Standing up for the worker: A matter of faith

J. A. Gray

This year, 2021, is the 130th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical letter Rerum Novarum (The Rights and Duties of Labor), the foundational document of modern Catholic teaching on the relations of employers and employees.

Pope Leo wrote: “Some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class: for the ancient workingmen’s guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place.”

Rerum Novarum criticized the errors and excesses of two diametrically opposed economic forces of the time—an unchecked capitalism and a totalizing socialism—and the letter went on to re-assert the natural right of humans to hold private property; then, it delineated the moral and ethical responsibilities that the right to property entails for the owner.

The agrarian age was giving way abruptly to the machine age, and the pope was urgently concerned for the welfare of workers in this new, rugged, and volatile epoch. (We are accustomed to calling this the “Industrial Revolution,” but in Pope Leo’s day it was a new name—coined in 1884, by a British historian—for the mechanical production processes that were rapidly reshaping nations and cultures.)

In this unprecedented new economy, replete with what Joseph Schumpeter would in 1942 call “creative destruction,” workers were seeking to find stability and equity, trying to resist being treated as commodities that were useful but disposable. The pope’s letter encouraged the formation of “societies for mutual help.” “The most important of all,” he wrote, “are workingmen’s unions.”

Instrumental in bringing Pope Leo’s social teaching to San Francisco in the 1890s was an archdiocesan priest named Peter Yorke. In confronting a local association of employers that had been formed explicitly to deny jobs to the Bay Area’s Catholics (who were an “inferior population” of unwelcome Irish and Italians), Father Yorke recognized that this cabal of the wealthy had a still deeper purpose: to disrupt any and all labor solidarity.

Father Yorke put it simply and forcefully: “The Pope says that the principle of unionism is good. The Employers’ Association says the principle of unionism is bad.” Through struggles that included historic strikes (some suppressed violently), Father Yorke and later Archbishop Edward Joseph Hanna preached the principles of Rerum Novarum and helped to establish the right of employees to organize in unions and to bargain collectively with employers.

Trade and labor unions in the San Francisco Bay Area have a long history. Many stretch back to the days of Pope Leo XIII and Father Yorke, and some are older still: The Carpenters Union Local 2236 (in Oakland) claims an institutional life of more than 160 years; the Bricklayers, Tilesetters and Allied Craftworkers Union Local 3 (in San Leandro) traces its lineage back to an international trade union founded in 1865. In California as a whole, labor union members in the workforce today (according to a 2020 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics) number more than 2,440,000.

Since Rerum Novarum in 1891, Catholic teaching on labor relations has been enriched by Pope Leo XIII’s successors, who have issued encyclicals inspired by their predecessor’s seminal document: On the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum Pope Pius XI wrote Quadragesimo Anno; on the 90th anniversary Pope John Paul II issued Laborem Exercens; and for its centenary in 1991 Pope John Paul II published Centesimus Annus.

Through the generations, popes speaking on behalf of the Catholic Church, addressing changed circumstances and novel challenges, have discerned with analytic clarity the elements of ethical ownership, moral stewardship, economic justice, and the common good; and have preached with humane objectivity the path to true human flourishing.

The 130 years since Rerum Novarum was published have taken us on a wild economic ride, through the initial Industrial Revolution and into the looming Artificial Intelligence Revolution. A continuing challenge, throughout this time of many revolutions, wars, depressions, upheavals and epochal advances in technology, has been the inexorable rise of automated work. Workers in some occupations have been replaced entirely or partly by robots; and some workers in our massive new processing centers and clearinghouses report that management tends to treat them as if they, too, were automatons.

In his 1981 letter Laborem Exercens (On Human Work), Pope John Paul II stated, with his characteristic boldness, several truths about work as a human occupation:

•          “Work is in the first place ‘for the worker’ and not the worker ‘for work.’ Work itself can have greater or lesser objective value, but all work should be judged by the measure of dignity given to the person who carries it out.”

•          “We must pay more attention to the one who works than to what the worker does. The self-realization of the human person is the measure of what is right and wrong.”

•          “Workers not only want fair pay, they also want to share in the responsibility and creativity of the very work process.”

•          “We must remember the priority of labor over capital: labor is the cause of production; capital, or the means of production, is its mere instrument or tool.”

That last statement is striking and suggestive. It reverses the priority that we might instinctively accord to capital (capital as master, labor as servant, or capital as leader, labor as follower). The pope declares bluntly that without labor, capital is merely inert matter. It’s a revelatory inversion.

This dictum of the pope’s also suggests that labor, which we tend to think of as a commodity (sellable by the hour) is more accurately thought of as an art. The responsible worker, using the skills appropriate to the task at hand—and even so-called ‘unskilled labor’ always involves skills—transforms an inert block of capital into a finished, useful, saleable, perhaps even admirable work of human ingenuity. The pope suggests that even the most obscure laborer should be considered an artisan, an artist, and an indispensable contributor.

In his poem “Pied Beauty,” the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 – 1889), thanking God for the beauties of creation, has a single line encapsulating the universal beauty of labor and of hard work done well. He writes, ‘Glory be to God for… All trades, their gear and tackle and trim.’

To which let the Church say, Amen. But if there is poetry in labor, there is also prayer, as we Catholics should be well aware. Let us remember always what St. Benedict told his monks 15 centuries ago, that “To work is to pray; to pray is to work”:

Laborare est orare, orare est laborare.

J. A. Gray is a writer and editor, and most recently served as Communication Manager for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.