Labor Day 2010

It may just be a personal quirk, or maybe it’s native to American culture, but I always feel a bit ambivalent about our public holidays. We are the oldest existing democracy, yet have no deep common history. Waves of immigrants have shown us to be as welcoming a society as any in history. And we have touted openness as a great virtue – though sometimes turning it into the vice of denigrating the principles that make openness possible. The result, however, is that our commemorations of Independence or our war dead or the Founders are genuine, but in my mind, which retains the family habits of immigrants in all directions, somehow also a little forced.

The problem, I think, is that our politics have become a substitute for a common faith. There’s a reason why latter-day Greek temples to Jefferson and Lincoln, great though both men were, exist in Washington. They are at least secular patron saints, and maybe more. There’s no little ambivalence in this dimension of our culture. And perhaps that’s why Labor Day is a bit less off-putting than other holidays. It’s much closer to earth.

Politicians, of course, instinctively try to exploit “the American people” and “workers.” Think what Volk and Arbeit meant in Nazism, or in Communism’s attempted justifications of its crimes. We’re not there by a long shot, but the price of freedom is vigilance.

Last Labor Day, I mentioned here how the Catholic Knights of Labor convinced the Vatican that labor unions could be true representatives of workers and not, as they were usually in Europe, socialist or communist. Leo XIII prophetically remarked in Rerum Novarum (1891), the first great encyclical of modern Catholic social doctrine, that if socialism came to power, the workers themselves would be “the first to suffer.”  

Workers here have generally not been co-opted into such ideological struggles and, therefore, offer a different model to the world. Significantly, the Church in America did not lose the workers as she did in other historically Christian countries. The reasons are complex, also having to do with social stratification and history. But I’ve begun to wonder whether the Church, especially in Europe, bears some blame as well, even among its best representatives.

This summer, I read some of Joseph Pieper’s essays about leisure, work, and contemplation with professors drawn from Catholic colleges and universities at seminars sponsored by the Faith & Reason Institute (the parent organization of The Catholic Thing). Pieper is one of the great modern Catholic philosophers and repays reading and re-reading. Right after World War II, he warned Europe about overvaluing labor and undervaluing the contemplative virtues of the Christian tradition, which tell us what our labors are for.

He invoked the old distinction, going back to Aristotle, between servile work, work undertaken for a practical goal or for others, and things we do for their own sake. (If you are old enough, you learned this distinction in the Baltimore Catechism.)

Pieper was renewing a deep tradition, but this year, something moved me to partial dissent. In a non-Christian perspective, work done to serve others may be associated with slaves, not free people. But is that true in a Christian perspective? When we serve others, even in ordinary ways, are we descending to servitude or ascending to the service of true freedom?

Given the way that the Sabbath rest has disappeared, we can’t deny the need for greater contemplation. But is that the whole story? It just may be that in the European relegation of honest work to inferior status – something clericalists have unsuccessfully tried here – some in the Church have contributed to the alienation of Catholics whose vocations lie in the world and not in contemplation as traditionally understood.

John Paul II, a workingman in his youth, labored to bring a different balance to this question. He rejected the ideological exploitation of “the workers” even as he praised the activity of all of us at the “universal workbench.”

It’s important for a Catholic to understand what this means – and does not. It certainly does not claim that human activity, finally, redeems us – an ancient heresy known as Pelagianism. That’s a special temptation in this country, which puts a high value on human work. President Obama recently redecorated the Oval Office and one quotation he chose to display is this from our poorly educated Catholic, President John F. Kennedy: “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”

This is an absurdity not only from an orthodox theological perspective – as if we don’t need God – but it’s sheer nonsense even in human terms. It is work carried out as part of God’s order, the command to tend the Garden even before the Fall made labor harsh, that gets the grace to achieve true success.

At the moment, lots of people are out of work because of foolish economic practices, some bordering on the criminal. As you may have noticed, attempts to remedy this situation by the self-confident graduates of our most prestigious universities have had little or no effect – and perhaps even inhibited recovery. In several ways, this is good because it reminds us we are not masters of human history.

But as we celebrate today all the labor that made this country great, let us put away the small-minded egoism masquerading as patriotism that tries to convince us that we’re a great nation because we’re great individuals. America is a great nation because God has shed his grace on us, individually and as a society, through no merit of our own, enabling us to enjoy the fruits of our labor and the blessings of freedom. These two great goods are in peril just now for many reasons, but not least because some of us have foolishly come to believe, contrary to our own best American tradition, that we can secure them without acknowledging their true source and purpose.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.