Monday, April 6, 2009

Official Teaching about Workers' Rights: Work Is for the Worker, Not the Worker for Work

It always interests me, when cases like that of Ruth Kolpack (here) come up, how abysmally ignorant many American Catholics are about the official--the magisterial--teachings of the Catholic Churchon matters of social justice. Whenever a case like Ruth Kolpack's arises, one can count on the very folks who shout the loudest about fidelity to magisterial teaching to ignore that teaching entirely, as they defend an institution's violation of the human rights of an employee.

This ignorance of Catholic social teaching among American Catholics says much about the captivity of the American Catholic mind today to neoconservative political and economic ideas that cannot be harmonized with official Catholic teaching about work and workers' rights. The political right has been very adroit about truncating the social teachings of Christian churches and convincing its followers that the only official church teachings that deserve consideration are those touching on sexual matters and abortion. John Paul II's important writings on the dignity of workers are overlooked by many American believers and political commentators (and the media), while his writings about the theology of the body are circulated as if he never said anything at all about labor issues and workers' rights.

For a long time now, Catholic teaching about workers' rights has been centered on the fundamental premise that workers are human beings and not objects, and that as human beings, workers deserve the respect and dignity due to human beings. This teaching is, in turn, grounded on the belief that all human beings come from the hand of God with an inalienable personal worth based on their creation by God, and with rights that flow from that inalienable personal worth. Catholic teaching about workers and their rights emphasizes that it is sinful to treat any worker as a thing and not a person.

Here are some key quotes from Catholic magisterial teaching about the rights of workers:

"No man may outrage with impunity that human dignity (of workers) which God Himself treats with reverence... (For a worker) to consent to any treatment which is calculated to defeat the end and purpose of his being is beyond his right; he cannot give up his soul to servitude; for it is not man's own rights which are here in question but the rights of God, most sacred and inviolable." Leo XXIII, Rerum novarum

"It is clear that (the human person) has a right by the natural law not only to an opportunity to work, but also to go about (that) work without coercion. To these rights is certainly joined the right to demand working conditions in which physical health is not endangered, and young people's normal development is not impaired. Women have the right to working conditions in accordance with their requirements. "Furthermore, and this must be especially emphasized, the worker has a right to a wage determined according to criterions of justice and sufficient give (workers and their) families a standard of living in keeping with the dignity of the human person." John XIII, Pacem in Terris

“Consequently, if the organization and structure of economic life be such that the human dignity of workers is compromised, or their sense of responsibility is weakened, or their freedom of action is removed, then we judge such an economic order to be unjust, even though it produces a vast amount of goods, whose distribution conforms to the norms of justice and equity.” John XXIII, Mater et Magistra

“All people have the right to work, to a chance to develop their qualities and their personalities in the exercise of their professions, to equitable remuneration which will enable them and their families ‘to lead a worthy life on the material, social, cultural and spiritual level’ and to assistance in case of need arising from sickness or age.” Paul VI, “A Call to Action”

“All offenses against human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, degrading working conditions where people are treated as mere tools for profit rather than free and responsible persons: all these and the like are criminal: they poison civilization; and they debase the perpetrators more than the victims and militate against the honor of the creator.” Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes

“The thing that must shape the whole economy is respect for the workers' rights within each country and all through the world's economy.” John Paul II, Laborem exercens

“Workers not only want fair pay, they also want to share in the responsibility and creativity of the very work process. They want to feel that they are working for themselves -- an awareness that is smothered in a bureaucratic system where they only feel themselves to be ‘cogs’ in a huge machine moved from above.” John Paul II, Laborem exercens

“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.” John Paul II, Laborem exercens

“We must consequently continue to study the situation of the worker. There is a need for solidarity movements among and with the workers. The church is firmly committed to this cause, in fidelity to Christ, and to be truly the ‘church of the poor’.” John Paul II, Laborem exercens