.

The reason for the creation of the holiday was political. In 1894, Congress rushed through legislation in only six days declaring the first Monday in September a national holiday after a strike in Pullman, Illinois essentially paralyzed passenger and freight trains. Grover Cleveland and the legislators feared a recurrence of labor difficulties.

Still, honoring the contributions of workers – and not on May 1, the date for the international workers’ movement, which had socialist and communist elements – was a special, American way to recognize the crucial importance of working people in our national story.

In modern times, the Church and popes have spoken repeatedly of the dignity of working people. But there has also been ambiguity about manual labor – sometimes referred to as “servile work” – in the Catholic tradition. In pre-Vatican II catechisms, servile was the kind of work you weren’t supposed to do on Sunday, the Biblical day of rest that only Chik-fil-A now seems to observe in public.

The ambiguity stemmed from the belief that contemplation – “Be still and know that I am God,” Ps. 46 – is the highest human activity. And this wasn’t only a Catholic perspective. You could find much the same thing in great pagans like Plato and Aristotle. And this idea was powerfully restated in one of the greatest books of the twentieth century: Joseph Pieper’s Leisure, the Basis of Culture. If you want to know what profound thought is, you couldn’t do better than to start with that slim volume.

After many re-readings, though, his warning (understandable in that it came right after World War II) about not making practical activity central has begun to leave me a little uneasy.

Most people spend the majority of their waking hours working. Not to acknowledge – and not to integrate – that fact into the very heart of our spirituality leaves a large part of human life outside the Catholic purview. It may be why, unlike in America, Europe’s workers were among the first to leave the Church in large numbers. And it’s clear that John Paul II, a manual worker as a young man, recognized and sought to remedy that problem (read his On Human Work if you want the fullest presentation).

What does any of this have to do with us in September 2012? Quite a lot, actually.

We’re in the midst of an ugly presidential campaign that’s about to get uglier still. Unlike these deep reflections in our Catholic tradition on work, leisure, and contemplation, we’re going to be treated to endless replays of President Obama’s “You didn’t build that,” a silly way of stating the truism that none of us is an entirely “self-made man.” The Republican assertion of individual initiative and pride in work achieved is closer to the truth, but does not take us far enough absent other important truths.    

I think it was only Marco Rubio – and perhaps Cardinal Dolan – who reminded us that God is the source of all we have: “If the Lord does not build a house, then in vain do the builders labor.” This is not just some scriptural quotation that we trot out on touchy-feely occasions. It either means what it says or it’s nonsense – and so is the Catholic teaching on grace.

There’s legitimate room for Catholics to disagree on non-essentials this campaign season. And we should be able to do so without mutual demonization. I myself tried to do that last week in debate with Sister Simone Campbell, leader of the Nuns on the Bus, on Bill Moyers. You can view it here. But I wouldn’t recommend reading the blog unless you have been diagnosed with a rare medical condition that requires you to raise your blood pressure.

So far, I’ve had two physical threats and dozens of nasty emails like I’ve never gotten in twenty-five years of doing public Catholicism. And some of those from fellow Catholics who seem to think they know an awful lot and are quite judgmental – one of their bugbears – about the sorry state of my soul without ever having met me (I could give them a lot more ammunition, but it wouldn’t involve my views of the poor and federal budgets).

       Christ in the House of His Parents by John Everett Millais, 1849

This whole experience has made me think a bit more about the plight of the millions of people on the margins in this awful economy. It hasn’t changed my mind on the fundamental need for economic growth so that we not just support the poor, but bring them back into what John Paul II called the “circle of production and exchange,” where all who are capable of earning their living belong.

But it’s also made me reflect on the way that The Catholic Thing is going to conduct itself over the next two months. We have some interesting plans. The one you will see soonest is a series of essays by George Marlin adding to the analysis he did in his book The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact. George will look at the Catholic vote in a number of key states starting with Wisconsin, and provide you with a succinct assessment of the demographic – Catholics – likely to decide who will be our president in January 2013.

Since these essays are too long for our TCT format, you will see some of them, in part, here, and will be able to continue reading over at our other site Complete Catholicism, which you really ought to visit regularly anyway. You’ll be happy that you do. We’ll keep reminding you as they appear.

But I’ve also been thinking about the way we should all speak in this space – writers and readers alike – during an ugly campaign. Sister Simone and I were civil to one another, as a few Catholic publications noticed and commended. The deck was stacked, unfortunately: the Moyers team, without letting me know before I went up to New York, had prepared a moving, but somewhat idealized 24-minute video of the work nuns do with the poor, which appeared before either of us did.

The result was pre-ordained: it made it look like I was against nuns working with the poor and, despite multiple comments to the contrary, that I wanted to “balance the budget on the backs of the poor” – the moral equivalent of coming into a game right before half-time behind four touchdowns.

After the show began to air, Sister Simone announced that she will speak at the Democratic National Convention this week. To me, this latter-day act of partisanship says either the good sister was not entirely candid or does not know herself – or American politics – very well. People associated with the broadcast were equally surprised by the move.

So our ground rules on these pages will be these:

  • There’s such a thing as holy and righteous anger, but we’re going to seek to govern our tongues amid coming debates. There should be a way, a better and Catholic way, to argue than what we see everyone else doing in the public square. Perhaps we won’t reach it, but we’re going to try.
  • We will not engage in concealed partisanship here. But we make no secret about our belief that the life issues trump other considerations in this and all elections. We follow Rome and our bishops in believing life questions should not be put on the same plane as merely prudential issues.
  • This still leaves plenty of room for disagreement. On Saturday, Joe Wood made a thoughtful case for Cardinal Dolan’s appearances at the conventions. Your editor is puzzled by the cardinal’s actions, but there is no party line at TCT, other than to be Catholic.

And one last thing. I have to ask your early financial support this fall for our work. We’ve had some unfortunate cuts from the very generous people who have largely kept us going for four-plus years. Like everyone else, they are struggling in this economy and seeking to do what they can to support a wide range of worthy causes. So we need each of you to step up and donate as much as you can to keep our work alive.

As usual, I am not going to appeal to your emotions but to your sense of responsibility. You’ll see and hear plenty of the other kind of appeal from political candidates and organizations that want to whip up partisanship rather than thought and considered action. We’re bringing you the best short Catholic commentary there is every day, 365 days a year. And we’re working towards providing more extended essays so that those of you who have the time can go even deeper into questions that you won’t see discussed this well anywhere.

So can you afford $50, $100, $500, or more to keep things going at our Catholic Thing? This is going to be a hard year for us. Just think if these wonderful writers were not around every morning to enrich your lives and help advance a Catholic vision of how things could be in this beloved America of ours – and the world.

Please do your part. Contribute to our work today.

Robert Royal
is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is
The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Jack,CT, September 03, 2012
Great piece Mr Royal and keep up the good work!
written by Francis, September 03, 2012
Amazing. When our editor suggests in that clip from Moyer's show that confiscating the wealth of the top 1% would do little to solve our fiscal problems, Campbell replies "that's a start!" The moral bankruptcy of the self-righteous left is something to behold. No matter the evidence that the modern welfare state is moribund, sucking everyone and everything down into the economic abyss, the left is as confident as ever in the power of socialism.
written by Joe, September 03, 2012
Simone sure gets around. In addition to Moyers' show, she's been on O'Reilly, Spitzer, MSNBC, Colbert, The Huffington Post, ad nauseum, spreading venom against her own Church. Here I am, an agnostic who finds himself more in agreement with Bob Royal on many issues than the "Catholic" Simone.
written by Manfred, September 03, 2012
Great column, Dr. Royal, and the Moyers video explained the entire matter. You represented Catholicism. Sr. Campbell represented the secular welfare state. This state (Federal and state governments) provides billions of dollars to the "catholic" juggernaut which provides services to the poor each year.In order to not alienate the state, none of its leaders can be offended as otherwise the money flow would cease. That is why the Kennedys, Biden, Pelosi, Sebelius et al. have never been excommunicated and that is why Dolan is appearing at both the RNC and the DNC and why Obama was invited to the Al Smith Dinner. Let me be clear: none of these people are Catholic, including Dolan, in any REAL SENSE as their "quiet" support for abortion and "same-sex marriage" demonstrates. We are being led by a massive fraud which is gradually being being exposed by the new breed of bishops being appointed by Pope Benedict.
written by Bangwell Putt, September 03, 2012
"Invocation" - 1. the act or process of petitioning for help or support, specif. often cap.; a prayer of entreaty.

This is the Webster's Dictionary's first definition of an invocation. In more Catholic terms, a person who is invited to deliver an invocation has been invited to "invoke," "to petition for help" from God. Catholics believe that God will hear the petition; also, that there will be a response for those who have "ears to hear."

We can be virtually certain that the Democratic convention organizers invited Archbishop Dolan for secular and ceremonial reasons. This has until quite recently been our national custom.

But Archbishop Dolan does not, I believe, see this matter in the same way. He does understand that a prayer is not a speech. His prayer is not addressed to the convention delegates or those viewing the convention. It is addressed to God, asking for divine guidance and assistance upon those gathered there.

Pope Benedict also understands and has written about a modern tendency to leave "God with nothing to do." He believes that God has a great deal to do and will do it when we ask for it in faith, hope, and charity.
written by Jacob R, September 03, 2012
Well I hope if abortion is your number one issue, you'll make that a little more clear. You all seem to be a lot more concerned with keeping friends among the intellectual circles you run with than standing up for life no matter what the cost.

This of course is the problem with American Catholicism. 95% of American Catholics are complete secularists who only involve themselves in the Church because they're bored and desire some form of power.

Very few seem to care much about Christ. Most vocal Catholics get their livelihood from being a Catholic. It's more about arguing over their non-profit groups or who gets to bloodsuck the government next than all that pesky theology and teaching the youth.

I worked for Catholic Charities and we sat around waiting for the government to send us money and tell us what it was ok for us to do next. The women who controlled there (none of whom seemed to be Catholic) were sure of just one thing: no person, man or woman, was going to go in there and disrupt their paychecks, which came from keeping their government minders happy. True charity was a nice ideal, but not when it ran up against their desire for their easy paychecks.

With a eunuch of a Church like this, it's no wonder there aren't any Catholic men to stand up for the authentic Church.

But I'm sure you all continuing to pretend that the way you've done it the last forty years will work is going to help anything. As if you're going to change things by shmoozing secularists at conventions and political cocktail parties more (which most the bishops seem to so enjoy) or stabbing other Catholics in the back to try to appear enlightened and above the fray.

I think most of you don't even remember what it's like to meet a properly Catholic man. So you think this emasculated sissy version is the right way to go but it only continues to weaken the Church.

As long as you all can't separate the true meaning of being a man from what leftists paint it as we're going to keep getting worse--and we're going to keep getting more of the drunk manboys they pretend Catholicism/Christianity would bring if it were allowed back into power, but which this international secular society brings in greater numbers than Catholic societies ever did.
written by Robert Royal, September 03, 2012
Jacob: You've just slandered a whole group of people whom you do not know - just what the Moyers blog crowd allowed themselves to wallow in doing. I don't know every regular contributor to The Catholic Thing personally or well, but I can tell you that none of them fits the stereotype you've imagined for yourself. One of my reasons for writing this column was to say precisely that we should not indulge this politics driven fantasy and demonization. If you want to express righteous anger, you better be sure you've got the target right. That the people you used to work with were careerists dependent on the state's largesse, I can well believe. Though without knowing them, I myself wouldn't be quick to make such a charge. But the people who write here have taken personal and professional risks for their beliefs. We don't sit on endowments or have vast, shadowy funders the way some people and Hollywood scriptwriters imagine. Dust on our heads that we have not been better at our tasks or more successful. That, however, is another matter.
written by Sherry M., September 03, 2012
Dear Mr. Royal,

You are right that we are "in the midst of an ugly presidential campaign that's about to get uglier still". The last few weeks have made me cringe, on occasion, to hear Catholics talk about other Catholics with such vehemence and animosity. It is not only depressing but it is also highly counter-productive and self-defeating - and, quite frankly, embarrassing in terms of the broader community.

When I read your article this morning, it was like a breath of fresh air to see your idea of ground rules for how both writers and readers alike should participate in the coming discussions. Lack of civility is a big part of the cultural problems of today. But it need not be that way.

I am grateful that you set the stage in terms of the life essentials and those issues where there is legitimate room for Catholics to disagree, and, hopefully, to learn from one another.

And, thank you for the upcoming series of essays. Your column is so very important in these days of confusion. May God bless you and all who contribute to your column.
written by Seanachie, September 03, 2012
If, as you say, "our belief that the life issues trump other considerations in this and all elections," why would a Catholic even consider Obama and party worthy candidates? Obama and party support abortion, late term abortion, and in Obama's own case, no medical treatment for a live baby born of a botched abortion. Moreover, Obama and party act to force Catholic institutions to provide birth control aids and abortion inducing drugs to their employees despite Catholic religious convictions against same. Oh, did I forget to also mention that Obama and party show no respect for the U.S. Constitution...the right of American citizens to freedom of religion...not being coerced by anyone or entity to do something contrary to their religious convictions? In all, it seems to me, that Catholicism, and all its formal and informal organs of communication, should loudly, clearly, and courageously call for Cathoics to avoid voting for Obama and his party.

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