As the U.S. celebrates Labor Day, Catholics have a wealth of resources in biblical interpretation, Church teaching, and social thought that address the nature of work and the place of the worker in society and in God’s creation.
But do they use these resources?
One of the Catholic leaders considering such questions is Father Sinclair Oubre, a priest of the Diocese of Beaumont, Texas. He is the spiritual moderator of the Catholic Labor Network, a Catholic association that promotes Catholic teaching about work and labor unions. It also supports labor organizing.
“All work, no matter what the work is, is essential,” Oubre likes to say. In his view, if a woman in janitorial work at a major software company does not show up to clean the toilets and empty the trash, all production in the office will nosedive.
Centuries of Catholic teaching about labor can be found compiled in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published in 2004 by the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace. It dedicates its entire sixth chapter to human work and labor, its place in God’s plan, its role in society, and the rights and duties of workers.
“The Compendium gathers together in one place those rights that are found in Catholic social teaching, whether it’s Rerum Novarum or Quadragesimo Anno, or Centesimus Annus, and synthesizes them,” Oubre told CNA Sept. 1, referring to the respective encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII, Pius XI, and John Paul II.
“It’s a beautiful reflection on human work in the world and a very mature and in-depth discussion of the place of work, the place of labor, and the communal nature of it,” Oubre said.
Labor, politics, and spirituality
Oubre said Catholic teaching is a challenge regardless of people’s political views.
“It’s a challenge to the right, but it’s also a challenge to the left,” he said. Catholicism encourages those on the political right not simply to pray novenas and commit themselves to spiritual actions. It is a challenge not to leave other questions about work and labor to the market.
For the political left, Catholic social teaching “means you have to enter into a more intimate relationship with your Church and your relationship with Jesus and not just be as a social justice person by throwing a couple of little quotes around. It requires you to enter into that deeper spiritual relationship.”
Oubre stressed the importance of starting from the view of Catholic spirituality, not only social justice, because if we don’t, our approach “becomes ideological and polemic.” The spiritual approach “brings us closer to Jesus Christ.”
“No matter how dirty, how uncomfortable, how awful the job is, we are participating in God’s ongoing creation. It’s important that we do that job in a way that gives glory to God,” Oubre said.
God and man at work
The Compendium’s reflection on work begins with its biblical aspects: There is a human duty to “cultivate and care for the earth” and other good things created by God, it says. Work existed before the fall of Adam and Eve, and it is not a punishment or curse until the break with God transforms it into “toil and pain.” However, God’s rest on the seventh day of creation is the sign of the “fuller freedom” of the “eternal Sabbath.”
The life of Jesus Christ is a mission of work, from his early life helping St. Joseph in the work of a carpenter to his ministry of preaching and healing, and most of all in his redemptive labors on the cross.
The Compendium presents human labor as a way of supporting oneself and one’s loved ones, but also a way to serve the needy. Work is a way to make God’s creation more beautiful, since humankind shares in God’s art and wisdom.
“Human work, directed to charity as its final goal, becomes an occasion for contemplation, it becomes devout prayer, vigilantly rising towards and in anxious hope of the day that will not end,” the Compendium says.
The rights of labor
God’s rest on the seventh day of creation, the Compendium says, means men and women must enjoy “sufficient rest and free time that will allow them to tend to their family, cultural, social, and religious life.”
The Compendium outlines and explains the many rights of workers: the right to rest from work; the right to a working environment that is not harmful to a worker’s health or moral integrity; the right to unemployment protections; the right to a pension and insurance for old age, disability, and work-related accidents; the right to social security for working mothers; and the right to assemble and form associations; the right to just wages and remuneration; and the right to strike.
Labor unions play a “fundamental role” in serving the common good and promoting social order and solidarity, though they must not abuse their role in society or become simply arms of a political party.
“The recognition of workers’ rights has always been a difficult problem to resolve because this recognition takes place within complex historical and institutional processes, and still today it remains incomplete,” the Compendium says. “This makes the practice of authentic solidarity among workers more fitting and necessary than ever.”
A challenge for Catholics and institutions
Catholic teaching has a lengthy paper record. But as in other areas, there is a challenge to practice it.
“What I find over and over again that the Church — our Church — gives us wonderful documents of guidance… and we never go back and read them,” Oubre told CNA.
He cited the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 1996 pastoral letter Economic Justice for All, which said that the Church should be a model for labor rights and treating workers justly.
However, Oubre said that in his experience Catholic parishes often neglect to provide unemployment insurance to employees if the law allows them to opt out. Catholic institutions often act as “at-will” employers in which management can fire employees for any reason. They may show preferences for non-union labor over unionized labor when planning and funding construction projects.
“You’re going to undercut the guy who has actually followed the Church’s teachings in regards to work by hiring somebody who may be not offering medical insurance for his employees,” the priest lamented.
For Labor Day, Oubre encouraged parishes, dioceses, and other institutions to make sure to adopt policies that put Catholic labor teaching into practice.