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Still the Church of the Workingman


Mark Gordon - published on 08/31/14

The bishops have once again reaffirmed the Church’s teaching on the dignity of work.

On this Labor Day, the Catholic bishops of the United States have once again reaffirmed the universal Church’s teaching on the dignity of work and the rights of workers, and called for economic and social reforms that will make that teaching a concrete reality in lives of millions.

Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, was the author of this year’s Labor Day statement. In it, he said that “Labor Day gives us the chance to see how work in America matches up to the lofty ideals of our Catholic tradition.” Although some American workers had found a respite in the slowly recovering national economy, “Digging a little deeper, however, reveals enduring hardship for millions of workers and their families.”

Archbishop Wenski points out that the poverty rate is still high, the economy is not producing enough quality jobs, there are two unemployed workers for every available job, and millions more part-time workers who would rather be working full-time.

But the bishop’s major concern is young people. “The unemployment rate for young adults in America, at over 13 percent, is more than double the national average (6.2 percent),” he writes. “For those fortunate enough to have jobs, many pay poorly.”

The statement goes on to link poor employment prospects among young people to the tumbling marriage rate in the United States. “Among young adults, the decline in marriage has been steeper [than the general population], at 40 percent,” the archbishop writes. “Although not the only reason, many young adults, because they are unable to find decent work, are delaying marriage and starting a family.”

The archbishop also invokes the Catholic tradition of strong support for organized labor. “At their best,” he writes, “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.”

Since the late 19th Century, the Catholic Church in the United States has been a staunch advocate for labor unions, especially in the industrial sector. Conscious that the waves of Catholic, working class immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland, and elsewhere needed the Church to be their voice, generations of American priests and bishops worked closely with labor leaders to roll back exploitative practices and bring some measure of justice to the lives and labor of working people.

They were informed by Pope Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum,” the founding document of modern Catholic Social Teaching, and exemplified by so-called “labor priests” like Monsignor Jack Ryan,Fr. John Hayes, Msgr. George Higgins, and the Jesuits Philip Carey and John “Pete” Corridan, made famous by Karl Malden’s portrayal of him in “On the Waterfront.”

These priests and the countless Catholic laymen and women inspired by them helped to organize steel workers, longshoremen, miners, auto and farm workers, and every other trade. They acted as the conscience of labor, fighting corruption within unions themselves and, perhaps most importantly, checking the radicalism that always threatened to infect the movement. That the United States never gave birth to a credible Communist movement among the working classes is largely due to the counter-influence of the Catholic Church, its social teaching, and the “labor priests.”

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