Six Key Church Documents Addressing Labor

Catholic principles of social justice are as old as the Gospel and the Church itself. Catholic social teaching on the rights of workers, and specifically on their right to organize in labor unions, has been clear, consistent, and explicit for more than a century. These six documents are required reading for anyone who wishes to understand Catholic social teaching on labor.

1. Rerum Novarum, 1891

This encyclical letter by Pope Leo XIII is often considered the founding document of modern Catholic social teaching. Alarmed that industrialization and laissez-faire economics were becoming the occasion of great injustice and misery for the working classes, the Holy Father called on the faithful to “save unfortunate working people from the cruelty of men of greed, who use human beings as mere instruments for money-making. It is neither just nor human so to grind men down with excessive labor as to stupefy their minds and wear out their bodies (42).” Leo argued that the worker’s right to a living wage took precedence over the free market. “Wages, as we are told, are regulated by free consent… nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice (43,45).” He argued against the laissez-faire ideology, stating that “if employers laid burdens upon their workmen which were unjust, or degraded them with conditions repugnant to their dignity as human beings; finally, if health were endangered by excessive labor, or by work unsuited to sex or age – in such cases, there can be no question but that, within certain limits, it would be right to invoke the aid and authority of the law (36).” He also endorsed the formation of “workingmen’s unions,” arguing that “it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient (49).”

2. Quadragesimo Anno, 1931

On the fortieth anniversary (quadragesimo anno) of Rerum Novarum, Pope Pius XI reaffirmed and elaborated its teaching. Pius expressed continuing concern about the unjust distribution of wealth, asserting that that “the distribution of created goods, which, as every discerning person knows, is laboring today under the gravest evils due to the huge disparity between the few exceedingly rich and the unnumbered propertyless, must be effectively called back to and brought into conformity with the norms of the common good, that is, social justice (58).” Against those who continued to advocate the laissez-faire state, he insisted that social regulation of the market was essential to justice and the common good. “Just as the unity of human society cannot be founded on an opposition of classes, so also the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching (88).” Finally, the Holy Father explained in some detail the idea of subsidiarity and its application in society. “The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands. Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of “subsidiary function,” the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State (80).”

3. Gaudium Et Spes, 1965

After holy Scripture itself, the statements of an ecumenical council are the most authoritative of all Church documents. The Council declared that the right to form labor unions without fear of retaliation a basic human right. “Among the basic rights of the human person is to be numbered the right of freely founding unions for working people. These should be able truly to represent them and to contribute to the organizing of economic life in the right way. Included is the right of freely taking part in the activity of these unions without risk of reprisal (68).”

4. Laborem Exercens, 1981

On the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, Pope John Paul II revisited the themes laid out by his predecessors, devoting a substantial section of his Encyclical to “The Importance of Unions (20).” The Holy Father observed that “the experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life” and that they serve as “a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice.” He clarified further the right to strike: “workers should be assured the right to strike, without being subjected to personal penal sanctions for taking part in a strike.”

5. Economic Justice For All, 1986

America’s Catholic Bishops issued this “Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy” to help our nation’s faithful think through the implications of Catholic Social Teaching for our social and economic life. While the world measures economic success in the number of goods produced, the Bishops remind us that Catholic teaching would hold instead “the most urgent priority for domestic economic policy is the creation of new jobs with adequate pay and decent working conditions (136).” They noted that although “Catholic social teaching does not require absolute equality in the distribution of income and wealth” it entailed “a strong presumption against extreme inequality of income and wealth as long as there are poor, hungry, and homeless people in our midst (185).” The Bishops defended the right to organize in the strongest terms, and called for labor law reform to better protect that right. “The Church fully supports the right of workers to form unions or other associations to secure their rights to fair wages and working conditions…. No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself. Therefore, we firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably now seen in this country, to break existing unions and prevent workers from organizing. Migrant agricultural workers today are particularly in need of protection, including the right to organize and bargain collectively. U.S. labor law reform is needed to meet these problems as well as to provide more timely and effective remedies for unfair labor practices (105).” Nor did the bishops exempt the Church from these obligations of social justice. “On the parish and diocesan level, through its agencies and institutions, the Church employs many people; it has investments; it has extensive properties for worship and mission. All the moral principles that govern the just operation of any economic endeavor apply to the Church and its agencies and institutions; indeed the Church should be exemplary… We bishops commit ourselves to the principle that those who serve the Church—laity, clergy, and religious—should receive a sufficient livelihood and the social benefits provided by responsible employers in our nation…. All church institutions must also fully recognize the rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively with the institution through whatever association or organization they freely choose. (347, 351, 353)”

6. Caritas in Veritate, 2009

Catholic thinkers in the United States (seldom elsewhere in Christendom) who oppose labor unions can frequently be heard asserting that Church teaching on unions applied only to the conditions at the start of the industrial revolution. In his Encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI addressed this error directly. “Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome. The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past (25).”

— Clayton Sinyai, Catholic Labor Network