This is part five in a series examining the seven themes of Catholic social teaching. Included are an article explaining the theme, a feature story highlighting the theme (see interview with three local Catholic professionals) and items for lesson planning.
By Don Clemmer | Catholic News Service
For people who prefer to keep their job and their faith separate, the Catholic Church poses a massive challenge. Catholic teaching simply does not see it that way. This isn’t about being a vocal believer at work, but about how work itself is an essential expression of human dignity.
The Church’s body of teaching on work and the dignity and rights of workers bridges from the very beginnings of our tradition to contemporary phenomena and the most cutting-edge advancements in society.
The Genesis creation stories depict God as working and proclaiming the fruits of labor good. Being able to work and delight in that meaningful creative process is part of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God. In his 1981 encyclical “Laborem Exercens,” St. John Paul II wrote that the Book of Genesis is the first “gospel of work” and that God also experienced work on earth as Jesus, a carpenter.
Work played a central role in birthing the entirety of modern Catholic social teaching. Pope Leo XIII’s landmark 1891 encyclical “Rerum Novarum” (“Of New Things”) addressed the challenges posed to working people and society overall by the Industrial Revolution.
He laid a foundation that reverberates through Catholic teaching to present day. What we would now call wage theft, Pope Leo XIII addressed with “To defraud any one of wages that are his due is a great crime which cries to the avenging anger of heaven.”
“Rerum Novarum” was so influential to Catholic thought that it sparked numerous “sequels” — subsequent popes applying the Gospel to other signs of their times. The teachings enshrined in these and other encyclicals are enumerated in the 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
This Vatican document describes work as a fundamental right and a good and that workers have certain rights. These include: the right to a just wage, to rest, to a safe work environment, to unemployment assistance, to senior pensions, to health care, to disability insurance, to parental leave and benefits, to organize and to strike.
These rights carry with them implications for how society should be structured, as well as what the church advocates for in the public square. The principles of Catholic social teaching not only describe how individuals, businesses, governments and religious institutions can live in balance, but also challenge everyone, individually and systemically, to work toward the common good in solidarity with one another.
Catholic social teaching exists to promote human flourishing, which is one of those knowit-when-you-see-it concepts. Or not see it, as the case may be.
A person who cannot work because no jobs are available is not flourishing. A person who has to work multiple jobs essentially nonstop just to get by is not flourishing. A young adult who has no health insurance because their employment consists of a patchwork of short-term, part-time gigs is not flourishing. A family that is technically meeting its need but also continually in a state of scarcity, insecurity and social marginalization is not flourishing.
The compendium states: “The economic well-being of a country is not measured exclusively by the quantity of goods it produces but also by taking into account the manner in which they are produced and the level of equity in the distribution of income” (No. 303).
Income inequality, a reality that has worsened precipitously in recent decades, has drawn criticism from church leaders. The U.S. Bishops’ 2013 Labor Day statement said that current imbalances “demand boldness in promoting a just economy … by creating jobs that pay a living wage and share with workers some profits of the company.”
Work is a sacred space for flourishing, not a backdrop for exploitation and abuse. More than a way to pay the bills or sustain ourselves, the Church challenges us to make work where we become who God always intended us to be, and in doing so, get to know him better. The God who labored to enjoy the fulfillment of his creation wants the same for all of us.
LESSON PLAN RESOURCES
The following were compiled by staff of the Diocese of St. Cloud.
Exploring the Scriptures
The Sabbath is for everyone — all are allowed to rest from their work. (Read Deuteronomy 5:13-15)
The Lord blesses our work so that we may share its fruits with others. (Read Deuteronomy 14:28-29)
Do not withhold wages from your workers, for their livelihood depends on them. (Read Deuteronomy 24:14-15)
To observe religious practices but oppress your workers is false worship. (Read Isaiah 58:3-7)
Woe to him who treats his workers unjustly. (Read Jeremiah 22:13)
All workers should be paid a just and living wage. (Read Matthew 20:1-16)
Practice integrity in your work. (Read Luke 3:10-14)
Those who become rich by abusing their workers have sinned against God. (Read James 5:1-6)
- What does “vocation” mean to you? Can any “job” be a vocation? How might you view different workers and positions differently if you see them as a vocation?
- The USCCB has stated “the economy must serve people, and not the other way around.” What does this mean to you? If we truly live this out, how might workplaces and work habits look different?
- How are you becoming who God intended you to be through your work? What have you learned about God through your work?
- The Greater MN Workers Center is an organization that helps low-wage and marginalized workers know their rights in the workplace and communicate for just treatment. Check them out and think of ways you can support workers in our communities. Website: www.mygmwc.org.
- Learn more about Heifer International at www.heifer.org/. This organization works to lift people out of poverty by helping them to obtain a living income.
- Pray. Spend time thinking about how God is calling you to help advocate for a just workplace that recognizes the dignity of all people.
- Do research on the rights of workers. Read some of the Church’s teachings over the years that discuss these issue.
- Look through your own company’s policy book. Are there policies that might benefit workers, particularly those with the least say, better? Are you in upper management? Speak up in these areas to help create real change.
FOR CHILDREN — PICTURE BOOKS
• “Side by Side/Lado a Lado: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez”/ “La Historia de Dolores Huerta y Cesar Chavez” by Monica Brown
• “A Chair for My Mother” by Vera B. Williams
• “Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909” by Michelle Markel
• “Henry’s Freedom Box” by Ellen Levine
• “Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type” by Doreen Cronin
FOR CHILDREN — CHAPTER BOOKS
• “Esperanza Rising” by Pam Muñoz Ryan
• “Bread and Roses Too” by Katherine Paterson
• “Lyddie” by Katherine Paterson
• “Uprising” by Margaret Peterson Haddix
• “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens
• “On the Condition of Labor and the Working Classes” by Pope Leo XIII
• “On Human Work” by Pope John Paul II
• “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich
• “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez” by Miriam Pawel