A Paper by: Mr. Gil McLean
I. COMMON GROUND
At first glance, it seems unlikely that the staunch voice for social conservatism of John Paul II’s Roman Catholic Church and the quasi-Socialist voice of Organized Labor would have much to say to each other- much less find a way to sing in harmony. Why on earth would the Vatican concern itself with secular issues of the workplace? The forces of history have profoundly impacted both the modern Catholic and the modern worker in many ways, which are not mutually exclusive. Labor movements might not consider their goals to have a spiritual component, but the Catholic Church finds God-given rights for workers to organize, withhold their labor, and bargain collectively. Furthermore, the Church finds a moral obligation of the employer to provide a safe working environment and a decent living wage. The reciprocal moral obligations (and contemporaneous financial concerns) of the worker are to offer time and effort in exchange for enough income to provide for a family and to foster security in that same domesticity. Employers who make work morally fulfilling create a feeling of security for their workers. This, in turn, gives the workers less reason to take stress home with them. Therefore, the quality of family life should theoretically improve. Families at peace should help to create neighborhoods in peace. With these conditions met, neighbors can begin to reach across lines of color, religion, income, and profession to those who are dissimilar. For true peace cannot be attained merely by living with carbon copies of one’s self. This is the spiritual challenge that the Catholic Church advances. It is a difficult ideal to maintain with so many countervailing influences throughout history, and that angst has caused the clergy and labor leaders to exert influence on the lawmakers of the United States which continues to resonate to this day.
II. THE ECONOMY AND LABOR
When the Framers of the United States Constitution were debating the framework of our government, they had very precise notions of what comprised the economics of their time. The economic freedom sought by Colonial Americans was to sell, buy, and barter; for this was a time when professionals engaged in trades of a local nature and the business spirit was that of self-starting entrepreneurs. The great statesman and visionary, Alexander Hamilton, had the forethought to distinguish between what he called “manufacturing” and agriculture.
But even Hamilton would have been hard pressed to foresee the Industrial Revolution, much less the Information Age. These two eras changed America and the world in many ways, ranging from great technological advances down through interpersonal relations. The entrepreneurial spirit of Colonial America had to yield to a more collective economic spirit as industrialization resulted in concentrated populations in urban areas, forging an employer/employee relationship which has become vital to our nation’s economic fabric. The Information Age, with the Internet as its chief exponent, has provided a new vessel for self-starters with gutsy ingenuity.
The vast majority of Americans still retain “employee” status and, therefore, are beholden to an employer. So the issues of health and safety in work, a decent living wage, and the right to unionize still remain. Many Catholic leaders of the 20th Century openly embraced the ideals of unionism. They would stand alongside union leaders during even the most unpopular strikes, and a few would even advocate for pro-union political candidates to their congregations. But today, unionism has not benefited from the same growth that has spurred the American economy for the last two decades. Indeed, the unionized workforce continues to shrink. Employers, in attempts to keep their workforces non-union, offer attractive benefit packages including health insurance and pension plans. The mere existence of these benefits is, ironically, the result of efforts by unions from the past. It is a situation which breaks down into overly simplistic arguments, “Without unions, employers exploit workers…” versus “Unions destroy profit.” These arguments though, strike at a very important human question which extends to every worker regardless of union affiliation, “How much of the quality of my life should I give up for work?” In Alexander Hamilton’s day, that was an easy question, you did what you had to do to survive. Today, in an era of work substitutes, like investments, portfolios, get-rich-quick schemes, and retirement plans- the choice is less clear.
If the Framers were here today, facing these problems and planning our Constitution, how would they have addressed this question? Obviously, no one can know for sure. The Framers were not Catholics, but they were men of faith. They looked to the Holy Bible for inspiration on addressing the issues of their time. In looking to the Bible, would they have found a way to answer this question?
III. BIBLICAL ROOTS OF WORKERS’ RIGHTS
The history and religious tradition of “work” as an ennobling pursuit of value dates as far back as the beginning of the Old Testament. In the Book of Genesis, the creation of the Earth took seven days, and it was after working for six that God allowed himself a day of rest. Further into Genesis, Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and learn the knowledge of good and evil. Their dignified work and complete freedom transforms into toil as they are cast out of Paradise.
The idea of “work as toil” is further exemplified in Exodus. The Jewish slaves of Egypt learned to build the infrastructure of Egyptian society. It was this skill- learned in dehumanizing bondage- that served them well after escaping the Pharoah in the founding of Israel. They performed the same work, but performed it under the conditions of freedom.
The New Testament also includes similar ennobling references to work. Although we Christians think of Him as a teacher, healer, public intellectual, and the Messiah, Jesus began his life known to his community as merely a blue-collar laborer- the son of a carpenter and a carpenter Himself. The friends He associated with were in the working classes of Galilee and Nazareth. Thus, Jesus’ concept of the human condition did not flow from the Roman government’s elite or the local Pharisees. Rather, His perceptions were formed from the concerns of ordinary folk. Perhaps it is for that reason that when Jesus taught His followers of the New Covenant, He spoke in parables that referenced working scenarios. In His teachings, Jesus’ message was clear: “good works” were preferred over shortcuts and sloth, if one was to embrace the New Covenant.
The Catholic Church further expands on this theme by teaching that the work humans perform is an expansion of the good works which “God has prepared for us in advance for us to do” for we are “God’s workmanship” in His image. In simplified terms, the work one performs to sustain one’s self or one’s family is the personal embodiment of the work that God performed in creating the world, or the suffering of Christ on the cross. By living these examples through our diligent efforts at work, we Catholics can demonstrate to others the coming of the Kingdom of God.
IV. LABOR ROOTS IN REVOLUTIONARY AMERICA
Following the British victory in the French and Indian War of 1763, an air of optimism existed in the American Colonies with the French threat to the North in Canada having been vanquished. Catholics in Maryland at that time were but a small part of a diverse colonial population who were in the midst of an economic boom before the war and had every reason to believe that, absent the conflict, their prosperity would continue and advance. The British Parliament realized during the war that its American colonies were being underutilized. Over the course of the next thirteen years, the British took the view that Colonial America existed solely for the benefit of the Crown. Tax increases upon the colonial subjects were viewed in America as onerous for anyone trying to work and intolerable for anyone trying to run a business. The Americans resisted and the British retaliated with the closure of American ports. Thus, the seeds of revolution took root and the United States was born.
The economic concerns that were part of American revolutionary fervor made their way into our founding documents. “[T]he pursuit of happiness” was a paramount concern among the drafters of the Declaration of Independence. This refers to the belief that the American Colonists should be free to pursue their livelihoods. Writings and actions from the likes of Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams promulgated public support for revolution. Part of their argument was that the American Revolution had a moral and just foundation in that people should be allowed to earn a living free of the government’s interference.
Although the Framers of the United States Constitution did not specifically address “labor” or “employment” in the document itself, the Federalist Papers, or in their debates at the various Constitutional Conventions; related economic concerns were embodied in two parts of the Constitution: the Commerce Clause and the Contracts Clause. These two clauses’ effect on the profound development of American law was as unpredictable as the two centuries of the United States itself.
V. THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN EUROPE
The Protestants that primarily settled America came from two centuries of religious disharmony in Europe. By the 15th Century, the Roman Catholic Church- once the sole Christian church which gave legitimacy to a Roman Empire that straddled the continent- was in decline. Though past its zenith, the Vatican still held considerable clout in Europe. As enforcer of the status quo and very resistant to change, the Vatican urged the Catholics to isolate the newfound Protestant communities in Europe, such as the Flemish Reformers, the Huguenots, and the Puritans. These groups all developed an insular sense of industry and thriftiness, which many would bring to America’s shores when they sailed westward in search of a better life.
This form of politicking by the Vatican was harsh, but it had its roots in church dogma as a rejection of those who would break apart a community to gratify their own inpulses (as the Protestants were viewed). The Catholics restrained their own curiosities about Protestantism with an outright rejection of the supposed easier Papacy-free road Protestantism had to offer. The Catholics closed ranks together for the greater good of the Catholic community.
Out of this background arose the “rugged individualism” of what is known as the “Protestant Work Ethic” and the “rugged collectivism” of what would eventually become the Catholic Social Justice Movement. By the time of the 19th Century, when one looks to America and Europe, a parallel is evident between these religious traditions and the secular political and economic systems of Capitalism (which stresses rugged individualism) and Socialism (which stresses rugged collectivism). The descendants of the Protestant settlers of America forged a life in the Colonies under the Protestant Work Ethic. Those who eventually became the Framers of the Constitution and the majority of delegates at the Constitutional Conventions were setting about the path of creating the United States, were similarly influenced by these notions and our nation bears that influence to this day.
VI. INDUSTRIALIZATION AND ATHEISM
By the 1830’s, the societies of the great European nations began their transformation from agrarianism to industrialization. In doing this, the lower classes of these countries began to gather in the cities and engaged in industrial work: monotonous, repetitive tasks in which the worker was interchangeable. No craftsmanship or skill was required to work on an assembly line. What was formerly invigorating, pastoral work- the schedule of which was dictated by the weather and daylight- became drudgery, dictated by the whim or caprice of a factory owner out to make a profit. What was once a family farm became a company town. The governments of the great European powers, using the benefits of industrialization to vie for hegemony on the continent, were unresponsive to these developments in any manner that would substantively benefit the working class. This was the climate in which Karl Marx and Socialism took root.
In Rome, Marx and Industrialization were viewed with alarm. The plight of the worker as well as the atheism that the Marxists were espousing were seen by the Vatican as a threat to the very core of society, for when people no longer heed religion, the commandment to love one another is ignored. The Vatican viewed this as having the ancillary effect of hardening the hearts of individuals as they either strive for riches or get left behind. The New Testament tradition of the poor as virtuous and honorable was in danger from the commercialism that flowed from unrestrained capitalism and the atheism that flowed from the Socialist experiment of the Marxists in Northern Europe.
As the 19th Century came to its final decades, the Vatican transformed its teachings from dogma to a more social and economic orientation. The factory workers across Europe and the world needed to hear Sunday sermons that touched their everyday lives. The Cardinals and Bishops instructed the various Dioceses to remind their congregations of what God intended for His people. As The Bible told them work was to be an extension of God’s creation and a noble undertaking, not drudgery and toil. A factory’s deadlines and quotas had replaced God’s Covenant as the reason for work. Moreover, the respect was supposed to flow both ways, the bosses should see that the workers have value beyond the mere tasks assigned. For ordinary people, it was a more comfortable and familiar message to follow, rather than the pseudo-intellectual, anti-religious, and revolutionary nihilistic ideology emanating from Marxism. But it would take more than just homilies from Catholic priests to preserve the Catholic Church’s values among a restless and weary populace.
VII. MEANWHILE IN AMERICA
Across the ocean, the new United States was playing a balancing act. The nation maintained an entrepreneurial self-starter economy reminiscent of the Colonial Era, but the new government was discovering that for the several states to be truly united, some regulation beyond what the Framers envisioned was required. This argument intensified and divided the country along the lines of States’ Rights versus Federal Power, and the Civil War would eventually be fought to settle these principles. The Union prevailed and this rift healed stronger than it had ever been. The Civil War era also began the transformation of the United States from a largely agrarian nation to an industrial power. Industrialization brought Americans many of the same problems Europe was facing and the United States tried to respond to the societal and economic changes brought about by the advance in technology.
The most profound form of regulation was the federal government’s exercise of the Commerce Power. Federal legislation- not just textually relating to commerce, in and of itself, but to all matters substantially relating to interstate commerce- was initially given a wide latitude of deference by the Supreme Court. Subsequent Commerce Clause cases were decided in a narrower manner, distinguishing between commerce and manufacturing. Employer and Employee relations were not yet adjudicated in a major way by these actions, but the seeds were planted for the Commerce Clause to have a profound role in shaping employment legislation in the 20th Century.
Where Employer/Employee rights were more definitively impacted in the 19th Century was in the Common Law. The United States had its legal roots in English Common Law and American courts used a number of English doctrines in the 1800’s. Influenced by a labor shortage in the 14th Century resulting from the bubonic plague, “General Hiring” in its traditional English roots meant that an employer who hired a laborer for an unfixed term was presumed to have hired the laborer for one year, and the employer could only fire the laborer on the basis of reasonable cause. Furthermore, if employment continued for any time after the first year, it was deemed to have been extended another year. Throughout the 19th Century, American courts applied “General Hiring” and the New York State Court of Appeals held as late as 1891 that employment should be for a fixed term. However, the contrary was also being held in other jurisdictions.
The doctrine of “Employment at Will” or “Employment at Pleasure” was similarly taking hold. Horace Gray Wood’s controversial “Treatise on the Law of Master and Servant” outlined the ideals of the “At Will” employment doctrine. Here, Wood asserted that “General Hiring” should be regarded as “prima facie hiring at will” placing the burden on the employee to maintain his status as employed. This doctrine was eagerly embraced by employers and accepted by courts in the heady era of Industrialization. Wood’s Rule was cut and dry with no ambiguity. If you were a worker in America in the late 1800’s, you could be fired for any reason or no reason. Even though America lagged behind Europe by a few decades in the Industrial Revolution, our workers found themselves in a similar quandary: similarly serving at the pleasure of a factory owner or industrial magnate who did not know their name or face.
One of the most effective methods available to workers to counterbalance the weight of employer-oriented legal doctrines and unfavorable public opinion was unionizing. In 19th Century America there was no real threat of Marxist or Socialist revolutions, instead the cause of worker dignity was championed by upstart labor unions. Although their effectiveness was hit and miss, due to injunctions and contempt rulings by American courts, the union philosophy of the late 1800’s was an important first step in improving health and safety in the workplace setting the stage for the New Deal and beyond.
VIII. “NEW THINGS”
In 1891, Pope Leo XIII became the first of several popes to address the rights of workers in a bold papal encyclical, Rerum Novarum. In this pronouncement, Leo XIII challenged Catholics not only to embrace the “new things” in the world and marvel at where technology and innovation had brought the human race, but to assume the responsibility of keeping one’s Christian faith when faced with the distractions of a newly enhanced and alluring secular world. The riches created by entrepreneurs and industrialists would not exist if not for the sweat of the workers’ collective brow. The measure of an employer’s humanity could be found in the treatment of workers. It is simply not enough to leave the fate of the powerless worker to market forces, for that is a recipe for creating social unrest. As all human rights flow from God, Rerum Novarum assigned responsibilities to employers, employees, and the state, defining fundamental principals which would reverberate across Europe and America.
After beginning the encyclical with a harsh assessment of the “rapacious usury” of the barons of European industry upon the working classes laboring under “a yoke little better than that of slavery itself…” Leo XIII went on do deride the Socialists for creating class envy and harboring an unrealistic expectation that human beings could be unnaturally re-educated out of the desire to work to obtain property. Dealing evenhandedly with Capitalism and Socialism, Leo XIII addressed the core issues of Rerum Novarum:
· For there to be harmony in the industrial world, the working class were obligated to perform the agreed upon work with diligence, never to destroy property or injure anyone. Further, the working class should not follow charlatans (whom Leo XIII described as “men of evil”) promising an easy alternative to honest work for a living wage.
Similarly, employers are bound with certain duties. They are to respect each worker’s dignity as a person, for working is to be an honorable- not shameful- endeavor. The misuse of persons for profit was “shameful and inhuman” and contrary to Christian philosophy and reason. Above all, the rich should “religiously refrain” from reducing wages.
While much of Rerum Novarum could be viewed favorably by Socialists, the Vatican was suspicious about too much government involvement with the working class and the poor. It feared that government dependence would lead to a disavowal of personal responsibility. Rerum Novarum did, however, assign to the state the duty of interceding on workers’ behalf in the event of a deadlocked labor dispute. The working class, by virtue of their lack of wealth, were in an unequal bargaining position with the wealthy employer. Therefore, because the state was the steward of the public well-being and a segment of society was disadvantaged, it was the responsibility of the state to come to the aid of workers to break the impasse.
Perhaps most controversial, particularly for America, was a blatant proclamation that the Catholic Church supported unionizing and collective bargaining as a fundamental human right. Although this was not the first encyclical (nor would Leo XIII be the only Pope ) to so unilaterally side with labor, the initial reaction from America was shock. A handful of clergy quietly ignored the Rerum Novarum, but the vast majority of Dioceses followed the Vatican’s orders. The American Catholic clergy began to teach Rerum Novarum’s ideals on social justice toward the working class. In major American cities with heavy Catholic populations, like New York, Boston, Chicago, and Baltimore, millions of people were hearing the Working Class Gospel According to Pope Leo.
IX. WORKERS’ COMPENSATION AND “ECONOMIC DUE PROCESS”
If English Common Law doctrines had been of some help to American workers seeking protection against “At Will” termination, they were of no help for American workers seeking their assistance to compensate for workplace injuries. Even when potential plaintiffs could demonstrate employer negligence, there were no guarantees that American courts would rule in their favor. Contributory negligence on the part of the worker operated as a bar to recovery. Perhaps even harsher were “fellow servant” and “assumption of risk” doctrines. Under the Fellow Servant Doctrine, an employer was not liable for a workplace injury if it occurred due to the negligence of a fellow employee. Worse still, under the Assumption of Risk Doctrine, the mere existence of employment itself could hold an employer harmless, for the worker by the act of working was deemed to be assuming the risk of injury.
The harshness of those doctrines could not withstand the Industrial Revolution in America and by the late 1800’s, several states had begun adopting workers’ compensation statutes. These statutes established an insurance coverage system for workers injured regardless of fault. The federal government, through the Commerce Power, adopted its own workers’ compensation laws in 1916. Although a minority of activist priests had begun fraternizing with unions, the majority of Catholic clergy were not advocating particular political positions directly; but their growing urban influence was beginning to bear a hint of Rerum Novarum’s message. The American electorate at the turn of the 19th Century had grown receptive to workplace protection and that receptiveness was reflected in the people’s representatives who were passing these bills into law.
Paradoxically, other legislation which affected the health and safety of workers was being invalidated by holdovers who still sat on the United States Supreme Court. These Justices found these new laws to be unfairly limiting the rights of employers. In the incredible decision of Lochner v. New York, the Supreme Court invalidated as unconstitutional a New York state statute that regulated employment contracts by limiting the workweek to 60 hours (with a maximum of 10 hours per day). Although the statute allowed a lengthy workweek, the majority in Lochner held that the freedom to enter into employment contracts was a fundamental right of greater importance than the state’s protection of a worker’s health and safety. Therefore, employers and employees should be free to enter into employment contracts that exceeded New York’s limits. The Court neglected to mention the unequal bargaining power of employers and workers when entering into employment contracts. Also not considered was how the resultant onerous working conditions had spurred the rise of the unions and workers’ rights movements at home and abroad. Feeling electorate pressures for reform, the states continued to pass economic regulatory legislation and when hearing challenges to that legislation, courts would distinguish their opinion from Lochner or decline to follow it altogether.
X. PIONEERING LABOR UNIONS AND THE ROARING 20’S
The roots of American labor unions actually predate the Industrial Revolution. Skilled apprentices who never achieved wage-earning independence, such as printers, woodworkers, shoemakers, and other craft workers began to band together in the early 1800’s seeking to exert political power to make uniform wage and hour rules. But it was not until 1850 that national unions arose representing employees from carpenters to cigar makers, with little results to show for their efforts.
The Noble Order of Knights of Labor (“Knights”) formed in 1869 as a secret society who required loyalty oaths of their members. The Knights combined skilled and unskilled workers into one union and ventured into ideas such as radical social reform as well as union activities. Their social reform agenda engendered the hostility of their member skilled workers. They believed the business of a union was to tend to more day-to-day economic concerns of workers. That tension, coupled with an increasing tide of immigration, made holding the fragile skilled/unskilled worker coalition together ever more difficult. By the 1890’s, the Knights were replaced as the leading national union by the American Federation of Labor (“AFL”).
The AFL consisted of skilled workers and maintained the primary objective of addressing practical member concerns. Their agenda included the “closed shop” (employment that would hire only AFL members), collective bargaining agreements written from a position of strength, health benefits, member insurance, and a strike fund in case of emergencies. Its major competitor at the time, the Industrial Workers of the World (“IWW”) frightened the American public with its calls for a government overthrow and an end to Capitalism. The AFL was able to achieve many of its objectives in a slow and steady manner and vanquished the rival IWW by the 1920’s.
The Catholic Church’s teachings in Rerum Novarum most closely coincided with the objectives of the AFL. The Church viewed the Knights of Labor suspiciously because of the loyalty oaths, and did not favor the IWW’s call for violent revolution as an acceptable method for achieving social change. The approach of addressing practical worker concerns was what Leo XIII had in mind when he delineated the employer responsibilities in Rerum Novarum. Practical concerns properly include a living wage and the support of one’s family, not meeting in a secret cabal to plot a revolution. But to the unions and the workers, changes were frustratingly gradual and legislation still faced American courts not yet unfriendly to “Economic Due Process” concerns of employers.
XI. THE GREAT DEPRESSION AND THE BIRTH OF NATIONAL LABOR POLICY
The advances that the labor movement in the United States made during the 1930’s cannot be overstated. A severe economic crisis like the Great Depression that struck America in 1929 should have been the death knell for unions. Instead, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” economic and social legislation changed the ideas about the activist role government should play in the economy. The times were so bleak that the Congress was in no position to stand in the way of the remedies Roosevelt proposed. New Deal legislation, invoking the Commerce Power, affected farm production to child labor, imposed minimum wages and maximum hours, and created a social safety net for the sick and elderly. Suddenly, the government had adopted as policy the ideals labor movements had been championing for decades.
These ideals were similarly championed by Catholic clerics. The most influential was Monsignor John A. Ryan. In addition to his ministerial duties, he was also a professor of moral theology and social ethics at Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. He was born in 1869 and was ordained a priest in 1898. After only eight years in the Priesthood, he published his first book, A Living Wage, which was one of the first publications anywhere to advocate minimum wages and maximum hours- three decades before the New Deal. He is regarded within the Catholic community as the intellectual architect of American Catholic social action. Although he was fiercely anti-Marxist, his second book, Distributive Justice, was lambasted by industrialists and conservative clergy as a stalking horse for Socialism. It was 1916, thirteen years before stock market crash of 1929, and Monsignor Ryan was already calling for subsidized housing, child labor laws, as well as social insurance for the unemployed, sick and old aged.
Another influential Catholic cleric of this era was the Reverend Charles Coughlin. He was a very colorful and bizarre “radio priest” who had a talk show on Sunday nights that made him a national celebrity. He often quoted Rerum Novarum and other papal encyclicals and found in their pages not only the fundamental right for workers to unionize, but that workers indeed had an obligation to do so. His program regularly lampooned Roosevelt’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover. He was influential among senators and congressmen and even won the affection of Roosevelt himself during the 1932 campaign.
At the outset of the New Deal, these two influential Catholics split. Reverend Coughlin, formerly a Roosevelt ally, turned on him and began to fill his broadcast with nonsensical diatribes about Jewish conspiracies. He condemned democracy as unworkable and openly praised the fascist governments of Europe. Monsignor Ryan believed that Roosevelt had his heart in the right place with the New Deal legislation, but feared that much of the programs were flawed or inadequate. Nonetheless, he actively supported the New Deal and gave the benediction at Roosevelt’s 1937 inaugural.
The Norris-LaGuardia Anti-Injunction Act was the first major labor-oriented piece of legislation to pass the Roosevelt Congress. It limited the courts’ use of injunctions to end labor disputes and outlawed the “yellow dog contract.” Three years later, in 1935, the National Labor Relations Act was passed. The purpose of the act was to eliminate barriers to union organizing and collective bargaining once employees had decided to organize themselves into a union. The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) was established to enforce the act, and 1937 the NLRA was declared constitutional. Though it has received some minor tweaking through the years, the safeguard of NLRB oversight protects American workers who want to belong to a union. The government codified the major objective of the union movement and, in Rerum Novarum’s view, granted a fundamental human right to all Americans in the workforce.
XII. WHERE DO WE CATHOLICS GO FROM THERE?
As the unionized workforce thins, so too do the ranks of the Catholic clergy. It is a strange parallel due to unrelated circumstances. American workers forget the struggles early labor endured for their modern workplace rights. And the only Catholic who seems to get good press in America nowadays is Gerry Adams.
There have been significant advancements in workers’ rights made by Catholic laity. Notably, The Catholic Worker newspaper was founded in 1933 by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin and is still in circulation today. Neither of these individuals belonged to the clergy, yet both had a fantastic command of Catholic Social Justice teaching which they wrote about extensively throughout the 20th Century. In 1949, during one of the most divisive labor disputes in American history, The Catholic Worker defied the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Francis Spellman when he ordered striking Catholic cemetery workers to return to work. Despite the words flowing from the spiritual leader of New York’s Catholics, Dorothy Day found his actions to be contrary to Catholic social teaching, a point which The Catholic Worker trumpeted throughout the four months of the strike. Day stressed the need for conciliation and reminded the Cardinal that he was a spiritual leader to Catholics, not their secular ruler. Her entreaties were ignored and the Cardinal eventually broke the strike, but in a strange way Day’s faith was confirmed. She demonstrated an unwavering commitment to conciliation, and exercised that same spirit of conciliation toward the Cardinal by refusing to denigrate him in her defeat.
Day’s Christ-like example of humility and forthrightness happened 51 years ago. What is the role for Catholics today? To begin with, Catholic workers and Catholic employers must live the Rerum Novarum in relation to each other. They can set an example for their peers and bear witness to Christ while they earn their daily bread for their families.
It is extremely unlikely that the Congress and the President, whether Democrat or Republican, could or would pass the Rerum Novarum into law. The individual responsibility of government officers who are Catholic is another story. Although vague concepts like “honest work” or “diligence” cannot be legislated, Catholic legislators, lawyers, and judges can still use their skills as professionals to preserve the rights of workers to unionize; intercede in deadlocked labor disputes; impose health and safety standards; encourage a “living” wage; as well as allow employers recourse for property damage and the flexibility to fire for cause. These minimums will allow for the peace and security a worker needs so as to not take frustrations out on the family at home, and will also provide employers parameters by which they can plan the costs of doing business. This is the dual way to practice an authentic Catholic faith and create sensible public policy.