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Labor and the Human Person

Find the developing series on issues to consider this election season here.

When considering economic principles and the faith, it is important to take a step back from the political debates today and truly understand how it is the Lord wants us to understand human labor. When we grasp that the dignity of the working person and the place of the family is primary, we can then discern with more confidence the political platforms that would best serve ourselves, our neighbors and the common good.

There are two great sources in the teachings of the Church, besides obviously the teachings of Jesus Himself in the Scriptures, that we should look to when it comes to issues of labor and regulation. First, I would recommend for anyone who wants to go deep in these teachings they should go back to the encyclical of Pope Leo XIII Rerum Novarum. Within this rich encyclical, written during the Industrial Revolution, he lays out the fundamental conditions necessary for justice in the economic sphere.

duskPope Leo XIII affirmed both the dignity of the worker and the dignity of work itself. He very clearly criticized Marxism, but also warned that a free market did not always take into account what is most important for a healthy society: the family and its needs. He emphasizes that the State exists to serve the well-being of the family, stating:

the family has at least equal rights with the State in the choice and pursuit of the things needful to its preservation and its just liberty. We say, “at least equal rights”; for, inasmuch as the domestic household is antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of men into a community, the family must necessarily have rights and duties which are prior to those of the community, and founded more immediately in nature (Rerum Novarum, 13).

Understanding this primacy of the family is essential for developing just social and economic ethics.

One hundred years later, Saint Pope John Paul II—a man who suffered under both Nazi and Communist regimes—also wrote clearly and strongly about the importance of social justice, particularly focusing on a just wage. While he was in favor of economic growth, he also recognized the dangers that come with too much prosperity. In Centesimus Annus, he explores how materialism, at first glance the opposite of Marxism, still similarly neglects to uphold the primacy of the human person. He writes that while a free-market system may be able to better satisfy the material needs of a population:

insofar as it denies an autonomous existence and value to morality, law, culture and religion, it agrees with Marxism, in the sense that it totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs (Centesimus Annus, 19).

If there is no acknowledged transcendent truth, then there is no sure principal to guide just relation between individuals or groups of people. Force instead, or power gained by economic gain, becomes the guiding factor determining the economic and social conditions of people. This, of course, is contrary to democratic ideals.

What Saint Pope John Paul II makes clear is that the Church does not provide specific technical, economic or political solutions. It does, however, present a Christian vision of the human person that is the basis for correct picture of society. The political order must take into account the reality of sin—that is that the human person tends towards the good, but is also capable of evil.

Therefore, we must consider a market economy, which establishes an appropriate judicial framework that orients people towards the common good. Only a model of this sort will actually lead to civil progress. Additionally, economic systems should recognize the positive role that can be played by businesses. Recognizing the dignity of the human person, private property should be acknowledged and the freedom to exercise human creativity in developing the earth should be fostered. After all, mankind benefits when human work is undertaken by men and women bolstered by intelligence and freedom.

At the same time, individual human work is certainly related to the work of others. In a prudential way, workers benefit from coming together to work towards a common goal producing goods or services (with collaboration being their foundation, not overarching big business). Through this sort of collaboration, workers can grow in important virtues such as diligence, industriousness, prudence, loyalty, etc.

In short, each Catholic should make a study of the importance of the place of work and how it fits with their family life. And, when making decisions in the political sphere, each of us should understand the workplace—whether it be at home or not—is a place to grow in holiness. As a final thought, this discussion would not be mentioning that religious freedom also has a position in the workplace. Faith is, after all, the greatest good, and Christ Himself worked for our salvation and the apostles who followed after Him give us the greatest example of what it is to work with dignity for the common good.
Fr. C. J. McCloskey III, S.T.D. is a Church historian and Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, DC. He is perhaps best known for guiding into the Church such luminaries as Dr. Bernard Nathanson, Lawrence Kudlow, Robert Novak, Judge Robert Bork, and Senator Sam Brownback. His articles, reviews, and doctoral thesis have been published in major Catholic and secular periodicals. He is co-author (with Russell Shaw) of Good News, Bad News: Evangelization, Conversion, and the Crisis of Faith (Ignatius Press) and the co-editor of "The Essential Belloc" (St. Benedict's Press).

Articles by Fr. McCloskey:

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  • DLink

    One of the difficulties in trying to meld economic principles with religious tenants is that many sincere believers have only a passing acquaintance with economics and what they “know” is often incorrect. The laws of economics are as real as the laws of physics and breaking either has consequences. Much of what is perceived as wrong with the free market is, in fact, both a violation of free market principles and usually the seventh, eighth and tenth commandments.