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).