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Human Work Today Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 02 September 2013

Labor Day this year has an unusual mournful quality. It’s not only the high unemployment rate or sluggish economy. It’s our national spirit. Robert Frost wrote that, historically, we had to give ourselves outright:

To the land vaguely realizing westward
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced.
Such as she was, such as she would become.
Who in America feels that today?

Our Labor Day falls in September, not on May Day, as in most countries, because American workers were not much influenced by Marxism. As I’ve mentioned here before, it was the American example that helped convince Leo XIII, as he was writing Rerum Novarum, the first modern social encyclical,that labor unions did not have to be socialist or anti-Christian. Indeed, during the Cold War, American union leaders shared in the fight for workers then being exploited by the Communists.

All that seems in the distant past now. The old ideological battles have changed. Even the longstanding American tussle between capital and labor is less clear than it was just a few years ago.

Big Business is no longer – if it ever was – a reliable voice for economic freedom. Large companies understand that lobbying government delivers larger paydays.

The old union reflexes don’t always serve either. Unions went big for President Obama and Obamacare in 2012. Yet Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO (and a Catholic union leader in the older mold), recently had to admit that the hastily concocted Affordable Care Act is already causing reduced hours for workers with jobs and inhibiting creation of new jobs. 

Elsewhere, even in proud centralized nations like France, unions and social progressives, far from pushing new programs, are staunch conservatives in the sense of seeking to hold on to existing “blue model” benefits that may be no longer viable.

Like John Paul II in Centesimus Annus, many of us would like to renew the understanding of subsidiarity. Even though relief programs and state interventions are sometimes necessary in current conditions, where possible:

Such supplementary interventions, which are justified by urgent reasons touching the common good, must be as brief as possible, so as to avoid removing permanently from society and business systems the functions which are properly theirs, and so as to avoid enlarging excessively the sphere of State intervention to the detriment of both economic and civil freedom. (¶48)

Compare this to the figures that in America – America! – half our people currently receive a government check of some sort. We need creative new thought about relations between state, intermediate institutions, and persons not only for social well being, but human dignity.

Social principles have always been notoriously complex, especially since they’re often obscured by political partisanship. Fortunately, a good, brief overview of modern Catholic social thought has just appeared: Maciej Zieba’s Papal Economics: The Catholic Church on Democratic Capitalism, from Rerum Novarum to Caritas in Veritate.

Fr. Zieba (Zhem-ba) is a Polish Dominican who was close to Pope John Paul II. A trained physicist, he was editing the newsletter of the Polish union Solidarnosc, in the great days of its struggle with Communism, when he rediscovered his faith – and a vocation.

His clear, well-balanced survey sees modern Catholic social thought as welcoming democratic freedoms and markets, with significant Catholic qualifications, of course. Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo anno (1931) were realistic about human nature and a proper social order, and find room for notions like competition, entrepreneurship, and profit – which most people assume are foreign to Catholic tradition.

Later texts such as Mater et Magistra (1961), he admits, drifted for a while towards statism and internationalist perspectives. But Fr. Zieba’s careful reading of that encyclical points out that John XXIII, far more balanced than is commonly thought, asserted early:

It should be stated at the outset that in the economic order first place must be given to the personal initiative of private citizens working either as individuals or in association with each other in various ways for the furtherance of common interests. (¶51)

Centesimus Annus (1991) best balances theory and practice because John Paul II drew on a century of thought and experience in both East and West.

Modern Catholic social thought is both valuable – and frustrating. It’s easy to see the value of its careful distinctions about persons, initiative, subsidiarity, and solidarity, which are often absent from our public life. But broad principles need fleshing out, as popes have repeatedly said – usually by lay people – and the translation from theory to practice is rarely easy.

In our time, the old Communist/capitalist debate has receded. But we’ve entered a new phase in market economies. In the most developed countries, heavy industry will never again be the economic mainstay. Capital now includes human capital in ways that have not been properly valued. Many workers who don’t seem suited for the new economy languish by the sidelines or in low-paying work even when the overall global economic system is working far better than it is at the moment.

This takes us back to still other important features of Catholic social thought, especially the importance of families in forming children in the virtues necessary to participate in society, including the economy. And the crucial contributions of schools: besides family breakdown, there is no bigger scandal in American society than the failure of public school systems to serve the neediest, especially in inner cities.

Despite claims to the contrary, it’s not primarily a lack of resources. Washington D.C. spends the most per student of any jurisdiction in the country and it remains mired in incompetence and corruption – and the need to deal with students’ home situations, which seem to make learning harder than ever.

On Labor Day, it’s only right to be thankful for the contributions past generations have made to get us where we are. One way to express that gratitude, however, is to rethink how to respond to new and, in several respects, unprecedented challenges.

In our time, that may be the greatest labor we are called to perform.

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 Westnow available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by Pete Brown, September 02, 2013
Interesting and provocative piece Bob. A bone to pick however.

You write "half our people receive a government check of some sort."

Actually, the WSJ article I think you are referring to claimed that half of people in the US lived in a household that received some govt. benefit.

Here's the WSJ article here (note the correction at the bottom):

Obviously given that the average household size is 2.6 this is a far cry from saying half of all people are receiving a check.

Moreover, "receive a check" is also maybe misleading. Lots of households have a student who received subsidized student loan which would count as a benefit, but not a welfare handout. Similarly, there are alot of people who receive Medicaid (or their kids do) but still work. Mostly this is because their employer does not provide medical insurance and because their income is low, but this also includes Catholics I know who have adopted foster kids. This isn't receiving a check either.

A large part of this total will be others who are in a household with an elderly person who receives social security and/or medicare which are cash benefits but which one does have to work to receive. These programs are not exactly recent vintage. So how does this fit the narrative?

More to the main point I think you are making, there is no question of course that means tested benefits are growing and were growing even before the recession. And I agree that this trend is concerning. But what should the response be from the standpoint of Catholic social teaching?

If we want to cut to advocate cutting government benefits we should advocate even more loudly higher wages especially for people at the bottom. The less people make the more they will pressure the state for various assistance. The less wealth they have the less secure they will be and the more suspicious of markets.

Subsidiarity after all presupposes an adequate distribution of private property and is especially difficult to apply meaningfully in a scenario where the large majority of income gains are being captured by corporations and individual high earners. I don't think it is partisan to point this out. It's undeniably true. I'm am not so sure given recent trends that the old fashioned labor capital dispute is passe.

I think that if we do not start taking distributional questions more seriously we are going to soon face popular support for much more aggressive attempts at economic redistribution. And the left is not going to be as burdened with the negative counterexample of Soviet style Communism which for most Americans will be a distant memory.
written by Sue, September 02, 2013
The problem is now that women have flooded the job market there is no longer possible the notion of "a living wage". Why should an employer care about the wage he pays if that worker's household might also be receiving other income from a second worker? If we wish the employer to have a conscience about wages, he must be reasonably certain the worker is the family's sole breadwinner.

Sending Rosie Riveter home to nurture and educate her own children could solve for the government school problem (both cost and quality) as well.
written by Jack,CT, September 02, 2013
Mr Royal, Great read and yes we do owe
some gratitude to our previous generations.
I am the only one of seven kids to go further
than high school and I see the lobors of my
siblings and I see they work very hard and
do live the "American dream' as they worked very
hard to compensate for a "skills gap".
I admire the worker who will still do the work
that may pay the same as staying home and getting
"welfare.The huge amount of people that relize staying
on "Welfare' pays as much or more as a "real job"
will eventually catch up as prices will rise due to
a shortage of people to do the work!
I like all believe in "a safety net' but people have
to Climb Out of the net and get a Job!
Happy Labor day all!
written by Mack Hall, September 02, 2013
I submit that heavy industry is always the mainstay of a developed economy. We always need cars, railway stock, airplanes, washing machines, shovels, hammers, chainsaws, lumber, paint, pipes, minerals, oil -- the question is whether we will build or mine, or will other nations do so?

An economy cannot be based on selling fast-food and insurance to each other, suing each other, and sitting in offices and doing thinky-stuff.
written by Mack Hall, September 02, 2013
Oh, Sue, you ARE the "government school." Democracy, remember? But do you ever vote in your local school board election? Did you vote in the national elections last November? Only about 50% of the electorate votes in national elections, and almost no one votes in the even more important elections, for the trustees who govern schools.
written by Rich in MN, September 02, 2013
"This takes us back to still other important features of Catholic social thought, especially the importance of families in forming children in the virtues necessary to participate in society, including the economy."

Bullseye. Last night,I watched a video on my local EWTN affiliate in which Scott Hahn was discussing the "Our Father." One of the most disconcerting moments was when Scott was relating about how, years earlier, he was asked to be part of an evangelization team for an urban mission. He was told by one of the leaders not to talk about God as "Father" because virtually no one in that area had any positive conception of the role of "father." Scott was quite confused until he found out that, of the 250 people to whom they were evangelizing, a grand total of TWO came from an intact nuclear family -- and those two were brother and sister.
(Epilogue: The 'controversy' of addressing God as Father did get resolved when Scott pushed for the idea that these people needed to heal of their wounds and cultivate a positive image of "father," and that the notion of God-as-Father would be a vehicle for this.)

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