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Why the Catholic Church Is So Liberal On Labor

Chicago’s archbishop directly addressed a just wage and right-to-work laws as the city and state both struggle with labor. They’re topics of the moment, but grounded in a long history.

Archbishop Blase Cupich, left, is applauded by Gov. Bruce Rauner as he gets up to speak at an immigration reform panel hosted by Illinois Business Immigration Coalition on Monday Mar. 9, 2015 at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago.   Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

This week, Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich, the leader of the city’s Catholics in a time of intense transition, threw himself into the political arena with what the State Journal-Register’s Bernard Schoenburg called “a ringing defense of the labor movement.” And not just labor generally—the right of both public and private sector workers to unionize, and specifically right-to-work laws, as expressed directly in his speech:

For example in view of present day attempts to enact so-called right-to-work laws the Church is duty bound to challenge such efforts by raising questions based on longstanding principles. We have to ask, “Do these measures undermine the capacity of unions to organize, to represent workers and to negotiate contracts? Do such laws protect the weak and vulnerable?

Do they promote the dignity of work and the rights of workers? Do they promote a more just society and a more fair economy? Do they advance the common good?”

Lawmakers and others may see it differently, but history has shown that a society with a healthy, effective and responsible labor movement is a better place than one where other powerful economic interests have their way and the voices and rights of workers are diminished.

A ringing defense—but perhaps not a surprising one. The defense of labor is not just part of church teachings, but it’s an old element of church doctrine (in the context of the labor movement, if not necessarily the Catholic Church).

Pope Francis’s arrival in the United States this week has inspired some dramatic hand-wringing, perfectly satired by The Onion, on the part of the press about his statements on capitalism. Cupich certainly cited Pope Francis on the subject of a “just wage,” but pointed to where the Catholic Church’s explicit support of “the right to a living wage, the right to safe work places, the right to health care, and the need to provide for retirement” begins: in an 1891 encyclical from Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum.

“It made my heart go pitter-patter,” says Adrienne Alexander, about hearing Cupich’s citation of the work. She’s a policy and legislative specialist at AFSCME, named “Best Young Political Lobbyist” by the Chicago Reader in 2013, and a Catholic whose father worked for the archdiocese of both Atlanta and Washington, D.C. “It’s so central. It’s always cited in the bishops’ Labor Day talks. It’s foundational.”

Rerum Novarum is an explicitly political document, and a work of political theory, meant to respond both to the labor conditions at the peak of the Industrial Revolution and the socialists who were challenging them. And it threads a middle course. It condemns the centralization of the power of capital in no uncertain terms: “the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself. ”

But it defends the concept of private property as the foundation of a capitalist system as well, as fundamental to existence (“we have further proof that private ownership is in accordance with the law of nature") and as divined in the Bible (“The authority of the divine law adds its sanction, forbidding us in severest terms even to covet that which is another’s").

To balance these interests, Pope Leo XIII emphasized the importance of unions as the natural successor to guilds, even putting their importance over the responsibilities of the state:

In these and similar questions, however - such as, for example, the hours of labor in different trades, the sanitary precautions to be observed in factories and workshops, etc. - in order to supersede undue interference on the part of the State, especially as circumstances, times, and localities differ so widely, it is advisable that recourse be had to societies or boards such as We shall mention presently, or to some other mode of safeguarding the interests of the wage-earners; the State being appealed to, should circumstances require, for its sanction and protection.

This is how Denmark currently maintains high wages in its fast food industry—there is no legal minimum wage requirement, but the country’s largest union has set the minimum fast-food wages at $20 an hour.

When Pope Francis came to Washington, one of the privileged few to get an invite to the White House was someone who is far from privileged: Adriana Alvarez, a single mother from Cicero and a leader in the just-wage Fight for $15 movement. A just wage is also one of the key precepts of Rerum Novarum, in an exceptionally forward-thinking way:

If a workman’s wages be sufficient to enable him comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his children, he will find it easy, if he be a sensible man, to practice thrift, and he will not fail, by cutting down expenses, to put by some little savings and thus secure a modest source of income.

In other words, making a comfortable living—for a family—makes it easier to be more responsible with money, not less. This is what the behavioral economist Sendhil Mullainathan and the psychologist Eldar Shafir found when they collaborated on Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means Too Much. The irresponsible behaviors we often associate with the poor, and use to blame the poor for being poor, can originate from poverty instead of the other way around: “qualities often considered part of someone’s basic character—impulsive behavior, poor performance in school, poor financial decisions—may in fact be the products of a pervasive feeling of scarcity. And when that feeling is constant, as it is for people mired in poverty, it captures and compromises the mind.”

When Pope Francis addressed Congress yesterday, Susie Madrak said that he described “what the church calls a ’seamless garment’ of social justice.” Something Alexander said reflected that. The Pope touched (subtly) on the rights of the unborn and (not subtly at all) on the abolition of the death penalty. But the stuff of everyday life, and everyday politics, was there too, as it usually is, even if it doesn’t get the same attention.

“Being rooted in the church, coming from a family of labor folks, the idea of pro-life is a really frustrating one for me,” Alexander says. “I felt like people were willing to talk about it when it came to abortion—one of the things my dad covered every year was the pro-life march, and that thing was so huge. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the death penalty, we didn’t really talk about it. But even less so, the stuff in the middle. Like, what does it mean to be ‘pro-life’? What kind of life does that mean? It’s all in the Bible. It’s all in church teaching. But somehow it got muddied for a lot of people. So it was very clear to me that the work I was interested in, the issues I was interested in, aligns with my faith.”

Cupich’s speech also offered a seamless garment, touching on specific policy issues familiar to liberal wonks. “When it takes an executive order to get sick days for workers, we have more to do together; when 25 percent of new mothers return to their jobs two weeks after giving birth, we have more to do together… when women in this country still make substantially less than men at the same jobs—and this gap is worse for women of color, we have a lot more to do together.”

“He also [mentioned] the gender gap—there wasn’t a loud clap for that as much as for the immigration stuff, and particularly not the right to work—but the wage gap between genders, particularly women of color,” Alexander says. “I mean… it’s another white man from the church, and he said that. It was great. It goes back to what he said about consistent ethic of rights, which I think people are starting to say a little more now, particularly with the Pope.”

Given the hierarchy of the Church, centered around one man, it can be easy to forget that it is capable of responding to its believers. Rerum Novarum itself originates from the work of the archbishop of Mainz, tracing the same middle ground between laissez faire capitalism and socialism, and specifically calling for reforms that would be central to the labor movement for decades to come—child labor, working hours, state inspectors, the care of disabled workers, Sundays off. That was in 1869, 22 years before Rerum Novarum was issued; in 1887, a newly appointed American cardinal, James Gibbons of Baltimore, wrote Pope Leo XIII in defense of the first American labor union, a letter that would shape the soon-to-follow encyclical. As this thorough essay makes clear, it was both radical and conservative, influenced both by the activism of its believers across the world and its aristocratic leadership.

“I say all the time, as a Catholic labor person, I’m a part of two very old institutions that happen to be dominated by white men. There are absolutely things I wish were different, that I wish were better, particularly as a black woman in these two institutions. But I want the institutions to remain,” Alexander says. “I believe in their essential core purpose. Even though I may have disagreements, I push so that they can be better. But I think, ultimately, they do good. And for folks that would rather see one or the other, or both… not torn down, that’s too strong, but people who have such strong critiques that they’re just through with the institutions, that hasn’t been the route that I’ve chosen to take personally. But I’m a lobbyist. I’m a work-within-the-system kind of girl.”

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