Monday, September 5, 2011

Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus - Of Popes, Work and Human Dignity, A Labor Day Reflection

In May of 1891 a papal encyclical was published by Pope Leo XIII as the Industrial Revolution continued to change the world for both good and ill. This encyclical was called Rerum Novarum, meaning Of New Things. One hundred years later, Blessed Pope John Paul II issued, Centisumus Annus, or 100 Years, to speak to the same matters of work and human dignity, one hundred years later.

In 1891 there were oppressed workers everywhere. All the mechanization of work had created a need for workers. This was a good thing, right? Maybe not so much... Work is good, oppressive work is not good. At the heart of our Catholic Christian faith is the essential dignity of the human person. Oppressive work that exists to create capital alone dismisses the dignity of the human person. This is exactly what Pope Leo XIII wanted to be clear about. Pope John Paul II expressed the same thing.

We would be wise to read, reflect and pray with each of these documents and to consider our current culture in the U.S. and in the world. It seems to me that in some ways very little progress has been made.

As I reread each of the encyclicals, I was particularly struck by these words from Centisimus Annus:

A workman's wages should be sufficient to enable him to support himself, his wife and his children. "If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accepts harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice".

This reminds me of many things. One the near-constant drumbeat of messages that we hear which speak to the need to support business in the current challenging economic climate, so that business might support people. There are equivalent conversations about the opposite. As a result, hese words from Pope Leo XIII strike me in a particular way.

"Therefore, venerable brethren, as on former occasions when it seemed opportune to refute false teaching, We have addressed you in the interests of the Church and of the common weal, and have issued letters. . . .The discussion is not easy, nor is it void of danger. It is no easy matter to define the relative rights and mutual duties of the rich and of the poor, of capital and of labor. And the danger lies in this, that crafty agitators are intent on making use of these differences of opinion to pervert men's judgments and to stir up the people to revolt."

When he speaks of craft agitators intent on making use of differences I think of our current political climate in this country!

I know that not-so-long-ago when I was a senior corporate executive, we were faced with mounting pressure on how to cut, cut, cut costs. Now I can't speak for all companies, but my former employer was not in economic straits, not in the least. The cut, cut, cut refrain was about how to increase profits and "shareholder value."

And I might add - and this is my experience - certainly not necessarily universal, that the one way a manager could really cut costs and increase productivity, was to cut staff.  Another way was to hire people who might not be quite as competent, but who required lower salaries.

I'm pretty sure that everyone who worked for my former employer, in most business functions, did make enough money to support a family; at least for the most part. There may have been exceptions. This is not the case everywhere and may not be the case there now; I do not know.

I do know that I look back and wonder about just how and where human dignity entered into the equation. And I wonder about Pope John Paul's words, "If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accepts harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice".

While I left the corporate world four long years ago, I do know of many of my friends who are employed but who live with a sword of Damocles over their heads. When other positions are cut, it is like they are the lucky ones in the cakewalk who end up with a seat. However, the pressure to do more work is ever-present along with the threat, generally silent and implied, that they could be next... So while people might be earning a good enough living, whatever that is, where is the dignity when the work is forced out of a place of fear?

This situation may seem enviable to the under-employed, the unemployed and the really long-term unemployed. However, this is another reminder that human dignity continues to be commoditized and that the value of it has dropped even lower.

We have much to pray and reflect about this Labor Day. Ultimately I think that what we might want to consider is this - where is God in this for all of us? If work , if money, if unions, if union-busters all become false gods, we are lost.

Let us all reflect and pray on what we think God is saying to us in our time. What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


Missy Francis said...

It's not new, but the romance between neoliberal free market capitalism (a minimal state and low taxes) and social conservatism (huge state interference in private matters, except private earnings) has never felt more oppressive. Human dignity is not even a commodity to people who embrace these ideas--it is a waste product.

I'm just glad there are a few people like you, Fran, who are capable of thinking deeply about this. God bless you.

Yours in the struggle...

Simon said...

Hi Fran,

Well said.

I don't want to come across all geeky but at times like this I always like to cut through the political spin and look at some hard numbers. At a time when the average man is fearful for his livelihood, profits as a percentage of GDP are at an all time high in the US. Anyone who says that enterprise is not getting a fair deal is simply not looking at the picture in the round. Unfortunately, change can take a crisis to bring it about. The financial crisis of a couple of years ago may have been the start of just that but the failure of policy makers to engage and ensure that there is not a second leg down means that the next few years may yet be worse than the ones we have recently experienced. If that brings about a more enlightened approach to economic policy making then perhaps it may have been worthwhile. However, given the unwillingness of some politicians (particularly those influenced by ideological blinkers) to see the benefits of a fairer society, I am not terribly confident but I am praying that Gentle Ben (Bernanke)can keep the boat afloat.