On Monday, September 5, the United States celebrates Labor Day, recognizing the dignity and rights of workers. As preachers, this is an opportunity for us to call on our communities to better appreciate this dimension of human life and Catholic teaching. The province’s peace and justice commission would like to offer some food for thought on the matter.
Preaching to commemorate Labor Day could come in many forms, including reflecting themes such as the roles of work and leisure in human flourishing or our status as “co-creators” with God.. The Sunday liturgy in particular offers homilists a prime opportunity to bring light to the ethical treatment of workers, a perpetual issue in a market economy such as ours. (As far as choice of day, the Monday itself is set aside for commemorating our friends and benefactors. Should one want to use the Labor Day readings, they can be found at no. 907-911 in Volume IV of the lectionary.)
Fortunately, the readings for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time are relevant to the topic. In the gospel passage, Jesus advises those who would follow him to count the cost of discipleship. Following Christ demands everything of us. Certainly, this “cost” is often intangible: we have to hand over our grudges, our resentments, our pride, et cetera. That said, it’s easy to overlook the obvious: if we are going to call ourselves followers of Jesus, we can’t turn a blind eye to the literal costs of discipleship, either.
This is especially true for those in positions in which they employ others, whether business owners or members of religious houses. (We must not hesitate to point our fingers at ourselves.) The Gospel demands more of us than putting ten percent in the collection basket (or twenty percent to the province) and presuming ourselves justified. If we live comfortably while denying our workers a living family wage, we may find our Lord telling us, “I do not know where you are from” (Lk 13:25).
The Church’s teaching on the just wage is no less consistent than that on abortion or contraception, even if these latter issues get a lot more attention. Unfortunately, calls for ethical business practices can easily be dismissed as “father’s opinion.” It may help to back up your challenge with a citation from a relevant magisterial text. A sample can be found below. Use them at your discretion. Finally, here’s a prayer offered by the USCCB. Happy preaching.
Appendix: Various Magisterial Texts Addressing the Just Wage
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2434: A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice. In determining fair pay both the needs and the contributions of each person must be taken into account. "Remuneration for work should guarantee man the opportunity to provide a dignified livelihood for himself and his family on the material, social, cultural and spiritual level, taking into account the role and the productivity of each, the state of the business, and the common good." Agreement between the parties is not sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages.
Rerum Novarum (Leo XIII, 1891), 45: Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; 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.
Quadragesimo anno (Pius XI, 1931), 71-74: In the first place, the worker must be paid a wage sufficient to support him and his family. That the rest of the family should also contribute to the common support, according to the capacity of each, is certainly right… But to abuse the years of childhood and the limited strength of women is grossly wrong. Mothers, concentrating on household duties, should work primarily in the home or in its immediate vicinity. It is an intolerable abuse, and to be abolished at all cost, for mothers on account of the father's low wage to be forced to engage in gainful occupations outside the home to the neglect of their proper cares and duties, especially the training of children. Every effort must therefore be made that fathers of families receive a wage large enough to meet ordinary family needs adequately. But if this cannot always be done under existing circumstances, social justice demands that changes be introduced as soon as possible whereby such a wage will be assured to every adult workingman…
In determining the amount of the wage, the condition of a business and of the one carrying it on must also be taken into account; for it would be unjust to demand excessive wages which a business cannot stand without its ruin and consequent calamity to the workers. If, however, a business makes too little money, because of lack of energy or lack of initiative or because of indifference to technical and economic progress, that must not be regarded a just reason for reducing the compensation of the workers…
Let, then, both workers and employers strive with united strength and counsel to overcome the difficulties and obstacles and let a wise provision on the part of public authority aid them in so salutary a work. If, however, matters come to an extreme crisis, it must be finally considered whether the business can continue or the workers are to be cared for in some other way…
Lastly, the amount of the pay must be adjusted to the public economic good…that the opportunity to work be provided to those who are able and willing to work. This opportunity depends largely on the wage and salary rate, which can help as long as it is kept within proper limits, but which on the other hand can be an obstacle if it exceeds these limits. For everyone knows that an excessive lowering of wages, or their increase beyond due measure, causes unemployment… Hence it is contrary to social justice when, for the sake of personal gain and without regard for the common good, wages and salaries are excessively lowered or raised; and this same social justice demands that wages and salaries be so managed, through agreement of plans and wills, in so far as can be done, as to offer to the greatest possible number the opportunity of getting work and obtaining suitable means of livelihood.
Gaudium et spes (Vatican II, 1965), 67: Remuneration for labor is to be such that man may be furnished the means to cultivate worthily his own material, social, cultural, and spiritual life and that of his dependents, in view of the function and productiveness of each one, the conditions of the factory or workshop, and the common good.
Laborem exercens (John Paul II, 1981), 19: Just remuneration for the work of an adult who is responsible for a family means remuneration which will suffice for establishing and properly maintaining a family and for providing security for its future. Such remuneration can be given either through what is called a family wage-that is, a single salary given to the head of the family for his work, sufficient for the needs of the family without the other spouse having to take up gainful employment outside the home-or through other social measures such as family allowances or grants to mothers devoting themselves exclusively to their families…
Experience confirms that there must be a social re-evaluation of the mother's role, of the toil connected with it, and of the need that children have for care, love and affection in order that they may develop into responsible, morally and religiously mature and psychologically stable persons. It will redound to the credit of society to make it possible for a mother-without inhibiting her freedom, without psychological or practical discrimination, and without penalizing her as compared with other women-to devote herself to taking care of her children and educating them in accordance with their needs, which vary with age. Having to abandon these tasks in order to take up paid work outside the home is wrong from the point of view of the good of society and of the family when it contradicts or hinders these primary goals of the mission of a mother.
Caritas in veritate (2009), 63: In many cases, poverty results from a violation of the dignity of human work, either because work opportunities are limited (through unemployment or underemployment), or “because a low value is put on work and the rights that flow from it, especially the right to a just wage and to the personal security of the worker and his or her family”... What is meant by the word “decent” in regard to work? It means work that expresses the essential dignity of every man and woman in the context of their particular society:... work that makes it possible for families to meet their needs and provide schooling for their children, without the children themselves being forced into labour; work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard; work that leaves enough room for rediscovering one's roots at a personal, familial and spiritual level; work that guarantees those who have retired a decent standard of living.