Labor Rights

Tuesday, May 13, 2003



During Lent, I went to a series of talks on the Church's social justice teachings at a near-by parish. One of the talks was by a Father Thomas Massaro, S.J., who neatly summarized the last 100 plus years of Catholic social teaching into 9 principles.

The nine principles are outlined in a book he wrote called, Living Justice: Catholic Social Teaching in Action. In the table of contents, he lists the principles as follows:

1) The Dignity of Every Person and Human Rights
2) Solidarity, Common Good, and Participation
3) Family Life
4) Subsidiarity and the proper role of Government
5) Property Ownership in Modern Society: Rights and Responsibilities
6) The Dignity of Work, Rights of Workers, and Support for Labor Unions
7) Colonialism and Economic Development
8) Peace and Disarmament
9) Option for the Poor and Vulnerable

When I first started writing, I was going to define and defend all of these principles. However, it was turning very long as I combed through sources to find the supporting documentary evidence that the Church actually does take a theological stand on certain political and economic principles.

So, I decided to give it to you all in pieces over time.

Where I should start is with the dignity of the human person, and I will provide some quotes on that below. I also found some great quotes from Gudium et Spes on the very idea of political theology and social justice. Yet, I dedicate this first reflection on social justice to the rights of workers - since I presume most of us have jobs, and this is what we care about most.

We cannot simply pay lip-service to social justice

Yet there are those who, while professing grand and rather noble sentiments, nevertheless in reality live always as if they cared nothing for the needs of society. Many in various places even make light of social laws and precepts, and do not hesitate to resort to various frauds and deceptions in avoiding just taxes or other debts due to society. Others think little of certain norms of social life, for example those designed for the protection of health,?.(Guadium et Spes no. 29)

Anyone else thinking Enron???? What about health care reform in that last phrase?

Therefore, while we are warned that it profits a man nothing if he gain the whole world and lose himself, the expectation of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for cultivating this one. For here grows the body of a new human family, a body which even now is able to give some kind of foreshadowing of the new age. (Guadium et Spes no. 39)

I had a professor in seminary who stated it something like this: We hope for a new heaven and a new earth. We hope for eternal life in the fullness of God's reign. Yet, Christ's first words were often "The reign of God is at hand". In the person of Jesus Christ, the reign of God is already breaking into the world, and his mission continues in the Church.

While we wait for the fullness of the reign of God, we work for the fullness of the reign of God.

It happens not through revolution, but through evolution as the gospel takes deeper root in our lives and spills over from an inner conversion to private morality to social justice.

Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other. The Christian who neglects his temporal duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation. (Guadium et Spes no. 43)

I am reminded here of the words attributed to Saint Paul: "The one who will not work, should not eat". (1 Thess 3:8) We are called to work for justice, and failure to respond to that calling puts our slavation at jeopardy.

OK. We should have established with this that the Church is saying social justice and being Christian go hand in hand....Now let's look briefly at the very first principles of social justice:

The Dignity of the Human Person:

From The Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1878 All men are called to the same end: God himself. There is a certain resemblance between the unity of the divine persons and the fraternity that men are to establish among themselves in truth and love. Love of neighbor is inseparable from love for God.

In the incarnation, God is saying to us to stop looking for him in the heavens or in some form of navel gazing private spirituality. This is not to say that prayer and contemplation are not necessary. However, love of God is always expressed through love of neigbor.

This notion is rooted in the very Trinitarian life of God. God, in her deepest nature, is a community of persons. According to Genesis, we are created in the image of God! It is as "persons" that we image God. The philosophical category of "personhood" is distinct from being in that it is an identity formed and completed in relationship. In our personal relationships, we come to image the divine!

1881 Each community is defined by its purpose and consequently obeys specific rules; but "the human person . . . is and ought to be the principle, the subject and the end of all social institutions."

The incomparable value of the human person is revealed in the incarnation (see EV 3, by JP II). By proclaiming that God became a man, Christianity is the ultimate form of humanism. At teh center of all Catholic social teaching is the notion that all collective bodies of people - all institutions - are aimed at serving the human person!

Now let's dive right into labor rights....

The Dignity of Work

Throughout the course of the centuries, men have labored to better the circumstances of their lives through a monumental amount of individual and collective effort. To believers, this point is settled: considered in itself, this human activity accords with God's will. For man, created to God's image, received a mandate to subject to himself the earth and all it contains, and to govern the world with justice and holiness; a mandate to relate himself and the totality of things to Him Who was to be acknowledged as the Lord and Creator of all. Thus, by the subjection of all things to man, the name of God would be wonderful in all the earth. (Guadium et Spes no. 34)

Our work allows us to fulfill the command of genesis to go into the world and exercise stewardship with all of creation. Work, whether at home or on the job, is the place where we give expression to saving grace infused in our souls. It provides the opportunity to develop our character, test our morals, exercise creativity, and God by serving others. Even in the mundane tasks of working an assembly line, we are fullfilling a service to ourselves and society, and thus serving the God who immersed himself entirely in our condition!

The Rights of Workers


By his labor a man ordinarily supports himself and his family, is joined to his fellow men and serves them, and can exercise genuine charity and be a partner in the work of bringing divine creation to perfection. Indeed, we hold that through labor offered to God man is associated with the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, Who conferred an eminent dignity on labor when at Nazareth He worked with His own hands. From this there follows for every man the duty of working faithfully and also the right to work. It is the duty of society, moreover, according to the circumstances prevailing in it, and in keeping with its role, to help the citizens to find sufficient employment. (Guadium et Spes no. 67)

While no specific of a "right to work" is explicitly made in this passage, the final point is that society has a duty - an obligation - to help its citizens find sufficient employment.

I think this is an important point in an age of lay-offs. Corporate bodies cannot solely look at balance sheets in considering work-force planning. Certainly, the Church is not suggesting that every business run as a non-profit organization. However, we all know that some companies maximize profit beyond "fairness" by reducing labor costs.

The Church says that we, as a global community, must all work together to see that gainful employment is available to everyone. Even when lay-offs are necessary, corporations should probably help those laid off to find new employment.


Finally, remuneration for labor is to be such that man may be furnished the means to cultivate worthily his own material, social, cultural and spiritual life and that of his dependents, in view of the function and productiveness of each one, the conditions of the factory or workshop, and the common good. (Guadium et Spes no. 67)

WOW! This goes beyond the notion of a minimum wage. The Church is stating that just renumeration of labor means that a worker has a right to a "living wage" that will support the worker, and his or her dependents!!!!

We should also bear in mind that even in the middle ages, defrauding a worker of his or her wages was considered a sin that cried to heaven for vengeance!

On the other hand, the right of having a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one's family belongs to everyone. (Guadium et Spes no. 69)


Applying their time and strength to their employment with a due sense of responsibility, they should also all enjoy sufficient rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social and religious life. (Guadium et Spes no. 68)

The Church favors the old "blue laws" that closed most businesses on the Sabbath. Likewise, people have a right to adequate time off from work to devlelop the full human person - meaning perhaps that the American "work-aholic" attitude of putting in 50, 60, and even 70 hours per week with only two weeks vacation might be wrong!


In economic enterprises it is persons who are joined together, that is, free and independent human beings created to the image of God. Therefore, with attention to the functions of each - owners or employers, management or labor - and without doing harm to the necessary unity of management, the active sharing of all in the administration and profits of these enterprises in ways to be properly determined is to be promoted. (Gudium et Spes no. 68)

I think the trend of companies offering stock options is a move in the right direction in America. When workers feel they have part ownership of the enterprise, it helps motivate everyone to work together to what it takes to stay in business.


Among the basic rights of the human person is to be numbered the right of freely founding unions for working people. These should be able truly to represent them and to contribute to the organizing of economic life in the right way. Included is the right of freely taking part in the activity of these unions without risk of reprisal. (Gudium et Spes no. 68)

This last point has always been a hard sell to American business owners, and the industry where I work is almost completely non-unionized these days. Nevertheless, the Church has been strong proponent of the right to form labor unions for a very long time. This does not mean that the individual worker must exercise this right. However, it is morally wrong of business owners and politicians to resist the formation of unions.

There is probably much more to the Church's teaching on labor and labor rights, but this should be enough to pique people's curiosity.

Frequently, when I discuss politics with conservative American Catholics, especially if they also happen to be Republicans, I find that they are unaware that I am often arguing from principles stated in the Roman Catholic tradition. These principles, in turn, are based on centuries of tradition, Sacred Scripture, and sound reasoning by people like Saint Thomas Aquinas.

It surprises me sometimes how conservative American Catholics will often try to squash all withholding of assent on issues like women's ordination, but then turn and disagree openly with the pope on social justice issues. I knwo a good many conservative Catholics who openly question the Church on support of labor unions.

At the same time, I don't want to paint the picture that all Republicans are going to hell. The Catholic social tradition does hold to some values I hope to discuss in later postings that are consistent with Republican values.

For example, we support the right to own private property and earn a fair profit. We support a principle of subsidiarity which says issues should be settled at the lowest level necessary. For example, this principle could be applied to say that our 50 states should assume responsibility for what they can handle better than the federal government. The Church is all for financial accountability and responsibility, and promoting business ethics. We support family values and are very pro-life. In these issues, a person can defintely be a Catholic Republican.

Yet, the Church is more "liberal" than political conservatives in many of her teachings. We'll explore this more as we hopefully come to other issues, such as the common good, Church teaching regarding the responsibility of developed nations to developing nations, international organizations (like the U.N.), principles such as socialization, solidarity, and participation, and the Church teachings on peace and disarmament - even in light of the threat of terrorism. On these issues, as well as support for a living wage and labor unions, a person can be a good Catholic Democrat.

We see above that the Church supports labor unions as a God-given right. She supports not only a minimum wage, but a living wage for the worker, and his (or her ) family!!!! She considers that people have a right to work (meaning we need to be careful of laying people off), and the Church teaches that work is dignified, though we need adequate time off from work.

On this point about the dignity fo work, I have not hesisitated to ask my direct reports in a secular corporation to consider how our work is a vocation. I challenge them to keep before their eyes how we provide a service to others (that actually aligns with a corporal work of mercy). I even ask them to consider why God, fate, or their higher power has led them to my team.

But I also recognize that with my mangerial role comes a responsibility to humanize the try to keep jobs safe and to ensure people my people are paid as fairly as possible, treated with respect, given opportunities for personal development and career mobility, and so forth. I am sure I could do better, but I do sincerely try.

In some respects, I consider it enlightened self-interest. I believe that if I take care of my team, they will will produce superior results for me, and the company will profit. Yet, what I try to do day-by-day to the best of my ability (given corporate restraints) is also the teaching of the Church.

Let me close with this thought about about workers:

The fundamental finality of this production is not the mere increase of products nor profit or control but rather the service of man (Gudium et Spes no. 64)

We must be careful not to see employees as a mere ends to a means. Each employee is a human person with incomparable dignity revealed through the incarnation (see EV 3). The work of an employee helps to develop the person and provides a service to society. Our goal is not mere profit, but the building up of the whole human family. Our work should aim to do this.

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at


posted by Jcecil3 3:08 PM

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Weblog Commenting by