In his 2019 Labor Day statement, On the Hundredth Year of the United States Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction, Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, invites us to consider how we can work together to address the persistence of low wages and inequality in our workplaces:
In the Gospel for this Labor Day, Jesus proclaims in the synagogue the words of Isaiah: that he, like the prophet, has been “anointed” “to bring glad tidings to the poor” (Lk. 4:18). How do we bring glad tidings to the poor today? As Pope Francis said earlier this year, “today’s tendency is toward slowing down the pace of reducing extreme poverty and increasing the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. . . . Many do not have food to eat and live adrift while a few drown in excess. This perverse current of inequity is disastrous for humanity’s future.”
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the “Bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction,” published by an early predecessor of the current U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Following World War I, the bishops recommended a series of “practical and moderate” reforms because “the only safeguard of peace is social justice and a contented people.” Today’s economy, if measured by the stock market, has the most money and wealth it has ever had, and unemployment is around the lowest it has been in fifty years. And yet, roughly four in ten Americans cannot afford an unexpected $400 bill, and would fall below the poverty line after three months without income. More than one in five jobs in the United States is in a low-wage occupation where the median wage pays below the poverty threshold for a family of four. Real wages have been largely stagnant for decades, and workers’ share of the fruits of the economy has been declining for decades. Why does this situation persist? It is worth revisiting the “Bishops’ Program,” which presented three themes from Catholic social teaching that, as recent research suggests, may help explain the present.
It is up to us, as Bishop Dewane reminds us, to live and act in solidarity with all workers as we seek to live out the call of the Gospel:
As the “Bishops’ Program” concluded 100 years ago, “[c]hanges in our economic and political systems will have only partial and feeble efficiency if they be not reinforced by the Christian view of work and wealth.” In this view, workers and owners both have rights and duties towards each other; a business enterprise must view itself as a “society of persons” rather than a mere commercial instrument. As Pope Francis recently said, “[t]he new course for sustainable economic development needs to set the person and work at the center . . .”16 To this end, no merely technocratic policy changes will bear the fruit that is so desperately needed today. Rather, with consideration for the treasury of the Church’s social teaching, let us consider “new processes” that can build up justice in the workplace over time. Let us then proceed as a people who, through Baptism, share in Christ’s anointing “to bring glad tidings to the poor.”
Read the complete 2019 Labor Day statement (also available in Spanish), and find ways to help your community respond with prayer and action in the 2019 pastoral aid. (en Español) Additional ways you can help your community support workers and strive for just workplaces: