Social Justice

The Working Catholic: Social Doctrine #14 by Bill Droel

The term social justice is regularly used but rarely defined. It often means a government program is on the way. “Social justice requires an increase in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps).” It can mean a general concern. “The status of women is a matter of social justice.” It can describe an event. “We went to a social justice conference.” Or describe a personality type. “She’s a social justice warrior.” In many circles it is simply substituted for the word charity. “Our parish food pantry is a social justice effort.”
Social justice actually has a Catholic pedigree and refers to a type under the general term justice. There is criminal justice, distributive justice (the duty of government), individual justice or commutative justice (fair exchange either implied or in a contract) and social justice (and more).
Fr. Luigi Taparelli, SJ (1793-1862) of Italy coined the term social justice in 1845. He was rightly worried about individualistic tendencies that characterize modernity–all the more extreme in our day. Taparelli favored an organic society in which many interdependent parts add up to more than their sum. Such a society needs healthy intermediate institutions that give individuals wider agency and also buffer individuals from big forces—families, parishes, workplace units, professional associations, ethnic clubs and more. This dynamic is called subsidiarity in Catholicism.
By about 1900 Catholic philosophers were equating social justice with what St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) calls legal justice. Now, for Aquinas legal justice does not refer to what is approximated on TV shows like Chicago P.D. and Judge Judy. He means that by divine law all the parts of an organic society must be directed toward the common good, not entirely to one individual’s good. The 20th century Catholic philosophers thought the term social justice was better than legal justice because many people think the word legal only means what is expressly prohibited or commanded. Such people stay within minimum behavior but consider social obligations to be strictly optional. In fact, they often expect some recognition when they help out in the community.
The academic conversation continued, treating both process and outcome. Process: How does social justice come about? Outcome: What does a social justice society look like?
Fr. William Ferree, SM (1905-1985) of Ohio greatly clarified the topic—in my opinion. First in a dissertation and then in an influential 1948 booklet, Introduction to Social Justice, Ferree said the unique act of social justice is organization and its outcome is improved policies or institutions.
This means that social justice is a virtue. It is something that is done, not a fond wish. It is more than calling out a problem. Like all virtues, it must be done habitually.
This means that social justice is a collective virtue. An individual can be generous but cannot alone practice social justice. Like-minded people must get together. Thus, mixed motives are always involved. Each participant gets something out of the effort; the group also benefits in some way; but the greater good is a primary object of the practice.
This means that the aims of social justice must stay in the practical realm, though the initial ambition can reach beyond what will be achieved. Compromise is a necessary part of social justice. It is not a virtue for purists or utopians.
This means, to paraphrase a great polka song: In heaven there is no social justice; that’s why we do it here. In heaven there is perfect love, but in our messy here-and-now domain, things are incremental. There’s need for social justice today and more need tomorrow.
This means that social justice is for insiders. Protest is often necessary to get inside, but marches and rallies are not in themselves social justice.
This means that social justice is not charity, though charity might precede or accompany social justice. Charity in itself does not change policies, though people involved in charity often turn to lobbying (social justice) in order to make charity more efficient or even less necessary.
Social justice is a specific activity done by a group within an institution to improve a policy or, if necessary, to start an alternative institution. With a better appreciation for the definition of social justice more might be accomplished. As Elvis sang in 1968, “A little less conversation, a little more action.”

Ferree’s booklet ($6) and Droel’s booklet, What Is Social Justice ($5) can be obtained from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).

Child Labor

The Working Catholic: Child Labor by Bill Droel

It is a fallacy to believe that if teenage members of a family spend more time on a job, the family will necessarily gain upwardly mobility. Nor is it true that our economy prospers when young people neglect their studies for the sake of income. Yes, employment trains teenagers and young adults in public disciplines plus gives them some outlook on social psychology. However, excess hours on the clock are not beneficial.
The current though relative labor shortage does not justify what N.Y. Times reporter Hannah Drier brought to light about child labor in articles from late February 2023 until early May 2023. Several companies are using children in restricted jobs for excessive hours and sometimes failing to pay them justly—835 companies last fiscal year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Packers Sanitation Services based in Kieler, WI, as one example, had 102 teenagers on overnight shifts cleaning back saws, brisket saws and head splitters in meat processing plants. Packers, which is owned by Blackstone investments, was fined $15million.
Drier found children illegally employed in retail, construction and manufacturing plus in sawmills, in an industrial laundry and in a slaughterhouse. Some were on the overnight shift and underpaid. Hearthside Food Solutions based in Downers Grove, IL contracts with popular brands to package food. Drier found many children at its Michigan facilities. Hearthside blames its staffing agency.
There are many ways to address a labor shortage, reports John Miller in Dollars & Sense (6/23). Raise wages and improve workplace conditions, though “both would drive up costs.” Immigration reform would also put more adults into the job pool legally. A few columnists and several trade associations favor another remedy: child labor.
“Ten states, six in the Midwest, have considered proposals” to loosen child labor restrictions, Miller details. A 1938 law (the Fair Labor and Standards Act) specifies conditions for employing teenagers after school, on weekends and holidays for reasonable hours in non-hazardous settings like cashier, caddy, hostess, usher, lifeguard, school janitor, delivery person, clerical and the like with leeway on family farms and in family shops. Despite these reasonable guidelines the pro-family governor of Arkansas recently signed legislation to eliminate a simple permit that required a child’s age verification, parental approval and a non-hazardous situation for employment. The N.Y. Times comments: The new law “is not to protect those children from exploitation but instead to make it legal.” Iowa is likely next.
The full story, as Drier writes, includes the plight of unaccompanied migrant children of whom about 130,000 came into the U.S. in the past 12 months. These fearful young people are easily exploited. Some are put in dangerous jobs. Most are underpaid and some are cheated out of their pay entirely. Not all these young adults come to the U.S. with full knowledge and will. Some are trafficked by cartels and then sold to construction subcontractors or to agricultural entities. Some are forced into prostitution or thievery.
What is our federal government doing to protect children? Well, the administration of President Joseph Biden is eager to clear out shelters near our border. Day labor agencies and even traffickers, posing as hosts, have moved some of these migrant children into dangerous and exhausting jobs. The Department of Labor, Miller mentions, is “severely understaffed.”
A retired Department of Labor official provides The Working Catholic with details. He was stationed in Chicago for ten years and then 18 more in Florida. There is “an immediately apparent difference” between southern states that have a so-called right to work law and those states with viable unions. Further, many northern states have local laws pertaining to child labor and sometimes fund apprentice training programs. “Active union presence serves to minimize child labor violations,” he says.
“Violations are typically not easy to see,” his narrative continues. Investigations occur after-the-fact and “must be developed from employer records, which is not easy. The Department of Labor is a civil enforcement arm, not criminal. Thus, the documented cases must then be adjudicated by the Department of Justice.”
What can law-abiding businesses and citizens do? Use union labor. If not, stipulate in writing that a contractor all not allow its subcontractors to use child labor. Second, support a local worker center. Arise (, a sophisticated worker center here in Chicago, takes up cases of wage theft and other labor violations. Escucha Mi Voz ( is a Catholic-based worker center. It helps people from ten language groups. Child labor in meatpacking is one of its concerns. Women religious, as on many issues, are leaders in anti-trafficking. They publish an informative newsletter, detail some action steps and supply reflection material. Their website is Human Rights Watch ( is based in New York City. It conducts research and reports on the topic.

Bill Droel (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629) is eager for any reports on child labor.


The Working Catholic: Immigration by Bill Droel

The immigrant “can sense that the United States is of two minds,” writes Hector Tobar of the University of California in Our Migrant Souls: A Meditation (Farrar, Straus, 2023). “Like the indentured servants, the Poles, the Germans and the Chinese people of other centuries, she knows there are factory owners and affluent families on the other side of the fence or the ocean who really want her to make it across… She knows that she has something that is prized on the other side.” At the same time the “walls, barbed wire and restrictive immigration laws announce they hate her kind.”
A country by definition must have borders. A phrase like open borders, if taken literally, erases the existence of nation states. The trick is to maintain an orderly system so that tourists, students, temporary workers, immigrants and refugees can safely enter a country and by their labor, knowledge and consumption they can contribute to their surroundings.
The current number of foreign-born people living in our country is the highest it has been in about 100 years; 45million by one estimate, reports Idrees Kahloon in The New Yorker (6/12/23). Many are immigrants who have become full-fledged legal U.S. citizens (about 970,000 within the past 12 months). Other foreign-born residents are guest workers (in Silicon Valley, in hospitals, in vineyards and on farms) and students (in technical fields, medical research and business) and others are immigrant/refugees–those who are in the legal process and those who have drifted into society without status.
The current influx actually began over 60 years ago when Congress changed its immigration limit and its general ban on those from Asia, details Dexter Filkins, also writing in The New Yorker (6/19/23). Our society’s need for more skilled and manual laborers attracts foreigners. More arrive under our policy of family preference or chain migration by which one immigrant can assist family members. Several factors push families toward the U.S., including drug violence, natural disasters, a bad economy at home, oppressive politics, the profitable smuggling/trafficking business (coyote cartels) and more.
Arrivals in the U.S., as Hector Tobar describes, have always encountered nativism. Some current U.S. residents say that their life would be better if immigrants were not unfairly given social services. Some residents also say that their own ancestors had to learn English, but that today’s arrivals don’t do so. They also say that new arrivals take away jobs that longer-standing residents would like to have.
Data can counter these points, but the objections are not really about what they are about. The concern about jobs, for example, is only valid for a limited time in a specific place where “cheap labor can hold down wages for some workers,” says Filkins. However, the demand for employees in our country far exceeds the current supply. In the bigger picture immigration has no effect on jobs or wages. It is employment sectors that set wage scales and it is free trade and tax policies that send jobs overseas. Yet no one opposed to today’s immigrants is persuaded by the facts.
Migrants and refugees crossing our country’s southern border are resented more than well-educated technicians and doctors and trades people arriving from Asia or Eastern Europe, though each foreigner encounters nativism.
“Determining the exact number [of refugees is] remarkably difficult,” Filkins explains. There are possibly 11million undocumented people in the U.S. today; not all of whom intend to stay or will be allowed to stay. Even now our government does not know how many migrants it has sent back. The legal process for entry is backlogged and caught-up in conflicting court rulings. There are over two million pending cases just for those who claim refugee status. They are legally entitled to wait in the U.S. for a hearing on their case, but they have no right to a public defender. The wait time for the initial hearing is now five years. If the decision is unfavorable to the refugee, they can appeal. The wait time for that appeal hearing is another five years.
Reform of our dysfunctional immigration/migration system is, as any objective observer realizes, slow-going. A policy of exclusion, Filkins explains, is impractical. No matter how big a wall is built, people are not deterred from fleeing misery and staking their hope on our beautiful country. Total exclusion also damages the U.S. economy plus betrays the story of our country and it is inhumane. Three parts must come together simultaneously for acceptable reform. 1.) Tougher boarder security. 2.) More funding for local police in states like Texas and Arizona plus in cities that welcome migrants; more social services and processing assistance; more immigration judges. 3.) Better legal opportunities for immigrants, enforced fairly.
At the moment both Republican and Democrat leaders tolerate the frustrating chaos because they can blame one another. Additionally, Democrats and Republicans share the ambivalence of our citizenry. They want more immigration because it bolsters U.S. productivity. They want less immigration because more of it fuels resentment and politicians get the blame.
A final consideration: No matter the administrative chaos and the political muddle of the moment, there is an ethical obligation to assist the immigrants/migrants among us. To be continued…
Droel serves the board of National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

Family Wage

The Working Catholic: Social Doctrine Part Thirteen, Poverty by Bill Droel

It’s published in Wall St. Journal (4/30/23), so it must be true. It’s an essay about wages by Michael Lind. He begins with a quotation from Adam Smith (1723-1790), a theorist for modern capitalism. For capitalism to thrive, Smith says employees must get a family wage.
Family wage is a principle of Catholic social doctrine. A slogan from Unite Here, a union of hotel workers with headquarters in Manhattan, is a good paraphrase of our Catholic principle: “One Job Should Be Enough.” Our U.S. bishops described a family wage in their 1919 Program of Social Reconstruction. Pope Pius XI (1857-1939) has it in his 1931 encyclical Reconstructing the Social Order, as does Vatican II (1962-1965). St. John Paul II (1920-2005) also writes about it. The idea is that one wage earner should be paid at least enough to support a family, including its education needs, some funds for leisure plus for modest savings. The amount of that wage can differ by location and by the type of job. A family can have a second wage earner, but the family’s survival should not depend on that arrangement. St. John Paul II emphasizes that the measure of a society’s justice is its wage structure. All other compensations and social policies and management plans are accessories.
Lind says that our economy does not abide by the family wage principle but uses a model he calls low-wage/high-welfare. Many employees get inadequate pay but stay afloat through Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, housing vouchers and more. In other words, as Lind writes, “taxpayers pay to rescue workers whose work does not pay enough.”
Lower wages allow for lower costs which benefit some consumers. For example, middle-class and upper-class families are winners in the low-wage/high welfare economy when they hire housekeepers or landscapers. The losers are taxpayers and of course the underpaid.
Matthew Desmond in Poverty, By America (Crown, 2023) agrees. Poverty resists elimination despite charitable endeavors and social welfare because some people benefit from the poverty of others. “Poverty is an injury, a taking,” says Desmond. Normally, people are unaware of how their lifestyle depends on the perpetuation of poverty. However, Desmond’s book makes it plain, using many examples including our tolerance for insubstantial wages.
There’s a corollary to the principle of a just wage. Because an employee agrees to a sub-level wage the criteria for justice is not met. Adherence to this aspect of Catholic doctrine means, for example, that a pastor cannot morally pay a teacher less than a just wage because the teacher understands the job as a vocation. The standard is objective, not subjective. That standard does, however, take into account that a just wage in a small town, for example, might be lower than a comparable wage in Manhattan.
There is plenty of room for debate as to how to achieve just wages. Lind mentions collective bargaining, but he is not happy about a bargaining unit at one Starbucks and then a different unit at the next Starbucks. He suggests sector or multi-employer bargaining might be better. This idea is like the Catholic idea of an industry council plan. To be continued…

For more on this topic get St. John Paul II’s Gospel of Work edited by Bill Droel (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $8.)


The Working Catholic: Signs of the Times by Bill Droel

How do we become aware that a new age has dawned?
Did anyone in November 1492 proclaim that the modern age began the previous month when Native Americans discovered Christopher Columbus (1451-1506)? Did anyone in November 1517 realize that the modern age began the previous month when Rev. Martin Luther (1483-1546) challenged the Roman Catholic bureaucracy? Yet looking back to those events we trace global commerce, exploration, cultural imperialism, a turn to individualism and soon enough new forms of governance.
Did anyone in December 1947 say that modernity has been superseded by a post-modern age because the transistor was invented at Bell Labs the previous month? Did anyone in August 1954 mark the beginning of postmodernism because Elvis Presley (1935-1977) recorded That’s All Right in a style fusing country with rhythm and blues? Yet those events and others were forerunners to a youth culture, to a pervasive cyber-dimension of life, to a view of the earth from outer-space, to instant and world-wide communication of prices, weather patterns, celebrity gossip, political conflict and more.
The same lack of awareness and ambiguity applies to naming generations. After all, someone was born yesterday and someone tomorrow. So, can we really demarcate and easily differentiate Baby Boomers from Gen X from the Millennial Generation?
Yet we need markers to understand our place in history, to understand the forces that shape our lives and contour our agency in our place and time.
Gary Gerstle explores the signs of the times in The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order (Oxford Press, 2022). Gerstle calls each of his stages a type of liberalism. He admits confusion in terminology. For example, today’s neoliberals are usually called conservatives. But whatever the labels, every modern society accepts the basics of classic Liberalism. For example, according to classic Liberalism individuals are not bound by heredity and knowledge (science and reason) is better than superstition. Though the British and others still like the trappings of monarchy, citizens in all classic Liberal societies have a right to participation in governance. Classic Liberalism, no matter the labels of the moment, insists that the rule of law replaces vengeance and property acquired legitimately (including intellectual/creative property) is a protected possession.
Classic Liberalism was influential in the late 1700s and somewhat in the 1800s. It had an intellectual comeback after World War I, says Gerstle, because of economists like Friedrich Hayek (1899), Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) and others.
Gerstle applies the label New Deal liberalism to the second stage of liberalism. He associates this worldview with President Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945), to a degree with President Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) and with President Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973).
New Deal liberalism differs from the classic type of liberalism in that government, labor unions, associations and consumer groups play a role in society and the economy. The shift recognizes that without countervailing forces individual liberty and laissez-faire capitalism make for “an economic disaster.” The market needs an umpire to enforce contracts, to use the military to stabilize trade, to enforce tariffs and the like. Society also needs government to restrict businesses that disregard the public good, to employ workers when hiring slows, to soften the blows of poverty, to purchase when inflation dampens consumer activity, to tackle big projects (health care delivery, utility delivery, infrastructure construction and the like) when private enterprise is incapable.
Gerstle’s third type of liberalism is called neoliberalism. It harkens back to classic Liberal themes and is thus a reaction against the socially-minded New Deal liberalism of Roosevelt and others. Gerstle associates neoliberalism with Presidents Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and with others.
Neoliberalism promises to recover imagination and serious aspirations in contrast to the deadening bureaucracies of the 1960s and 1970s. It says that private enterprise can be efficient and therefore government should use contractors for toll way collections, public transportation, garbage collection, some overseas military operations, space exploration, schools and more. Neoliberalism favors deregulation, free trade and information technology.
In the neoliberal view all encounters are monetized; that is, everything is for sale—even health care, recreation, personal information and water. Its centers of interest are Wall St., Silicon Valley, Hollywood and tech hubs in the Boston and Seattle areas. For neoliberals “cosmopolitanism [is] a cultural achievement,” writes Gerstle. Regardless of their rhetoric, neoliberalism applies to most Democrat and Republican politicians. Neoliberalism perpetuates an old strain of moralizing common in the rugged individual days. It assumes that some liberty can be denied those who are unable to handle responsibility. Neoliberals distinguish the deserving poor from the undeserving poor.
Gerstle hints that neoliberalism has lost luster and that we might be entering a new phase. The crash of 2008, the disruptions from Covid-19, the incompetence of President Donald Trump’s administration, a brutal war in Europe and more raise doubts about the neoliberal promise. What might be signs of a new era? Reports are welcome.

Droel is affiliated with National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629). It distributes two encyclicals that critique neoliberalism; one by Pope Benedict XVI, the other by Pope Francis ($15 for both).

Employee Participation

The Working Catholic: Social Doctrine, Part Nine
by Bill Droel

Capitalism today is of the libertarian or wild cowboy style. It destructs our middle-class way of life plus, let’s admit, it erodes the well-being of its supposed mega-beneficiaries. Alternative styles of capitalism are available. They preserve an industrial base, increase employee participation in the economy and improve the odds of maintaining peace. Along the way, the alternatives strengthen economic competitiveness. They support long-haul capitalism, a democratic capitalism.
Germany has an alternative capitalism embedded in its economy, writes Tom Geoghegan in Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?. Its elements are works councils, co-determined boards and regional wage-setting institutions. Employees in Germany can also, if they like, vote for a union to negotiate their wages and pensions. The works councils, each specific to one store or factory, give some managerial responsibility to an elected employee or two. “On layoffs and other issues [like store hours] the employer has to reach an agreement with the works council,” Geoghegan explains. On a co-determined board half the members are from among employees. (There is one extra member from the executive ranks who breaks a tie vote.) This board, which exists only in bigger companies, does not make all the decisions but it receives company information, considers normal operations and sets general direction. There is a separate board of directors elected by shareholders.
All well and good for Germany, you might say. But it can’t happen in the United States. Surprisingly, Geoghegan says, this German model gained its practical traction from the United States in the months following World War II. And guess what? There are elements of this model in our country.
The latest push for an alternative capitalism comes from California. Like a regional wage-setting institution in Germany, California may soon have sector bargaining for fast food employees. Workers in the United States normally bargain store-by-store, company-by-company. That is why each week a dozen Starbucks’ employees over here and another dozen over there file paperwork for a union at their corner store. And that is why employees at each Chipotle must follow the same protracted process. If Assembly Bill 257 is approved by California’s governor, there will be a ten-member council (some employees, some executives and two public officials) to review wage and safety standards across the fast food industry. The California example of sectional bargaining will not deal with everything. Sick leave, paid leave or scheduling issues are off its agenda. Also, the 257 Bill does not hold corporate headquarters liable for violations by one of its franchise owners. (N.Y. Times, 8/30/22 and In These Times, 5/22)
There’s another surprise regarding alternative capitalism. “There is a whiff of Catholicism about it all,” Geoghegan tells us. Well, maybe more than a whiff. In Catholic doctrine it is called collegia ordinum, Latin for arrangement committees. Other names include joint consultative committee (England), enterprise committee (France) and delegates for personnel (Belgium). In the United States labor leader Philip Murray (1886-1952) promoted the concept, calling it the industry council plan. It is under discussion in our federal Congress, where it is called accountable capitalism.
Matt Majewski provides the Catholic development of the concept, primarily as it came about in Germany. Franz von Baader (1765-1841), a Catholic mining engineer and philosopher, was the first to outline what he called “factory councils.” Fr. Franz Hitze (1851-1921) and Fr. Heinrich Brauns (1868-1939) wrote its legal structure. Fr. Oswald von Nell Breuning, SJ (1890-1991) devoted an entire book to the topic and included themes of alternative capitalism as he assisted Pope Pius XI (1857-1939) in composing Reconstructing the Social Order, the important 1931 encyclical. Following World War II, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967), a Catholic, embraced co-determinism as a recovery tool. (Commonweal, 3/22/19)
Co-determinism, its proponents believe, is good for capitalism. It decreases strife between managers and employees, prevents unfair competition among similar businesses and mitigates excessive state intervention in business by encouraging self-regulation. Our society cannot continue without a large number of steady working-class jobs, sufficient to support family life. Without alternatives to our current runaway cowboy capitalism, our society will only devolve further into resentment and sporadic violence. Co-determinism and other alternatives like cooperatives are guideposts on the way to an upwardly mobile common life.
For more on co-determinism get Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? by Tom Geoghegan from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $9).

Working Catholic: Social Doctrine

The Working Catholic: Social Doctrine Part Eight
by Bill Droel

Always do for others what they cannot do for themselves. That’s the rule of charity. Never do for others what they can do for themselves. That’s the rule of freedom. The Catholic principle of subsidiarity maintains the tension between the two. It guides the interplay of functions. It prevents charity from becoming disabling help and prevents freedom from becoming selfishness or libertarianism. Both extremes violate both charity and justice.
The parents of Siddhartha Gautama, for whatever reason, were overly protective. He eventually left home in search of what he called the middle way. The careless parents of recent mass murderers were overly permissive. The father of the Prodigal Son erred in both directions. He was first too protective of his son and then, when the son wanted an early inheritance, the father permitted too much freedom.
In Catholic social thought subsidiarity is usually invoked in the context of governmental responsibility and economic systems. The current picture in our country has ragged individuals at one end and big government plus big business at the other end. If something goes wrong with an internet or TV connection, it is a frustrated individual trying to reach an impersonal media company. If poverty overwhelms a family, a seemingly helpful array of social programs possibly debilitates that family further.

Despite some gestures and language to the contrary, Republicans and Democrats (with an occasional exception) include only individuals, government and business in their worldview. The operative philosophy and economic model of both political parties neglects those institutions that stand between the ragged individual and big forces—first the family, then associations like a parish, a union, an ethnic club, a veterans’ group, a community organization and more. Because these mediating institutions are not in the picture, the local groups have grown weak in recent decades.
Oliver Zunz has written a biography of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), The Man Who Understood Democracy (Princeton Press, 2022). James Madison (1751-1836) “talked only about factions,” Zunz says in an interview. He “feared them and sought ways of limiting their impact on government.” Madison favored a strong central government. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), on the other hand, was a pioneer in creating civil society, the realm for volunteer fire departments, local post offices, clubs and other mediating institutions. De Tocqueville, Zunz says, found the United States to be unique in its dependence upon people’s institutions. However, de Tocqueville warned that our individualistic spirit could outpace our community spirit, resulting in a polarized society.
Sometimes subsidiarity is rendered small is beautiful. It does not mean, however, that government governs best which governs least. Subsidiarity insists that government step in, but not in a manner that creates dependence. Whenever possible and always to the degree that is possible, government assistance should be delivered closest to those affected, delivered through local institutions. Ideally, business should act responsibly. A particular business and an industry should operate justly–first toward its employees and then toward its customers and suppliers and then its other stakeholders. When business exploits employees, gauges customers, pollutes the environment and in other ways operates selfishly, government has a duty to regulate and punish.
Perhaps subsidiarity is better rendered no bigger than necessary. It desires the formation of ragged individuals into community-minded citizens. It protects an embedded person’s responsible freedom by buffering those big entities that can smother a person. To be continued…

Droel edits a printed newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).

Social Doctrine

The Working Catholic: Social Doctrine Part Seven
by Bill Droel

There are scores of books explaining Catholic social doctrine. The outline for many of them is a chronology of papal encyclicals (from Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 On the Condition of Labor to Pope Francis’ 2020 On Social Friendship). Or the author might pick issues like peace, health care delivery, labor relations and the environment; quoting relevant official documents in each chapter.
The Church’s Best-Kept Secret by Mark Shea (New City Press [2020]; 16.95) is different. In 159 pages written for a popular audience, Shea reflects on four social principles, giving two chapters to each: the dignity of each life, the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity. The encyclicals are referenced along the way. However, Shea prefers to illustrate the principles with lots of Scripture, some quotations from the early church and citations from C.S. Lewis (1898-1963).
Ethical consistency is Shea’s recurring theme. Some Catholics agree with our doctrine on some issues but not others. Other Catholics, including some bishops, claim to be consistent but mistakenly say one issue has greater moral weight than another. And some Catholics disingenuously claim to support Catholic doctrine, but they only use it to oppose policies or politicians they don’t like. “If your focus is on abortion, fine,” Shea writes. “But do not pretend to focus on it while actually spending your time and energy fighting against the Magisterium…and in favor of policies that harm the environment, fighting against a living wage and in favor of laissez faire capitalism.” The tone of The Church’s Best-Kept Secret is easy-going, not technical. But, as this riff shows, Shea can hammer points as needed.
There’s a difference between the world-as-it-is and “the way it is supposed to be,” Shea writes. Everyone has at least a dim notion of perfectibility, of a better situation, of the world as we hope it could be. He goes on to quote G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936): In the here-and-now people “do not differ much about what things they will call evil; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.” For example, some people justify torture during wartime (though doing so became harder in the United States after the publication of photos from Abu Ghraib Prison). Yes, says Shea, soldiers sometimes have to kill combatants in self-defense. But the moment an enemy becomes a prisoner, torture is absolutely forbidden “as gravely and intrinsically immoral.”
In the same way some people excuse abortion because in their calculus the unborn are less equal. “Hairsplitting arguments about when a fetus becomes a person are meaningless,” Shea says. Each person has a right to live “the whole of human life for the whole of life.”
Over and over, Shea insists that a moral person cannot say that one issue must take priority over others. Concern over 20 or more issues does not dilute or fracture the brand. Yes, “there is plenty of room…for specialization and focusing on specific issues and ills.” But, to make one issue morally higher than another is to make some people in some situations more equal than others. A moral person cannot deliberately excuse evil.
There is obviously imperfection in the world-as-it-is. Yet the moral person retains a vision of a world as it is supposed to be and consistently strives to lessen evil and enhance good. At the same time, Shea concludes, one must refrain from becoming a justice warrior in the sense that they presume to create a perfect world. Such a person will likely be ineffective. Always “begin where you are, and not where you are not,” he advises. You are inside a family, inside a voluntary group, in a union, at a protest or rally. Then challenge yourself and others to move a step outside your comfort zone.
Shea is not the last word on social action, its history, its principles and its current applications. Most readers will quarrel with him on some pages; which is a sign of a good book. The Church’s Best Kept Secret is fresh, accessible and challenging.

Droel is the author of What Is Social Justice (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).

Daily Grind

The Working Catholic: Routine by Bill Droel

Clocks are everywhere because our modern economy needs to know the time.
     Our “regular measurement of time and the new mechanical conception of time arose in part out of the routine of the monastery,” writes Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) in Technics and Civilization (University of Chicago Press, 1934). It was long ago that Pope Sabinianus (d. 606) ordered bells to be rung seven times per day to alert the faithful to the liturgy of the hours.
     As an urban economy eventually emerged, merchants demanded more precision. A public mechanical clock appeared in Belgium in 1188; more places followed in the 1200s. By 1345 the measurement of 60 minutes to an hour and 24 hours to a day became standard. By 1370 Paris had a well-designed modern clock suitable for urban life. In the 1600s many families in Holland and England acquired a mechanical clock for their homes.
     Yet the monasteries came first, according to Mumford. They “helped to give human enterprise the regular collective beat and rhythm of the machine; for the clock is not merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing the actions of men.” As the years went by, however, some began to think that a “completely timed and scheduled and regulated” machine civilization “does not necessarily guarantee maximum efficiency,” Mumford concludes. Sticking to the clock is not best for human development.
     Meghan O’Gieblyn, drawing upon Mumford, provides a reflection on routine for Harper’s Magazine (1/22). Have people become machines, she asks? Is the routine imposed by our economy dehumanizing? Or “is it possible in our age of advanced technology to recall the spiritual dimension of repetition”? Does a spiritual motivation lurk “in the gears of modern routine”?
     High tech and advanced automation enhance work and life, say its cheerleaders. Computers and robots free us to set aside drudgery and bring forth our agility, flexibility, creativity and spontaneity. However, “the rhetoric of flexibility…despite its existential promise to make us more human frequently undergirds policies that make the lives of workers more precarious,” O’Gieblyn writes. For example, online retail and the apps on our mobile device decrease variety by conditioning our choice of products and services.
     The goal cannot be the elimination of clocks. Covid-19 previews an unstructured existence within a total computer economy, a total gig economy and a total do-it-yourself, round-the-clock life. What is the result of decreased regimentation? Maybe too many naps. Excessive internet surfing. Heightened anxiety about childcare and schooling. Unpredictable and/or lower wages. Spiritual exhaustion.
     Humane work and a fuller life is not liberation from repetition. The old analysis still applies: Despite talk about teamwork and participation, workers are estranged from one another, from the process and outcome of their labor and eventually from themselves. That’s because too few workers—from warehouse workers to floor managers to computer programmers to middle executives—are insufficiently taught the process and the product of their labor. There just isn’t enough time to do so, we’ve assumed.
     As for O’Gieblyn, she believes “there is [still] something transcendent in the pleasures of repetition.” Tranquility is not simply the absence of structure. She cites St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) in saying that a full life requires habits aimed toward the common good. A good habit is not slavery; it is a form of grace. And freedom, O’Gieblyn concludes, is not “eliminating necessity from our daily lives.” Freedom is “the ability to consistently choose the good.”
     For more from O’Gieblyn, get God, Human, Animal, Machine (Knopf Doubleday, 2021).

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a printed newsletter on faith and work.

Social Doctrine

The Working Catholic: Social Doctrine, Part Five
by Bill Droel

Catholicism ducked its appointment with modernity for about 400 years. Not until Vatican II (1962-1965) did Catholicism open the door to dialogue with the modern world—not a wholesale acceptance of every modern trend, but an engagement conducted with patience and sophistication.
Catholicism opposed the Protestant Reformation (from 1517) because it was part of modern trends of individual standards, of sundry forms of worship and of authority structures unattached to Catholicism. Catholic officialdom was threatened by these and other emerging liberal values, including government autonomy, by professions that claimed their own independence and by secular culture. The violent anti-clericalism of the French Revolution in 1789 justifiably added to Catholicism’s fears. When the French monarchy was briefly restored, many Catholic leaders embraced it with a right wing, royalist mentality. However, by 1905 France firmly accepted modernity and its concept of autonomous society (laicite).
The Catholic/modern dialogue proceeds in fits and starts. Even today some Catholic leaders inappropriately revert to blanket condemnations, foregoing sincere dialogue with those who disagree. Yet to be fair, on several topics Catholicism’s caution about modern trends has proved prophetic.
In 1891 Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) inaugurated the formal body of Catholic social thought with his encyclical On the Condition of Labor. It condemned Marxism, a modern materialistic philosophy. To do so, Leo XIII reiterated a qualified approval of private property. As it turned out, communist collectivism oppressed rather than liberated many. Leo XIII was likewise prophetic in his condemnation of the modern materialistic philosophy of laissez-faire capitalism—what people today call neo-liberalism. An economy that spins with only the force of finance creates a hierarchical system in which the majority cannot meaningfully participate.
At its best the Catholic tradition fosters a reasonable approach with which to argue intelligently and temperately with the world, explains Fr. William O’Neill in America (12/21). The differences about current issues must respect common rules of the game, he explains. The conversation must be conducted in a common grammar.
For example, meaning must be moored to truth. The rules require that validating important matters solely on one’s opinion or one’s feelings is inadequate. Truth is arrived at through evidence. Truth-seeking is not a performance, not an avenue for vindication or a way to process resentment. An honest dialogue about modern issues has to forego cancelling the speech of others. It has to be void of self-righteousness. There is room for multiple interpretation of facts but there is no such thing as alternative facts. At the same time everyone has to understand that while the rules of truth-seeking are permanent, tomorrow’s discovery or future evidence can change yesterday’s conclusion.
O’Neill also reminds us that rights are not the same as interests. An individual right is normally a claim mixed within other rights. That is, each right comes with duties or considerations. Contrary to neo-liberal philosophy, a conflict of claims is not settled by calculating the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Decisions in the real world have to aim toward the common good; the good outcome that is only obtained if people cooperate. The decision-making process is informed argument, not outrage.
Finally, as O’Neill mentions, Catholicism or any other religion dialogues in the public square with reasoned language, not insider language. Sectarianism only isolates a religious voice. O’Neill uses abortion as an example. Catholicism opposes direct and purposeful abortion not as “one sectarian interest among others.” The opposition is not a Catholic position, per se. To influence the world, positions on abortion or other issues, have to be expressed in universal terms. And so, in a public dialogue O’Neill would put it this way: All people have a basic right to life and a right to the means of sustaining life—a right to basic nutrition, to adequate health care, etc. The “strongest case against abortion,” he says, is an argument based on “upholding the rights of all.”
Catholic leaders and ordinary Catholics can be as strident as anyone else, indiscriminately maligning groups of people. They can also shortsightedly put their faith in authoritarians or phony media personalities or corrupt business leaders. They can hurt the innocent. They can wash away their public sins as mere failures in management. Yet with humble application of our social doctrine Catholics can help improve business conduct, labor relations, social policy, care for the environment, respect for inherent dignity of each person, international affairs, the nurturing of children and more. A Catholic contribution to the world presumes, of course, that Catholics know their social doctrine and are capable of strategically using it. To be continued…

Droel edits a free newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).