Catholic Social Teaching, Work, and a Jobless Recovery

Catholic social doctrine supports both justice for workers and the promotion of marriage and the family; they are not separate concerns.

Two years ago, Dr. Rupert J. Ederer wrote in Inside the Vatican that while Karl Marx’s economic theory proposed inevitable class conflict, Father Heinrich Pesch, SJ’s (1854-1926) theory focused on social justice (giving what is due to others) and social charity (giving what is yours to others) as the surest means to promote the common good. When one reads solidarity in Catholic social encyclicals, then one must remember Pesch. He argued for a solidaristic system of human work, drawing from Scripture and Church tradition. Work is not just what happens at one’s job; it encompasses the interdependence of our lives in the family, community, nation, and world.  On the one hand, our individual interests, according to Pesch, could either support or detract from the common good; on the other hand, the state—while playing a valid role in society—is neither the sole judge of the common good nor the best administrator of private property. He believed that society prospers when workers and their employers organize with each other rather than against each other.

Pesch’s understanding of the moral theology of St. Thomas Aquinas was central to his use of solidarity, which is grounded in Christian neighbor love, the Beatitudes, and the Church Fathers’ social teaching. His use of solidarism rejected both the injustice of Marxist collectivism that would deny freedom, and a capitalist, self-interested individualism that could lead to greed. The upholding of justice and the self-giving in charity of solidarism remain vital to the common good. Pesch’s contribution to Catholic social teaching is useful for reflecting upon the present state of unions and the national work force.

The current situation

The United States is experiencing a jobless recovery with 10.2 million unemployed workers that account for 6.6 percent of the work force. Each month thousands of jobs are created, while at the same time thousands of new workers enter the work force; the economy, unfortunately, is creating too few jobs for the growth in the working population. Hundreds of thousands of men and women are the “discouraged unemployed”—those desiring work but no longer searching. The data reveal a true unemployment figure of 12.7 percent or more if the underemployed, marginally attached workers, and discouraged workers are included in the official national rate.

While the economy has continued to grow, one million fewer people are employed today then the early months of the Great Recession in 2008. The work force is also overwhelmingly employed in service jobs and not the more lucrative and unionized manufacturing jobs of the past—the mid-range jobs that maintain a middle class.  Union membership has also shrunk. Union members make up about 11 percent of the labor force, roughly half of them are public employees, and in absolute numbers the US has fewer union members today (14.5 million) than in 1983 (17.7 million).

Although present federal labor laws and the mixed success of their enforcement have made labor organizing and worker protection a perennial challenge, even if labor law reform were to benefit organizing, it would still not prevent the loss of work and union power due to technology. From a historical perspective, Samuel Gompers, the great champion of 20th century labor, believed workers would never stop technological progress and its impact on work. We have a jobless recovery because every generation of employers learns the value of producing more by substituting automation and technology for employees, and the so-called Luddite fallacy (machines replacing workers) is proving true.

The use of automation is now increasing exponentially; e.g., supermarket chains are already experimenting with automated inventory and stocking systems just as they have automated check-out lines. In California the United Food and Commercial Workers faced challenging negotiations and potential strikes because of competition from warehouse stores that were providing products and services at lower prices, albeit with non-union workers—and the average consumer is attracted to the savings. Obviously, capital investments and technological innovations do not carry the payroll taxes, medical benefits, and retirement costs attached to employees, and business owners are profit-maximizers who are not enamored of competition; they ultimately want economic dominance, which is essentially monopolistic power. Think of Amazon, Wal-Mart, and Home Depot, who already have technologically-sophisticated, capital-intensive distribution centers. During the Gilded Age, the Sherman Act addressed the power of monopolies, and anti-trust laws continue to serve this purpose. Yet Samuel Gompers, who was no radical, believed trusts were the most effective and efficient of organizations and that voluntarism, rather than big government, would preserve America’s moral and social strength.

While the market system, free enterprise, and our self-interest have been foundational to the great economic development of the past two centuries, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was not a treatise solely justifying self-interest and wealth accumulation: “But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only” [emphasis added]. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he wrote: “However selfish man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though they derive nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

It is clearly not against the self-interest of workers or communities to make demands at times on the owners of capital or for businesses to seek greater productivity and lowers costs with fewer employees. Problems arise, however, when the self-interest becomes a threat to the common good, and individuals and special interests deny the role of benevolence in a well-ordered society, a view that Adam Smith never absolutized in the Wealth of Nations. In fact, human beings are inclined to consider the interest of others whether they are adherents of Christian neighbor-love or non-believers. Consider Warren Buffet’s reasonable call for higher taxes on the super-rich. “Self-interest,” although a reality, is not the whole of the human person; it becomes reductio ad absurdum.

Living out solidarism

In our Catholic tradition virtues oppose vices, and these opposites point out the duality faced in everyone’s life. St. Thomas taught us to do good and avoid evil. The Church has never stopped teaching about the capital sins and the virtues that oppose them, although many Catholics may not know them. Economics too often raises up self-interest without adequately acknowledging the vices of greed, slothfulness, gluttony, envy, and so on. Economist Herbert Simon’s distinction between satisficers (i.e., people who accept a reasonable, less-than-optimum return on investment) and optimizers (i.e., people who maximize outcomes, like profits) seems to address the human person more adequately. In the case of slothfulness, economists have their “free rider” understanding, in other words, recognizing that some people will take benefits or resources without helping to pay for their costs. Nonetheless, “self-interest” in contemporary economic thinking is atomistic thinking, whether it is “enlightened” or not.

The separation of morality from spirituality, in the union hall or corporate boardroom, poses a major problem. Secularists might categorize such an assertion as the spiritualizing of ethics, or perhaps moralizing, particularly when asserted in academic circles, but both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas saw the Sermon on the Mount as the mandate for Christian moral living. Our spiritual lives influence our moral lives, and the cultural drift away from the faith hurts us. God wants the happiness of men and women, and the tradition teaches us that truth and the good ultimately provide our happiness.

Pope Benedict XVI’s social encyclical Caritas in Veritate underscored the need to embrace truth in our effort to live good lives, that is, lives of charity or “love.” Employers and employees live out solidarism when they take the path of the virtuous life. The Trinity is the paradigm of solidarism because the love found in the Trinity is the guide for our social relationships. Charity, as St. Thomas teaches, is the form of all the virtues and moves us to a vision of God and our ultimate happiness. Today, work life and the economy are in need of cooperative, self-denying initiatives; unfortunately, these efforts too often appear to the world as irrational as fasting, penance, and almsgiving. Yet St. Paul exalted Christ crucified, not things of the world. All people want what is good; we desire happiness, but the universal desire for happiness reins in our absolute happiness by reason and the virtues. With the promise of eternal life, Christians can place themselves by the virtue of charity at the service of higher goods, becoming salt, light, and leaven in a challenging world.

Some labor union officials, however—and some corporate leaders also commit this error—separate life ethics and social ethics. Life ethics speak to the family, the protection of the unborn and infirm, and social ethics speak to our desire for the common good and integral development. Caritas in Veritate is about integral human development in charity and truth. “Charity is love received and given” (CV #5). “Truth, in fact, is lógos which creates diÁ-logos, and hence communication and communion. Truth, by enabling men and women to let go of their subjective opinions and impressions, allows them to move beyond cultural and historical limitations and to come together in the assessment of the value and substance of things” (CV #4).  In Caritas in Veritate Benedict used Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio to remind the world that integral human development can only occur with fidelity to the truth, and freedom and justice can only occur in a world animated by love. Benedict underscored Paul VI’s apostolic letter Octogesima Adveniens (1971) because of its balanced endorsement of technological development without an idolizing of technology, and Paul VI’s letter Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), which links justice, peace, and evangelization to development.  With regard to life ethics, Benedict explicitly explained that Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (1968) was important to Catholic social teaching because of the “strong links between life ethics and social ethics.” A healthy society cannot on the one hand work for human dignity, justice, and peace, and, on the other hand, devalue and violate human life itself (CV #15).

An ethical approach to economics

Charity starts at home, and so does the learning of truth. In the case of ethics, marriage between a man and a woman is where eros and ethos meet, life begins, and the family becomes the primary vital cell of society. The contemporary breakdown in the family and the denial of a respect for life from conception to natural death are both anti-development phenomena according to Caritas in Veritate. Catholic social teaching supports both justice for workers and the promotion of marriage and the family. They are not separate concerns.

Labor unions and their leaders will continue to lose Catholic allies when they endorse political initiatives and politicians that reject traditional marriage and dismiss a respect for life. Business leaders are also culpable for decisions that negatively impact the family and life itself; for example, Caritas in Veritate criticizes the financial speculation that contributed to the present world-wide recession. So, too, corporations and financial institutions will mistakenly accept causes that diminish the family and reject the gift of life. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reiterated Benedict’s admonishment:

Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect, and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beings. (58)

George P. Shultz, the former Secretary of Labor and of State, has publicly stated that a free society cannot exist without a viable labor movement, and the Catholic social encyclicals have repeatedly underscored the necessary role of workers’ associations and unions in society. Many American bishops have supported, in particular, service and trade unions that have advocated for immigrants, just as bishops supported immigrant workers from Europe in the past. Foreseeable technological advances in this century suggest that union membership will not significantly increase. Public sector unions that have had multiple bites at the proverbial apple (e.g., the election of political allies, the right to collective bargaining, and protection from offshoring) are only relatively safe. Wisconsin voters rejected the public unions’ framing of the justice issue, and privatization through subcontracting always remains a threat to public employees. Michigan and Indiana have become right-to-work states. Yet, despite their faults, the presence of unions and a vigorously enforced right to organize will always remain important to our freedom.

Our Lord Jesus Christ sanctified work through his life, and the feast of St. Joseph is an appropriate time to remember and honor the contributions of workers in the United States and around the world. It provides an opportunity to consider humanity’s co-creative role, especially with regard to workers’ historical contributions to the accumulation of knowledge and wealth in our society, as well as to reflect upon the challenge of insufficient employment, a threat to the common good. One path is to make more people owners of capital. The well-studied Mondragón cooperative in Spain and Employee Stock Ownership Programs in the US are such examples.

Martin Ford, in The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology, and the Economy of the Future, has suggested fewer payroll taxes to encourage hiring and “virtual work,” incentive-based programs for education, and other activities that provide an income when no work is available. “Virtual work” wages would come from business taxes, particularly on highly automated enterprises. These companies will increasingly depend on American consumers for their profits without providing American workers income and benefits, in essence acting as free riders to the economic system. Martin Ford’s position is that our economic system cannot sustain itself without adequate consumption, which is dependent on income. 

Technology, automation, and political clout are not substitutes for the virtues, the Gospel message, and Church tradition. Worldwide efforts to distribute more artificial contraceptives and promote abortion as development strategies, as well as initiatives to redefine marriage, are on par with the Tower of Babel. The co-mingling of these mistaken efforts with worker needs and familial well-being is to reject both charity and truth. They will create chaos and pain in the lives of innocent people who are encouraged to live by their selfish desires rather than by the virtues that lead to authentic happiness. When the United States labor movement and corporate America join such efforts they devalue the intelligence and authentic freedom of their members and customers. Father Heinrich Pesch, SJ’s solidarism, self-giving rather than self-taking, is fundamental to Catholic social teaching and provides true hope for working people.

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About Father George E. Schultze, SJ 8 Articles
Father George E. Schultze, SJ is a spiritual director at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem and the Latin Patriarchal Seminary in Beit Jala. He studied Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, worked as an NLRB Board Agent, and was a member of the NLRB Union. His studies and teaching focus on work life, marriage, and the family.