Labor Day

The Working Catholic: Labor Day
By Bill Droel

International Workers Day (May Day), the counterpart to our September Labor Day, was inspired by an 1886 event here in Chicago. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor obtained a city permit for a May rally/demonstration in the Haymarket area (now a trendy restaurant spot). Late in the evening someone at the rally threw dynamite. Police began to fire wildly into the dwindling crowd. Soon seven officers and four workers were dead.
Eight workers were quickly rounded up, including a lay minister, a printer and others. Seven were found guilty by August. Two got life sentences (one of whom was killed in jail); one was given 15 years. The remaining four were hanged in November.
A couple years after the Chicago event European countries designated May 1st as Labor Day to honor the Haymarket Workers. For that reason, May 1st became the feast of St. Joseph the Worker.
And what was the issue that brought the workers to the Haymarket rally? Shorter work hours.
This was hardly the first effort in our country to reduce the working day. The 1830s saw an Eight-Hour Day Movement, details Mike Konczal in Freedom from the Market (The New Press, 2021). As part of that movement, Boston Trade Unions issued the “Ten-Hour Circular.” (Presumably they thought eight was unachievable.) This statement prompted six months of rotating strikes and protests across Boston. It was used in Philadelphia to start a general strike. There was a big parade after which the city passed a ten-hour workday law. In Baltimore the city mechanics, drawing on the same statement, won a ten-hour day. “Demands for time could unify workers facing different working circumstances,” writes Konczal.
By 1868 Pennsylvania had suggested “an eight-hour workday as the default.” When it came to enforcing this suggestion or any other work-related law, the obstacle was overcoming the prevailing attitude that contracts are “a foundational form of freedom and government should never interfere with markets,” says Konczal. The contract need not be a written document. The worker knew the score when she or he took the job. The freedom of contract assumption, then and now, is a fallacy because “government and courts intervened in important ways,” but not in the interest of workers. Laws and court decisions were for the most part intended “to boost the power of bosses and owners while limiting and stymieing the actions of workers.”
The notion of an eight-hour day gained traction during the Great Depression. In 1930 W. K. Kellogg (1860-1951) changed the work schedule at his cereal company. Production went to three shifts per day, six hours each. An employee normally clocked 30 hours per week. Wages were increased by 12.5%. “This will give work and paychecks to the heads of 300 more families in Battle Creek,” Kellogg said.
The union at Kellogg proudly issued progress reports, documenting improved efficiency, decreased unit cost and dramatic reduction in injuries. Other well-known companies (Remember Hudson Motor Car?) joined the experiment. However, after World War II workers and their unions wanted to participate in the consumer boom. They pushed for more hours in order to get more pay, including overtime. Kellogg gradually phased out the 30-hour week and completely eliminated it by 1985, writes Benjamin Hunnicutt in Kellogg’s Six Hour Day (Temple University Press, 1996).
Covid-19 presents an opportunity to experiment with remote work, flex time and other work arrangements. The topic of shorter hours is also in the mix because our Covid-19 economy has meant a shortage of competent workers in some key sectors. Thus, some business executives see reduced hours as a tool for recruitment and retention.
To be continued…
Droel is associated with National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).

Social Doctrine Part II

The Working Catholic: Social Doctrine Part II
BY BILL DROEL

Modern Catholic social doctrine dates from May 1891 with the publication of On the Condition of Labor by Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903). Customarily, social encyclicals are subsequently released on significant anniversaries of On the Condition of Labor.
In May 1981 Mehmet Ali Agca, a criminal from Turkey, shot Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) in St. Peter’s Square. Thus John Paul II’s anniversary encyclical was delayed until September 1981. It is titled On Human Work.
Every worker is equal in dignity, says John Paul II. That’s because the dignity of work originates with the person doing the work; the person who raises children, instructs students, assists homebuyers, manages portfolios, takes orders at the drive-through window, crafts legislation, develops affordable housing or supervises a manufacturing plant. A boss cannot confer dignity. An executive secretary is no more dignified than the night janitor. Every worker is equal—not necessarily in pay or expertise, but equal in dignity prior to, during and after the job or task.
The word work, according to John Paul II, is any activity that comports with God’s on-going creation and redemption. A homemaker is a worker. Unemployed workers, volunteer tutors and chief executives are all workers. A gun trafficker is not a worker because she or he detracts from the plan of God. A predatory lender is not a worker. An adult who abuses children is not a worker.
The design of an economy, the policies of a specific business, or the management style of a boss or the level of cooperation among fellow workers make it easier or harder to experience holiness through work. On Human Work says that the first purpose of any economy or business is the fulfillment of its workers. Fulfilling work is some combination of putting bread on the family table, benefitting society with a needed service or product, participating in a team effort and growing in self-knowledge. If a company first has regard for its workers, it will likely also respect its suppliers and customers or clients. (Remember, its workers include the shop hands, janitors, executives, nurses, top partners, drivers, public relations personnel, sales force and more.) That company with competent management and a needed product or service will likely be profitable.
The best test of whether a company respects its workers is its wage structure. “In every case a just wage is the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system” and each business within it, writes John Paul II. “It is not the only means of checking but it is…the key means.” Get wage structure right, the company and society will be right. Wage structure, by the way, includes the top (not paid too much) and the bottom (not paid too little).
On Human Work names other considerations for a whole, holy economy or business. John Paul II warns against an authoritarian business or a collectivist economy. No surprise coming from a champion of anti-communism. He likewise warns against neo-liberal individualism. No surprise coming from a Catholic. Instead, he favors businesses that value subsidiarity (bottom-up decision making), participation and solidarity (solidarność).
John Paul II devotes a section to the “importance of unions,” and he affirms “the right to strike.” He reminds employers and employees that the disabled have “ideas and resources” and can be offered a job “according to their capabilities.”
On Human Work concludes with an intriguing section titled Elements for a Spirituality of Work. John Paul II, in a totally neglected injunction, says that the whole church has “a particular duty to form a spirituality of work…which will help all people come closer, through work, to God.” Such spirituality is “a heritage shared by all.”

Next up: Pope Francis’ contributions to social doctrine. For now, obtain John Paul II’s Gospel of Work edited by Bill Droel (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $7 discount price).

Social Doctrine

The Working Catholic: Social Doctrine
By Bill Droel

Modern Catholic social doctrine is officially 130-years old. It dates from Pope Leo XIII’s May 1891 encyclical, On the Condition of Labor. Subsequent popes (as will be mentioned) advance social doctrine, often on anniversaries of On the Condition of Labor.
Doctrines are derived from reflection on the accumulated experience of Christians in many societies and from an application of reason or science, particularly the social sciences. Doctrines are in harmony with God’s revealed Scripture. Dogma, by contrast, comes to us directly from revelation; it cannot be figured out only through study of nature. The dogma of the Trinity, for example, fits an understanding of nature but God had to reveal the Trinity to us. Dogma is not irrational; it is not opposed to science. It is true but not empirical, like a spouse’s love.
Western Europe in the time of Leo XIII (1810-1903) was experiencing industrialization which in turn attracted thousands of families to urban centers. This industrial era held forth many promises including a higher standard of living and conveniences. However, Leo XIII among others saw that industry and urban life came with a paradox: degrading working conditions and great poverty amid concentrated wealth. The Communist Manifesto of 1848 addressed the paradox and named a resolution: proletariat revolution. Leo XIII countered Marxism with Christian principles.
The bedrock principle of Catholic social doctrine is the intrinsic dignity of each person. Humanists all agree that modern individuals are free and can exercise appropriate agency. Jews, Christians and Muslims know that this truth is additionally supported in Scripture; that each person is created in the image and likeness of God. (Genesis 1:27 & Qur’an 17:70)
The modifier intrinsic is important because the term dignity is sometimes used carelessly. Intrinsic means built-in. For example, a husband does not give his wife dignity. She has it long before they meet. An employer does not give employees dignity. It comes with them in the morning and stays with them after they punch the clock. God put dignity into each person.
A negligent husband or an exploitative boss can, of course, degrade a person’s dignity. Thus an obligation to improve degrading situations follows from the principle of basic dignity. To that end On the Condition of Labor advocates for safe and humane working conditions, for a family wage and for the right of workers to collectively bargain. To achieve these and other improvements, Leo XIII says government’s role includes restraint on laissez-faire capitalism.
A subsequent column will discuss other social encyclicals—specifically St. John Paul II’s On Human Work on its 40th anniversary and the recent encyclicals of Pope Francis, one on inequality/environment and one on public friendship.
Officialdom uses the term Catholic social teaching for these encyclicals and a few other Church documents. I prefer the term Catholic social thought and action. This includes the official teaching but it also includes reflection on the teaching and its implementation in worldly settings. Doctrine is principles that tell us what to do. But, they have to be applied with prudence. As the principles hit the streets or corridors, right-minded people can disagree on the how to implement the doctrine in fluid situations. Here’s one small example: Catholic social doctrine says employees have a right to bargain collectively without the maternal or paternal meddling of their boss. The application, however, is more complex. Do we necessarily want a union at this workplace? If so, do we want this union or a different union or an independent union of our own making? If we do not want a union, what is our alternative mechanism for improving conditions at our workplace? Sincere employees can respectfully disagree with one another. This example becomes more complex if unfortunately the employer violates the starting principle or skirts the law. To be continued…

Obtain Droel’s booklet Catholic Administrators and Labor Unions from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $1.50).

Social Sin

The Working Catholic: Social Sin
by Bill Droel

Although social sin is Catholic doctrine, it is rarely part of sacrament preparation nor is it normally mentioned during the sacrament of reconciliation.
Slavery, for example, is a social sin even if every Christian plantation owner had been kind, even if the pharaoh of olden times had not been cruel and harsh. “Institutions, laws and modes of thinking and feeling are handed down from previous generations,” explains Vatican II (1962-1965). A bad system (like a good institution) has a certain momentum or independent character. Bad institutions make holiness difficult. Good institutions serve as reminders for upright behavior.
Poverty is a social sin. Although a poor person, like anyone else, might steal or lie, it is not their poverty that is a sin. The sin is an economic structure that perpetuates significant and needless poverty. We don’t think about social sin, says Vatican II, because we are plagued with an individualistic mentality. But we cannot “content [ourselves] with merely individualistic morality.” Christians must promote and assist “institutions dedicated to bettering the conditions of human life.”
It is true that social sin is somewhat metaphorical, says the Vatican’s 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine. Social sin does not weaken or cancel “the personal component by admitting only social guilt and responsibility. At the bottom of every situation of sin is always the individual who sins.” At the same time this metaphorical sense cannot overtake the objectively sinful nature of some systems. The Compendium mentions wages, the fairness of which “is the most important means for achieving justice in work relationships.” It “is not sufficient [for] an agreement between employee and employer with regard to the amount of pay… to qualify as a just wage.” In a given circumstance it so happens that an employer or an employee may have a reason for substandard wages. The morality of a wage is, however, determined objectively, apart from the motives of employer or employee.
How then can social sin be brought into the sacrament of reconciliation? It would seem that a creative liturgy planner in the parish could devise a service each Lent about our society’s social sins—things for which we collectively bear responsibility. Suggestions are welcome.
Another way to get at this notion of social sin is to consider its antibodies. To counter individual sin, we summon a specific virtue. If, for example, my individual sin is neglect of family members, I make a habit of generosity around the home during Lent. If the habit persists after Easter, it becomes my individual virtue.
A good institution is a social virtue. Specific virtues (social habits) are designed to counter social sin. The Compendium mentions solidarity as a social virtue about relationships that tend toward ethical-social improvement. Virtues are not feelings. Solidarity, the Compendium continues, is not a distant touch of compassion for the afflicted. It is a commitment to act with others for the sake of the common good.
Social Justice is a social virtue. The term is often used generically to cover outreach efforts, government distribution programs and protesting. The term is also used to describe crusading individuals, some lobbyists and those with sincere intentions. However, in Catholicism social justice is a specific type of the general virtue of justice. It is a collective virtue; an individual cannot practice social justice. Its intent is the improvement of institutions or policies. Its unique act is organization; that is, people finding like-minded others and then applying tactics and strategies for the good of the commons. In mainstream Catholicism social justice usually happens during the weekday within normal settings. It is not normally an on-and-off weekend activity by outsiders to an institution, though those efforts can be needed. Social justice is participation. It requires many hands, feet and minds. As it evolves, a sound social justice effort likewise increases participation. Employees have a surge of morale because of their reform efforts. Professionals increase their dedication because through their association they instituted a reform.
Social justice (a collective habit) is a primary vaccine against social sin. It is the means for bettering the conditions of human life. Because each exercise of social justice is less than 100% effective, it requires booster shots. All institutions need a little social justice during Lent and a little more during Eastertide and then another dose in all the weeks after Pentecost.

Droel is the author of What Is Social Justice (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5)

From Mobilizing to Governance

The Working Catholic: Mobilizing and Governing
by Bill Droel

The young adult activists who inspired the world this past summer now have the challenge of translating their fervor into practical reform. It is the transition from mobilizing to governance.
The founders of our country were more prepared for the transition to governance than other revolutionaries, argues Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). She compares France to the United States in her classic On Revolution (Penguin, 1963). By the time of their 1787 meeting in Philadelphia, our founders were able to craft a democratic system that endures to this day. Our system, as detailed in our glorious Constitution and in its Bill of Rights and 17 subsequent amendments, is obviously imperfect. It has suffered through rebellions, a Civil War, a tyrannical-like presidency and more. Yet ploddingly and with setbacks, our experiment in democracy inches toward its goal of full liberty and justice for all.
Back in France however, the 1789 revolution was followed by turmoil for a decade and by instability thereafter. Bastille Day was a triumph, but onto the next step the French revolutionaries “had no experience [of governance] to fall back upon, only ideals and principles untested by reality,” says Arendt. The French Revolution was “an intoxication whose chief element was the crowd.” The difference, Arendt concludes, is that the U.S. revolutionaries, in contrast to the French, had the experience of political assembly, long before 1776. Or as John Adams (1735-1826) said: The U.S. Revolution was well underway months and years before Lexington and Concord.
Again, assembly in our 13 North American colonies was imperfect; a right for only some. Black slaves could not initially enjoy that right and women could not vote for or serve in governing bodies. Yet our revolution was not the product of chaos. It was not an accomplishment of solitary heroics urging a rabble forward. For example, Paul Revere (1734-1818) and William Dawes (1745-1799) did not ride as strangers through towns at midnight, randomly knocking on doors. They had advance planning that allowed them to alert small mediating institutions. They knew the leaders of churches and other voluntary associations. Revere himself belonged to five clubs or lodges in the Boston area. Samuel Adams (1722-1803) belonged to the North Caucus, the Long Room Club and others. The same is true for the other founders. In their church committees, lodges, town halls and taverns our founders practiced the arts of governance—deliberation, compromise, balancing interests, public speaking, correspondence and the like.
Outsiders don’t always make for good insiders. Andrew Nagorski in The Birth of Freedom (Simon & Schuster, 1993) examines the monumental movements against communism in Eastern Europe, particularly the 1989 revolt in Poland. He describes the difficulty of transitioning from “dissidents into established politicians.” Lech Walesa’s problems as president were in part related to “the general difficulty of making the psychological switch from the politics of resistance to normal democratic politics,” Nagorski concludes.
The Arab Spring of 2011 was like the revolution in our country in that groups, not solitary individuals, led the way. Yes, Wael Ghonim launched a Facebook page to promote opposition to the Egyptian government. Yes, his and other internet sites helped plan actions. But the leaders came from small groups: lawyers’ circles, engineers’ clubs, the Arab Doctors Union, groups within the Muslim Brotherhood, Coptic churches, trade unions, alumni groups and soccer teams.
The Arab Spring was on the other hand unlike our U.S. revolution. Its leaders did not have prior training in the arts of governance. The young adults involved did use their friendships to temporarily smooth over their religious and ideological differences under the stress of the moment, reports Robin Wright in Rock the Casbah (Simon & Schuster, 2011). However before 2011, they had “limited—and largely unsuccessful—political experience,” she continues. In fact, their prior experience with the government was mostly limited to detention and jail. The Arab Spring was largely over by summer of 2012. External factors, including governments’ use of internet blocking and propaganda plus government counter-force, doomed the promise of the revolt. But internal factors played a major part in the demise, specifically the rebels’ lack of experience in governing.
Choices await the young adult activists in our country. They must decide: Is it better to go it alone; to start fresh? Or is it better to draw upon decades of experience from like-minded reform groups, including some labor locals, some churches, some professional associations, some civic organizations and more? Can our idealistic young adults employ sufficient arts of governing to really implement better policies and institutions?


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

Farm Workers

The Working Catholic: LeRoy Chatfield.
by Bill Droel

Time is catching up with the founders of the United Farm Workers Union (www.ufw.org). Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) has been dead for 27 years. Rev. Jim Drake (1938-2001) died young. Larry Itliong (1913-1977), who started the famous Delano Grape Strike and National Boycott of September 1965, is gone. Dolores Huerta is now 90 and Rev. Chris Hartmire is in his late 80s. So too is LeRoy Chatfield.
Chatfield was the administrative assistant to Chavez during the ten crucial years of the UFW. He has recently given us two gifts: A memoir, To Serve the People: My Life Organizing with Cesar Chavez and the Poor (University of New Mexico [2019]; $27.95) and the definitive Farm Worker Documentation Project (www.libraries.ucsd.edu/farmworkermovement/archives).
Chatfield did everything. He walked the first picket line, tended to Chavez during his 25-day fast, was part of the march to Sacramento, managed the operation when Chavez was on the road a month at a time, raised money and spoke at colleges, organized a major legislative labor campaign in California, represented the UFW at the funeral of Robert Kennedy (1925-1968)–all of this after Chavez took on the 31-year old Chatfield to develop farm worker cooperatives, which he also did. Chatfield was on the scene prior to the Delano Grape Strike and played a key role in it. His chapter about it is the best in To Serve the People.
Prior to these defining ten years, Chatfield was for 16 years a member of Christian Brothers of De La Salle (www.delasalle.org). Peter Maurin (1877-1949), a founder of Catholic Worker Movement (www.catholicworker.org), once belonged to the same order, Chatfield reminds us. All through the book he refers to his connections with the Catholic Worker. He served as a teacher and administrator at Christian Brothers’ schools in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Bakersfield. His social formation occurred as a Christian Brother—sometimes by way of the community, sometimes in spite of it. For example, a Christian Brother recruited Chatfield, then aspiring to the order as high school student, for a cell of a specialized Catholic Action group. He was intrigued by social doctrine, though he didn’t understand much of it. However, he memorized and experimented with the Catholic Action method. “I tell you that nothing in my life since age 14 has served me better or landed me in more hot water than those damn principles of observe, judge, act,” he writes.
Just as often, Chatfield’s social formation came through his own involvements with student groups and Catholic organizations, including a Catholic Worker house in Oakland and a relationship with Ammon Hennacy (1893-1970). The tale of how he found Chavez indirectly includes the Catholic Worker. At age 29 Chatfield (then known as Bro. Gilbert, FSC) went to Boston to participate at the annual convention of National Catholic Social Action Conference. NCSAC was founded by former Catholic Workers John Cort (1913-2006) and Ed Marciniak (1917-2004). At the Boston conference Chatfield heard “that a man by the name of Cesar Chavez was organizing farm workers in Delano, California.” That was enough for Chatfield.
In this memoir Chatfield expresses affection for all the people and groups he met. There is no bitterness. He left the Christian Brothers only because he wanted full-time involvement with farm workers and presumably the order was unprepared to assign him to that mission. He likewise left the UFW with abiding affection.
“For nearly ten years, Cesar was my best friend,” says Chatfield. They talked over family matters, their faith, sports, politics and lots more. This autobiography is not in any way a tell-all. But in details here-and-there it gives a glimpse into the tragic flaw of the heroic Chavez. A full picture comes through in the sympathetic biography, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez by Mirian Pawel (Bloomsbury, 2014).
Chatfield came to Chavez out of general desire to help farm workers. Chavez left his job with Community Service Organization out of the same general desire. Chatfield calls this “Cesar’s vision.” There was unresolved tension about the exact purpose of Chavez’ movement. It was parts union focused on gaining collective bargaining status, part social service agency, part public relations lobby on behalf of farm workers, and at times a retreat-style spiritual community. Chavez was the only one who knew and controlled the game plan. Thus there was arbitrariness about his leadership. It was a vision; something that Chavez did not or could not share in a bullet point memo.
As the months went by Chatfield got the message that he would be a fall guy for defeat during a legislative campaign. There was no showdown; Chatfield simply knew it was time to go. Plus he and his wife Bonnie, whom he met in the movement, had four daughters; a fifth was born subsequently.
The second part of the book is equally interesting. Again, the Catholic Worker is part of the story. By 1974 Chatfield was a manager in Jerry Brown’s gubernatorial campaign and went on to serve in the administration, including as director of California Conservation Corps. He then spent five years in real estate development and two more years back in school. Meanwhile, Catholic Workers Dan Delany (1935-2015) and Chris Delany were busy founding a comprehensive house for the unemployed and homeless, Loaves and Fishes (www.sacloaves.org). They hired Chatfield to be its first director. His chapters on these 13 years contain interesting reflections on addiction and on possessions plus a list of tips for managers of non-profits.
Upon retirement Chatfield, wouldn’t you know, returned as a Loaves and Fishes volunteer, developing cottages for the homeless. During retirement Chatfield also returned to producing a journal for high school authors, (www.syndicjournal.us). On Chatfield’s own website, (www.leroychatfield.us), many of his Easy Essays are posted.
Jorge Mariscal put this autobiography together. Its references are up to the minute, but sections of the book are reconstructed from interviews in 1976, from notes in 2002, from several segments written in 2004 and from Chatfield’s diary entries in 1961, 1968-1969 and 1993. There’s a little repetition, but it is not distracting.
Social change movements and their leaders are diminished when they become part of our celebrity culture. True social change requires many energetic and reflective people, most of whom never appear in the news. Chatfield’s account and others like it are an important contribution to understanding how change occurs. Today’s activists are wise to learn from the past; from its positives and negatives.

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

Doctrine

The Working Catholic: Social Doctrine
by Bill Droel

Catholic social doctrine comes to us in a series of principles derived from Scripture, from science/reason (including social science) and indispensably from 2,000 years of Christian experience in all manner of social, political and cultural settings. There is no official list of these principles, though several pamphlets and statements provide a starting lineup—usually including innate dignity of each person, solidarity, subsidiarity, dignity of work, common good, social justice and recently option for the poor. A Catholic is expected to prudently apply these principles within her or his own milieu.
Any one principle can be pulled out for close examination and specific use. It is important to remember, however, that the principles are complementary. For example, the principle of subsidiarity says that decisions are best made as close as possible to those affected by the decision, but subsidiarity cannot be pulled too far away from other principles. Neo-conservatives wrongly use it to say “the government that governs least governs best.” Subsidiarity has to be paired with other principles that affirm government, like solidarity, distributive justice and more.
Each principle builds on the God-given dignity of each person. For example, no employer nor any company procedure nor any policy measure can give a person dignity. Likewise, nothing can take a person’s dignity away. Dignity can be and often is disrespected–sometimes by others, other times by the person. But dignity resides with God.
The principle of dignity of work comes from a proper reading of Genesis: Work is not the punishment for sin. It is part of God’s original intention. The dignity of work also comes from a natural law (science/reason) understanding that people are fulfilled through work: Homo Faber. Plus this principle comes from experience, embodying the principle of participation in workplaces.
The dignity of work principle has several corollaries. Among them: The right of employees to vote yes or no on a union without the maternal or paternal interference of their employer. A just strike and the prohibition on Catholics to cross a just picket line are also corollaries.
Not every workplace has to have a union, Catholicism says. However, a healthy, holy society must allow for unions (or guilds). The union movement as a countervailing force is a moral necessity. Catholicism counts on unions (and plenty of other groups) to advance justice and peace throughout society.
The Catholic principle on unions must not drift too far from the other principles like the common good. This turns out to be good sociology. That’s not surprising because Catholic doctrine came in part from a reflection on social science.
Sociology says that people join and participate in voluntary associations to meet two needs: the need to belong and the need to make a difference. Some organizations are mostly about belonging. Others are primarily about making a difference. A sound union does both. It bargains for its members’ wages and conditions. It also attends to grievances. Plus on the belonging side of its purpose, a union sponsors social events for members and their families. Simultaneously union members make a difference as their organization aligns with social improvement organizations (including other unions), donates material and time to charity efforts, co-sponsors a conference or assists other workers, including those overseas. Plus, a union in one workplace improves by way of precedent conditions and pay in a similar company.
All unions, indeed all voluntary groups must aim at the common good, says Catholicism. The common good is the total of desirable things or conditions that no one can singularly obtain. Common goods like clean water or fresh air or the removal of a menacing virus can only be obtained collectively. A just and peaceful neighborhood is one example of a common good. Thus in this example, a union does not only bargain for the economic and safety interests of its members, it also does its part, along with other groups, to obtain neighborhood peace and justice.

Bill Droel is editor of John Paul II’s Gospel of Work (NCL, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $8).

St. Francis

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel

The modern age began, let’s say, in 1500. That date is precise enough to include two pioneers of modernity. Christopher Columbus made his trans-Atlantic journey and was discovered by Native-Americans in 1492. Martin Luther (1483-1546) took a 16 ounce hammer to the door of All Saints Church on the hollowed eve of that church’s feast, October 31, 1517. The modern age is characterized by global travel and commerce (Columbus) and by the primacy of the individual over authoritarian institutions (Luther).
Other features of what we call modern life were introduced over 300 years before 1517, explains Adolf Holl in one of the three or four best biographies of St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), The Last Christian (Doubleday, 1980).
The book begins with reference to two clocks. Monasteries and large churches long maintained rope-pulled bells to mark the liturgical hours: Lauds at dawn, Vespers in the evening and Compline at bedtime. But the bell clock was solar-timed; which meant early Lauds in summer, later in winter. Tournai in Belgium obtained a degree of autonomy from feudal counts and lords in 1188. That year its merchants built the first belfry or bell tower designed for town business, standard time year round. It was subsequently elevated and still operates. A Tournai wall clock sells today for about $60. In 1309 Milan in Italy installed a fully-mechanical clock set to secular time. From then until now we use a machine to arrive at business on time. A replica Milan tabletop clock now sells for anywhere from $14 to $80.
“For one last time, before the forces of progress thundered off on their triumphant path, one man looked into the motivating thrust behind the whole thing and decisively rejected it,” writes Holl. When time took over the public square, St. Francis stopped time.
And what was that motivating thrust?
St. Francis’ confrontation with his apparel merchant father is well-known. In its dramatic moment, St. Francis took off all his clothes in a public setting and threw them along with his money pouch at his father. Until now Pietro Bernardone was my father, St. Francis yelled. From now on only Our Father who is in heaven is my father. There was never reconciliation. Thinking over what led to his shocking behavior, St. Francis keyed into one word that was common to each conflict with his father: money. St. Francis committed himself to ending all association with money. “It became the enemy he would fight inexorably for the rest of his days,” says Holl. St. Francis was keenly interested in climbing the social ladder…climbing its rungs downward. At every moment that he thought he had compromised, that he wasn’t radical enough, he took one more step down.
For you see, St. Francis’ place and time revealed another feature of what we call modern life. His setting was “the cradle of modern capitalism.” His rejection of money explains why he was not attracted to the medieval monasteries, of which there were many. It was within the monasteries, Holl continues, that the basic values of capitalism developed—“purposeful rationality, discipline, abnegation, enterprise and inventiveness.” The monasteries were the first factories. His rejection of money explains why his followers (the Franciscans) are not monks. They are iterant preachers, called friars.
Although he rejected all previews of modernity, St. Francis did not run away. He was not a hermit. He preached outdoors, mostly by gestures. “He needed spectators and he got them,” says Holl. A new movie will bring Jerry Rubin (1938-1994), the premier 1960s yippie, back to public attention. St. Francis and Rubin are different, but they share a fondness for small counter-capitalism gestures. On one of his romps, Rubin obtained a pass for the viewers’ gallery above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. He pulled hundreds of dollar bills out of his pocket and let them fly. Predictably, the floor traders, the foot soldiers of capitalism, scrambled to collect the money. The exchange was forced to briefly halt trading.

A few years ago one of my students asserted that “St. Francis was a failure.” He hardly reformed the church, she said. It is more corrupt than ever. His religious order has many buildings and has its share of scandal. Nor did St. Francis do anything to stop the evils of the modern age from gaining dominance.
I’m not sure she was correct. I’ve conversed with many young adults who find their high-powered career unsatisfying, who are discontent with the status quo. I regularly meet young adults who, at least in a portion of their life, engage in counter-capitalism. For example, they participate in the slow food movement, the slow fashion movement, the green movement and more. Whenever appropriate I suggest a good biography of St. Francis to these idealists.
Those young adults who know something about St. Francis–whose feast day is Sunday, October 4, 2020–universally relate to the stories about birds and other animals. These young adults also like his association with the environmental movement. However, his need for institutions is a prohibitive block that stops young adults from fully embracing St. Francis’ approach to a meaningful life. How could he retain affection for institutions while seeing so much corruption in the church and while enduring so much disappointment within his fledgling religious order? In caring about institutions, St. Francis was not like Jerry Rubin. To be continued…
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a print newsletter about faith and work.

God Takes Delight

The Working Catholic: God’s Pleasure
by Bill Droel

Ben Cross died last week. He was an actor best known for his portrayal of Harold Abrahams, an Olympic runner, in Chariots of Fire (Warner Brothers, 1924). Abrahams is a Jewish student at University of Cambridge. He has to deal with anti-Semitism on his way to the 1924 games in Paris. The film, based on a true story, won four Academy Awards including best picture.
The plot around Abrahams has a parallel story line. Ian Charleson, who died in 1990, plays Eric Liddell, another young runner. Liddell is supposed to go to China to engage in Christian missionary activity. His sister, touching a part of his conscience, says that training for the Olympics distracts him from God’s calling. Liddell is torn but makes peace with his plan. In the film’s famous line, he says: “I believe God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
The Lord takes delight in endeavors well done. Once upon a time a prominent church hereabout commissioned an artist to paint the figure of God the Father. The artist was so thrilled by the greatness of her subject that she vowed to do the painting on her knees. Well, this went on for a few days until God appeared to her and thundered: “You are not supposed to paint me on your knees. You are supposed to paint me well.”
The notion persists that for work to be holy it either must occur under church auspice or it must get an additional coating of piety or sacredness.

What is the proper definition of holy work? It is the thing one does to live and/or the thing one lives to do. Volunteering and homemaking can be good work presuming the worker receives sufficient financial resources from elsewhere. If the good work is the way one supports oneself and a family, the pay must be just. Without a family wage, the endeavor is objectively damaged. The paternalism of the employer and the desperation or generous heart of the employee is irrelevant in calculating a family wage.
Good work is how a person fulfills his or her human nature. Each of us has a God-given nature that came with a work impulse already installed. Good work is how a person participates in the on-going creation and redemption of society.
Good work is a primary way that a person exercises the virtue of solidarity by cooperating with fellow workers for improvements in the product, the service, the delivery or even the culture of the industry or sector. This impulse to associate for improvement is another built-in feature of human nature.
All types of jobs qualify as good work, excluding only those that violate God’s plan: a predatory lender, a trafficker of teenage girls, or a gang leader. Good work is any endeavor that upon a worker’s contemplation she or he sees God’s perfection reflected. This does not mean that the medical procedure has to always be a total success. The class on obtuse angles or the one on dangling participles can flop. The anticipated lauds for the play or the concert do not occur. The courtroom defense does not impress the jury. The day or the week or the month of child rearing can be total frustration. At a certain time, however, a worker can look back upon an endeavor and know that given the challenges of the job she or he did their best.

Unfortunately, Christians do not—for whatever reason—get the message that their work matters to God; that work in itself contributes to the spiritual life. Yet all Christians, as St. John Paul II (1920-2005) said, are called to a spirituality of work.
Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), playwright, essayist and creator of the fictional detective Lord Peter Wimsey, says that Christians will have only a pro forma adherence to the faith as long as they do not hear or feel that Christianity has anything to do with the meaning of work—on the job, around the home and in the community. An intelligent carpenter, she says, hears that religion means “not to be drunk and disorderly in leisure hours and to come to church on Sundays. What the church should be telling him [or her] is this: The very first demand that religion makes…is that he [or she] should make good tables.”
To be clear: God wants catechists and preachers in the mission field and around the parish. God wants those teachers and preachers to be compassionate. But a tender heart and willingness to volunteer are not sufficient. God feels pleasure when preachers, catechists and all workers do it well. For example, God expects preachers and catechists to critically study Scripture. God expects them to stay current, using magazines like Commonweal, America or Christianity Today, just as God expects doctors to read medical journals carefully, engineers to keep up with safety manuals and to read about new materials or chemical compounds.

God made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure, said Olympian Eric Liddell. The Lord takes delight in all endeavors well done.

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

Labor Apostle

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel

There’s a new edition of Christian Socialism: An Informal History by John Cort (Orbis Books, 2020). Gary Dorrien of Union Theological Seminary provides its introduction. The book generally goes in chronological order from the New Testament onto the Church Fathers (East and West), then St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and St. Thomas More (1478-1535). Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) appears in a chapter about France and Most Rev. William Temple (1881-1944) in one about England. The chapter on Catholic socialism draws upon papal encyclicals, the thoughts of Msgr. John A. Ryan (1869-1945) of St. Paul and on liberation theology.

John Cort (1913-2006), a 1935 Harvard University graduate, served our country as a Peace Corps volunteer in Philippines, as a local director in the Office of Economic Opportunity and as a director of a municipal program. He is best known as founder of Association of Catholic Trade Unionists in February 1937.
In the 1940s the Communist Party controlled 15 major labor unions in the U.S. and had influence within others. Many blue-collar workers at the time were immigrant Catholics. If Catholicism was indifferent to the world of work, Cort reasoned, the door is open to communists to use unions for their ideological purpose. Thus ACTU would encourage Catholic workers to join unions and be active members, Cort said. It assisted with CIO membership drives, battled racketeers and sponsored labor schools where workers learned leadership skills and discussed Catholic social principles. At ACTU’s peak there were 5,500 members in 14 cities. Many ACTU chapters published hard-hitting newspapers.
ACTU was controversial. Some Catholics accused it of cooperating with communism. The greater criticism came from the other end: ACTU was a voting-block within union locals, so fixated on anti-communism that it turned a progressive labor movement hopelessly rightward. Indeed, a few ACTU chapters got so obsessed with communism that they lost ACTU’s original purpose. Cort repeatedly said that the U in ACTU stood for unionists, not unions. He did not advocate Catholic trade unions or Catholic political parties, as sometimes occurred in Europe. Catholics display their faith in public life simply by being good unionists–or in other examples, good politicians, good civil servants, good nurses, good teachers. The workers in ACTU met outside their job site with fellow Catholics for mutual support, spiritual formation and instruction on social doctrine. Communists in the 1930s and 1940s were not socialists or progressive prophets who planted seeds of reform, said Cort. They were Stalinists who denied the spiritual life and who jeopardized national security. ACTU, Cort insisted, “was a progressive organization most of whose leaders and members were dedicated to honest democratic trade unionism.” Thus for Cort non-violence was a non-negotiable religious principle. No exceptions.
Only in the 1970s did Cort publicly call himself a socialist. But he was clear that socialism is not crazy radicalism, not totalitarianism and not communism. For Cort it came from a vision of society based on religious principles, not on Marxism. The vision is sketched in Catholic social encyclicals and develops through the efforts of ordinary Catholics, in cooperation with like-minded colleagues, to improve policies in their workplace and their community. By the way, these encyclicals—from 1891 to 2000—equally critique total systems like communism and unrestricted systems like neoliberal capitalism. Cort gave an example. A 1937 encyclical by Pope Pius XI (1857-1939) was, of course, published in Latin. It is often titled in English as On Atheistic Communism. “I analyzed this encyclical and found that one-quarter of it is devoted to the evils of communism and three-quarters are devoted to the evils of capitalism,” he said. “It might well have been entitled On Atheistic Capitalism.

For those not interested in the history lessons contained in Cort’s Christian Socialism, get a used copy of Cort’s autobiography, Dreadful Conversions (Fordham University Press, 2003). It is terrific spiritual reading.
St. Basil (329-379) gives “the best and shortest summary of Catholic social teaching,” Cort was fond of saying. “The coat that hangs in your closet belongs to the poor.”

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