Making It Work

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 books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.