The Dignity Of Labor
Published: September 13, 2012
This is Labor Day weekend—so all should look happy and be content.
Sadly that is not so for millions of our people. At this time there are 12 million workers looking for a job. Over 10 million families are “working poor”—they work hard, but their pay does not meet their basic needs. Forty million U.S. people live in poverty, and over 16 million children grow up poor in our nation. (USCCB, Labor Day 2012)
I don’t wish to blunt your Labor Day festivities or sound like a killjoy. Rather, I presume that you are like me and feel deeply about the plight of so many—so many in poverty and out of work in the richest nation on the planet. And even though we hear much about the economy in the current political debates, little is being said about the moral imperative to overcome pervasive poverty in a nation blessed with so much.
You and I, and all who take God’s word seriously, know that our Heavenly Father wants all his children to have the basic necessities for life and happiness. Jesus himself said: “I came that they may have life and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10).
St. James, following in the tradition of the Divine Master, says: “Religion that is pure before God is this: to care for orphans and widows and those afflicted” (Jas 1:27). In the Bible the terms “orphans” and “widows” are generic words representing all the poor and disadvantaged of the land. So let us think about our Catholic take on labor and the working person.
The great Pope Leo XIII was the first to clarify the Church’s teaching on labor and the working person. His historic encyclical letter of 1892 confirmed our teachings on the meaning and place of work in Catholicism. That encyclical, written at a time of brutal child labor practice and worker’s abuse, was a primal call to respect workers’ rights. Ever since, the Church has followed a policy of standing up for the working person. Why?– Because God created us to work. God’s intention is spelled out in the Book of Genesis. There, work is a way of participation in creation. – Work is “good.” The Catechism says: Work honors the gifts and talents received from God. (CCC # 2427) – Every kind of work links us to the labors and suffering of Christ. He too labored. … He is our “way” to the Father.
We hold that the rights of workers are keyed to the dignity of the person. The overriding principle on which we base our teachings is: the innate dignity of the human person.
More and more Catholics are coming around to fully understanding that principle. When Pope John Paul II issued his encyclical on life in 1995, he said: “The dignity of all human life must be respected—even the life of the convicted criminal on death row.”
We strongly support family life because family life sustains the worker, and the worker feeds the family. Marriage and family are clearly defined in Holy Scripture as: one man and one woman forever. That is the way God planned it. No other union can be called marriage as defined in the Bible. The traditional family makes the best home for working parents.
I grew up in a home of eight children and two parents. It was a struggle economically but also a great learning experience. We learned team play without ever going to the football field. We learned authority from parents who led us with firmness and conviction. Two of us were blessed with the gift of a religious vocation, mainly through the prayers of a mother who every night knelt down in profound prayer for her family. We all learned to work recognizing that all results depended on God.
Our labors should always be God-oriented. Neither wealth nor any form of capitalism can ever be our ultimate objective. We are here in this world to know, love and serve God and neighbor, so as to gain everlasting presence with God in heaven.
At this time there is much talk about the need for a national economic renewal. Catholic teaching says: any renewal must put workers and their families at the center of economic life. Work is more than a paycheck; it helps raise our families, develops our potential, shares in God’s creation, and contributes to the common good.
“Nor are words alone enough … words lack weight unless they are accompanied by personal responsibility and effective action” (Octogesima Adveniens, no. 48, Pope Paul VI).
That is what James says in the second reading: “Be doers of the word and not merely listeners.”
The two men contending to be U.S. vice president are Catholic. We should pray for them. We should pray for all this Labor Day weekend … for the courage and wisdom to stand up and speak out for our creeds and teachings. Our Church, which was the first to honor the dignity of work and the worker, still has much to offer in achieving a just and functioning society—one where there is justice and fairness for all who labor, and their families.
Father John Kieran is the pastor of St. Pius X Church, Conyers. This was his homily on Sunday, Sept. 2.