For an American Catholic, one of the gratifying things about Labor Day is that it comes in September. In much of the rest of the world, it’s celebrated in May. And instead of affirming the dignity of free working men and women, has been traditionally used to tout something closer to Marxist views of the revolutionary “worker” and worker collectives. Our American bishops played a crucial role in the nineteenth century in convincing the Vatican that workers and free labor unions could be instruments of a just social order – not the anti-Christian forces they often were and are in Europe. In America, workers showed different possibilities. And the proper place of workers and unions was carefully analyzed and partly shaped by American realities in the founding document of modern Catholic social teaching, Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum.
This may all seem like ancient history and faintly silly to Catholics and others today who assume that there is nothing necessarily anti-religious in associations of laborers. In continental Europe, however, large numbers of workers were swept by their economic struggles into materialism, atheism, and opposition to the Church (where they remain). This made the Vatican justifiably nervous. But that did not happen in America. One reason was the Knights of Labor, in the 1880s the largest union in the country and largely Catholic. Still, there were priests and bishops who wondered about Catholics belonging to such associations.
It took the collaboration of Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore and Terence Powderly, a Catholic and president of the Knights, to reassure Rome that groups like the Knights served the Catholic vision of a just social order. The Vatican gave its approval to Catholic membership in the Knights in 1888. Three years later in Rerum Novarum, Leo put forward the standard Catholic view ever since of the relationship between Capital and Labor: they are not opposed to each other, but different parts of a social whole, each with rights and obligations.
Leo XIII knew the temptations towards socialism as a means of remedying social inequalities brought on by the early part of the industrial revolution. But as he put it, socialist contentions “are so clearly powerless to end the controversy that were they carried into effect the working man himself would be among the first to suffer.” A century later, the Polish union Solidarnosc under the leadership of Lech Walesa and with the support of a working man who had become pope, John Paul II, helped put an end to a century of problems that Leo quite clearly foresaw.
Still, more than twenty years after Leo wrote, Catholics like Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton believed Capitalism would lead to compulsory labor and the “servile state.” There were only two alternatives, they thought. Socialism might be tried, which had negative features such as State confiscation of private property – the bulwark of freedom for individuals and families. The only other alternative was what they called Distributism, the wide redistribution of ownership of the means of production to large numbers of ordinary workers.
Distributism never became much of a social movement anywhere, though it continues to elicit interesting proposals among admirers of Belloc and Chesterton today. Somewhere along the way, however, one of the goals of Distributism, substantial participation of the workers in the benefits of modern economic production and even in business decisions, was worked out more along the lines of co-operation between Capital and Labor that Leo suggested (with no small number of struggles and violent clashes, of course). Capital and Labor both cause problems at times – just look around. But history has essentially confirmed Leo’s judgment.
We have never had much of an itch for collectivism in this country. Even government programs that move in that direction – there have been plenty in recent decades – cannot change the basic orientation towards liberty built into our American ethos. In fact, we Catholics in America still have ahead of us a different kind of hard labor: getting other Americans (and many of our co-religionists) to understand that the Church’s teaching about solidarity and the inter-personal nature of all human life is different both from American individualism and European collectivism.
We only flourish as persons within solid families, neighborhoods, communities. That used to be a common assumption, even among American Protestants. Yet many Americans, including Catholics, today bridle at the notion that we need anything more than freedom, understood in the sense of economic opportunities, or personal autonomy, understood as an unbridled right to do whatever we wish.
We need economic and personal liberty, but we also need a better understanding – along the lines that Leo set us on and our American tradition once reinforced – that liberty is not license. It has moral and social dimensions. At the same time, the common good is so far from collectivism that, properly understood, its concern for subsidiarity and other social actors besides the state is the virtual opposite of what most people think of as collectivism. It would be good, for example, if Catholics could inject terms like common good, solidarity, subsidiarity, person into the current conversation about health care. It’s hard to say, but it might change what otherwise seems a quite predictable debate.
Every society has to constantly renew its understanding of these matters, because social life is always throwing up new challenges and we all have a tendency to run after novelties and forget tested principles. On this Labor Day 2009, it’s a good idea to remind ourselves of our rich and tested tradition – American and Catholic – and what it is that all our labor is for.
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