Labor Day highlights struggle for justice

By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
Families have been receiving a lot of attention recently in the Catholic World. The Extraordinary Synod on the family will reconvene in the Fall, and during the traditional Wednesday audience at Saint Peter’s, Pope Francis is offering a catechesis on the family. In his encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis teaches that of all the groups that play a role in the welfare of society and help ensure respect for human dignity, “outstanding among [them] is the family, as the basic cell of society” (no. 157).
Therefore, this Labor Day, we have the opportunity to reflect on how dignified work with a living wage is critical to helping our families and our greater society thrive. In Laudato Si Pope Francis teaches that Labor should allow the worker to develop and flourish as a person. Work also must provide the means for families to prosper. “Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment” (no. 128). Dignity-filled work and the fruits of that labor nourish families, communities and the common good.
Last year Pope Francis canonized Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II. Both made immense contributions to the social teaching of the Church on the dignity of labor and its importance to human flourishing. St. John Paul II called work “probably the essential key to the whole social question” (Laborem Exercens, No. 3).  St. John XXIII stressed workers are “entitled to a wage that is determined in accordance with the precepts of justice” (Pacem in Terris, No. 20).
It is evident for those who have eyes to see that capitalism has reaped enormous benefits since our nation’s founding.  Many have a standard of living that is unimaginable in many parts of the world, that is due in large part to the natural resources of our great land, the liberty rooted in our constitution, entrepreneurship, creative genius, hard work and the desire to have a better life for our children. On the other hand, it is a checkered story when we consider the effects of unbridled greed, the Achilles heel of Capitalism. The environment too often has been pillaged and plundered, men and women have been crushed beneath the wheel, to borrow a phrase from the author, Herman Hesse, and poverty remains intractable in too many communities in our nation.
Each generation must recommit itself to a society that is more just and compassionate, at least if we are going to claim that we are part of God’s plan, furthering the divine mandate as co-workers on the earth, the jewel of creation. Is there any question that families in America are struggling today? Too many marriages bear the crushing weight of unpredictable schedules from multiple jobs, which make impossible adequate time for nurturing children, faith, and community.. Millions of children live in or near poverty in this country. Many of them are latch key kids, returning to empty homes every day as their working parents struggle to make ends meet. Moreover, couples intentionally delay marriage, as unemployment and substandard work make a vision of stable family life difficult to see.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami in his Labor Day Statement on behalf of the USCCB paints the following troubling picture: “The unemployment rate has declined, yet much of that is due to people simply giving up looking for a job, not because they have found full-time work. Do the majority of jobs provide sufficient wages, retirement benefits, stability or family security. Far too many families are stringing together part-time jobs to pay the bills. Opportunities for younger workers are in serious decline. The unemployment rate for young adults in America, at more than 13 percent, is more than double the national average (6.2 percent).  There are twice as many unemployed job seekers as there are available jobs, and that does not include the seven million part-time workers who want to work full-time. Millions more, especially the long-term unemployed, are discouraged and dejected.”
When the dignity of the person and the stability of families are strong motivators, and not greed, or an unsustainable profit margin, or the pressure from stockholders, points of light can endure, even in tough times. I was a pastor in the Pocono area of the Diocese of Scranton when the last recession hit hard.
One of the parishioners, a business owner, with a workforce of a couple of dozen men, shared with me in conversation that it was a struggle to secure sufficient contracts to keep his men working, but that was his primary goal. God had blessed him and he had sufficient wealth to live with confidence, as he reflected, and even if his business’s margin of profit took a big hit, he was going to make sure that his men could work and take care of their families.
He trusted that the economic downturn would come around. His trust was rooted in God and the dignity of the person. This ethic for living is a rarity in large businesses and multinational corporations, and this is what Pope Francis describes as the devil’s dung of capitalism in his recent visit to Ecuador, when profit obliterates the dignity of the human person.
Our challenge this Labor Day is to rise to the challenge of solidarity posed by Jesus when he commanded, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (Jn 13:34).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “Socio-economic problems can be resolved only with the help of all the forms of solidarity: solidarity of the poor among themselves, between rich and poor, of workers among themselves, between employers and employees in a business, solidarity among nations and peoples” (No. 1941). Since each of us is made in the image of God and bound by His love, possessing a profound human dignity, we have an obligation to love and honor that dignity in one another, and especially in our work.
At their best, labor unions and institutions like them embody solidarity and subsidiarity while advancing the common good. They help workers “not only have more, but above all be more… [and] realize their humanity more fully in every respect” (Laborem Exercens, No. 20).
Yes, unions and worker associations are imperfect, as are all human institutions. But the right of workers to freely associate is supported by Church teaching in order to protect workers and move them – especially younger ones, through mentoring and apprenticeships–into decent jobs with just wages.
We share one common home as part of a larger, single family, so the dignity of workers, the stability of families, and the health of communities are all intertwined. How can we advance God’s work, in the words of the Psalmist, as he “secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, [and] sets captives free” (Ps 146:7)?
These are difficult questions to ask, yet we must ask them. Individual reflection and action is critical. We are in need of a profound conversion of heart at all levels of our lives. Let us examine our choices, and demand for ourselves, and of one another spirits of gratitude, authentic relationship, and true concern.
May God bless the work of our hands, hearts, and minds.