Human Work Today

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