Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami
Chairman, Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
September 1, 2014
This year Pope Francis canonized Saint John XXIII and
Saint John Paul II. Both made immense contributions to the social teaching of
the Church on the dignity of labor and its importance to human flourishing. St.
John Paul II called work "probably the essential key to the whole social
question" (Laborem Exercens, No. 3)
and St. John XXIII stressed workers are "entitled to a wage that is determined
in accordance with the precepts of justice" (Pacem in Terris, No. 20).
Pope Francis added to this tradition that work "is
fundamental to the dignity of a person.... [It] 'anoints' us with dignity,
fills us with dignity, makes us similar to God... gives one the ability to
maintain oneself, one's family, [and] to contribute to the growth of one's own
nation." Work helps us realize our humanity and is necessary for human
flourishing. Work is not a punishment for sin but rather a means by which we make
a gift of ourselves to each other and our communities. We simply cannot advance
the common good without decent work and a strong commitment to solidarity.
Labor Day gives us the chance to see how work in America
matches up to the lofty ideals of our Catholic tradition. This year, some Americans
who have found stability and security are breathing a sigh of relief. Sporadic
economic growth, a falling unemployment rate, and more consistent job creation suggest
that the country may finally be healing economically after years of suffering
and pain. For those men and women, and their children, this is good news.
Digging a little deeper, however, reveals enduring
hardship for millions of workers and their families. The poverty rate remains
high, as 46 million Americans struggle to make ends meet. The economy continues
to fail in producing enough decent jobs for everyone who is able to work,
despite the increasing numbers of retiring baby boomers. There are twice as
many unemployed job seekers as there are available jobs, and that does not include
the seven million part-time workers who want to work full-time. Millions more,
especially the long-term unemployed, are discouraged and dejected.
More concerning is that our young adults have borne the
brunt of this crisis of unemployment and underemployment. The unemployment rate
for young adults in America, at over 13 percent, is more than double the
national average (6.2 percent). For those fortunate enough to have jobs, many
pay poorly. Greater numbers of debt-strapped college graduates move back in
with their parents, while high school graduates and others may have less debt
but very few decent job opportunities. Pope Francis has reserved some of his
strongest language for speaking about young adult unemployment, calling it
"evil," an "atrocity," and emblematic of the "throwaway culture."
The situation is even worse in other parts of the world, with
young adult joblessness reaching up to three and four times the national
average even in places like England and Australia. In some countries,
three-fourths of young people who work have resorted to the unstable and sometimes
dangerous informal economy in an attempt to make ends meet. Pope Francis has
said young people "call us to renewed and expansive hope, for they represent
new directions for humanity and open us up to the future." (Evangelii Gaudium, No. 108). We need to
do more to nurture hopefulness and provide our young adults with skills,
support, and opportunities to flourish. We need to
do more to nurture this hopefulness and provide our young adults with skills,
support, and opportunities to flourish.
Meaningful and decent work is vital if young adults hope to
form healthy and stable families. Work and family life "must be properly united
and must properly permeate each other. In a way, work is a condition for making
it possible to found a family, since the family requires the means of
subsistence which man normally gains through work" (Laborem Exercens, No. 10). Research is bearing out the consequences
of neglecting this relationship: marriage rates have declined by close to 20
percent in the last 40 years, and the birth rate is the lowest on record. Among
young adults, the decline in marriage has been steeper, at 40 percent. Although
not the only reason, many young adults, because they are unable to find decent
work, are delaying marriage and starting a family.
Our challenge this Labor Day is to rise to the challenge
of solidarity posed by Jesus when he commanded, "[L]ove one another. As I have
loved you, so you also should love one another" (Jn 13:34). The Catechism of the Catholic Church
teaches, "Socio-economic problems can be resolved only with the help of all the
forms of solidarity: solidarity of the poor among themselves, between rich and
poor, of workers among themselves, between employers and employees in a
business, solidarity among nations and peoples" (No. 1941). Since each of us is
made in the image of God and bound by His love, possessing a profound human
dignity, we have an obligation to love and honor that dignity in one another,
and especially in our work.
What would our communities, parishes, and country look
like if we all recommitted to each other and the common good? If, instead of
lamenting the dwindling hopes of our young people, we create institutions,
relationships, and an economy that nurture human flourishing? If, instead of
bickering about ideologies, people acknowledged the human dignity of others and
At their best, labor unions and institutions like them embody
solidarity and subsidiarity while advancing the common good. They help workers
"not only have more, but above all be more... [and] realize their
humanity more fully in every respect" (Laborem
Exercens, No. 20). Yes, unions and worker associations are imperfect, as
are all human institutions. But the right of workers to freely associate is
supported by Church teaching in order to protect workers and move them--especially
younger ones, through mentoring and apprenticeships--into decent jobs with just
As a nation of immigrants, we recognize that a vibrant
and just economy requires the contributions of everyone. Those who come seeking
decent work to support their families by and large complement, rather than
displace, American workers. But we need to fix our broken immigration system to
stop the exploitation and marginalization of millions of people as well as
address the development needs of other countries. In doing so we would also level
the playing field among workers, provide more opportunity for all who can work,
and bring about a needed "change of attitude toward migrants and refugees"
(Pope Francis, Message for the World Day
of Migrants and Refugees).
Supporting policies and institutions that create decent
jobs, pay just wages, and support family formation and stability will also
honor the dignity of workers. Raising the minimum wage, more and better
workforce training programs, and smarter regulations that minimize negative
unintended consequences would be good places to start.
In doing this we follow the lead of Pope Francis in rejecting
an economy of exclusion and embracing an authentic culture of encounter. Our
younger generations are counting on us to leave them a world better than the
one we inherited.
For parish resources, check out this Labor Day Supplemental Aid.
Catholic Social Teaching on Labor: A Primer
Primer on Poverty, an Option for the Poor, and the Common GoodThe Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium)
is the long-awaited
teaching of Pope Francis on the proclamation of the Gospel. Pope Francis
is calling upon the Church and the world with encouragement to begin a
new chapter in evangelization. This dynamic document is written in the
plain, everyday language for which the pope has become famous.
Selected Quotes of Pope Francis by Subject