Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami
Chairman, Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
September 5, 2016
In every age, O Lord, you have been our
– Psalm 90:1
This Labor Day, we
draw our attention to our sisters and brothers who face twin crises—deep trials
in both the world of work and the state of the family. These challenging times
can pull us toward despair and all the many dangers that come with it. Into this reality, the Church shares a word
of hope, directing hearts and minds to the dignity of each human person and the
sanctity of work itself, which is given by God.
She seeks to replace desperation and isolation with human concern and
true solidarity, reaffirming the trust in a good and gracious God who knows
what we need before we ask him (Mt. 6:8).
A World of Work in Disarray
behold signs that have become too familiar in the years following the Great
Recession: stagnant wages, industry leaving towns and cities behind, and the
sharp decline in the rate of private-sector organized labor, which fell by more
than two-thirds between 1973 and 2009 down to 7%. Millions of families still find themselves
living in poverty, unable to work their way out. Poverty rates among children are alarmingly
high, with almost 40 percent of American children spending at least one year in
poverty before they turn eighteen.
Although this reality is felt nation-wide, this year new research has
emerged showing the acute pain of middle and rural America in the wake of the
departure of industry. Once the center
of labor and the promise of family-sustaining wages, research shows these
communities collapsing today, substance abuse on the rise, and an increase in
the number of broken families.
Family in Crisis
family is bent under the weight of these economic pressures and related
cultural problems. Pope Francis, at the conclusion of his address to Congress
last September, spoke of the consequences for families:
How essential the family has been
to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and
encouragement! . . . In particular, I would like to call attention to those
family members who are the most vulnerable, the young. For many of them, a
future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem
disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and
despair. Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We need to face
them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than
getting bogged down in discussions. At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say
that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family,
because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents
others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.1
Economic and political forces have
led to increasingly lowered economic prospects for Americans without access to
higher education, which is having a direct impact on family health and
stability. For example, over half of
parents between the ages of 26 and 31 now have children outside of a marriage,
and research shows a major factor is the lack of middle-skill jobs – careers by
which someone can sustain a family above the poverty line without a college
degree – in regions with high income inequality. Divorce rates and the rate of single-parent
households break down along similar educational and economic lines. Financial concerns and breakdowns in family
life can lead to a sense of hopelessness and despair. The Rust Belt region now appears to have the
highest concentration in the nation of drug-related deaths, including from
overdoses of heroin and prescription drugs.
Church weeps with all of these families, with these children, whose homes and
worlds are broken. As Pope Francis has
said: "There are many unjust situations, but we know that God is suffering with
us, experiencing them at our side. He
does not abandon us. Jesus not only
wanted to show solidarity with every person.
He not only wanted everyone to experience his companionship, his help,
his love. He identified with all those
who suffer, who weep, who suffer any kind of injustice. He says this clearly: 'I was hungry and you
gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a
stranger and you welcomed me.' (Mt.
"So That They May
All Be One" – John 17:21
we begin to look for answers to these realities, we gain less confidence from
many of our political leaders these days. Instead of dialogue and constructive
solutions that bring people together, we see increasing efforts to divide as a
means to gain support. But more
divisions are never the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:19-21).
When our leaders ought to be calling us toward a vision of the common
good that lifts the human spirit and seeks to soothe our tendencies toward
fear, we find our insecurities exploited as a means to further partisan
agendas. Our leaders must never use
anxiety as a means to manipulate persons in desperate situations, or to pit one
group of persons against another for political gain. For our dynamics to
change, we must replace fear with a fuller vision that can be powerfully
supported by our faith.
The Good News is Still Good
said: "Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you
rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light" (Mt. 11:28-30). Let us begin by going to the Lord, laying our
burdens at the foot of His cross and giving over our hearts that we might find
Francis paints a picture of a lasting answer to the growing isolation and
desperation that we see all around us.
To counter hopelessness, he tells us that the Christian community gets
involved "by word and deed in people's daily lives; it bridges distances . . .
and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others."3 In the face of endless, hectic activity and
self-concern, the Church "is familiar with patient expectation and apostolic
endurance," as well as "patience and disregard for constraints of time."4 The kind of encounter that we offer can be
transformative, fill others with a sense of their God-given dignity, and help
them to know they are not alone in their struggles. The Church's history is filled with
communities that took seriously the call to be their "brother's keeper" (Gen.
4:9), faced challenges together, and lifted up the "cry of the poor" (Psalm
34:7). For those who feel left behind
today, know that the Church wants to walk with you, in the company of the God
who formed your "inmost being" and who knows that you are "wonderfully made."
work is at the heart of our efforts because we draw insight into who we are as
human beings from it. Saint John Paul II
reminded us that human labor is an essential key to understanding our social
relationships, vital to family formation and the building up of community
according to our God-given dignity. He
wrote ". . . man's life is built up every day from work, from work it derives
its specific dignity."5 We know work has dignity because Jesus
"devoted most of the years of his life on earth to manual work at the carpenter's bench. This circumstance constitutes in itself the
most eloquent 'Gospel of work,' showing that the basis for determining the
value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done but the fact
that the one who is doing it is a person."6 Poverty therefore appears "as a result of the violation of the dignity of
human work: either because the opportunities for human work are limited as
a result of the scourge of unemployment, 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."7
our call to rebuild community on a firmer foundation, we must rely upon the
sister principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. Solidarity recognizes that each of us is
connected, and that we all have the responsibility to care for one another,
particularly those who are poor and vulnerable. The principle of subsidiarity
recognizes that issues facing human beings should be addressed at the
appropriate level of society with the capacity to do so, and often in concert
first response, then, is local, to look to our neighbors in need, our brothers
and sisters who may be without sufficient work for their families, and offer
them help. That help may take the form
of food, money, counsel, friendship, spiritual support or other forms of love
and kindness. We ought to expect this
kind of engagement from Christians in the midst of our difficulties, and we
should pray to find ways to provide it as members of the Church. If you are an employer, you are called to
respect the dignity of your workers through a just wage and working conditions
that allow for a secure family life.
we engage with our neighbors and our communities, we quickly find ways to
deepen solidarity in a broader way, and to act on the structures and policies
that impact meaningful work and family stability. The mystical body of Christ
is alive across our nation and world, and our response in Christ looks to our
larger society as well. "Love for
society and commitment to the common good are outstanding expressions of a
charity which affects not only relationships between individuals but also
'macro-relationships, social, economic and political ones.'"8 Simply put, we must advocate for jobs and
wages that truly provide a dignified life for individuals and their families,
and for working conditions that are safe and allow for a full flourishing of
life outside of the workplace. Unions
and worker associations, while imperfect, remain an essential part of the
effort, and people of faith and goodwill can be powerful leaven to ensure that
these groups, so important in society, continue to keep human dignity at the
heart of their efforts.
the fruits of solidarity and our care for one another increase, as we begin to
make real impacts toward policies that help individuals begin stable families
and live in accord with their dignity, the tired paradigm that fuels our
national politics will be challenged. As
Pope Francis has written "[e]very economic and political theory or action must
set about providing each inhabitant of the planet with the minimum wherewithal
to live in dignity and freedom, with the possibility of supporting a family,
educating children, praising God and developing one's own human potential."9 With time, we will begin to restore a sense
of hope and lasting change that places our economic and political systems at
the service of the human person once more.
us always remember in these difficult times the Lord's offer of "rest" for "all
you who labor and are burdened." As Pope
Francis writes, the Sabbath Day "proclaims 'man's eternal rest in God.'"10 As we advocate for all who are struggling to
find sufficient work that honors their dignity, we should also affirm in
society the need of all people to rest, and finally to "rest in God." In times of restlessness and discouragement,
let us recall the beautiful prayer of St. Augustine, who wrote: "You have made
us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."
is much to be done! Let us go forth with
the hopeful expectation of the Psalmist:
us at daybreak with your kindness,
we may shout for joy and gladness all our days.
may the gracious care of the LORD our God be ours;
the work of our hands for us!
the work of our hands! (Psalm 90:14-17)
Pope Francis, Address to U.S.
Congress, September 24, 2015.
2 Pope Francis, Address to St.
Patrick in the City, Washington, DC, September 24, 2015.
3 Evangelii Gaudium, no. 24.
5 Laborem Exercens, no. 1.
6 Laborem Exercens, no. 6.
Exercens, no. 8.
8 Laudato Si, no. 231, quoting Caritas
in Veritate, no. 2.
9 Pope Francis, Letter to H.E. Mr
David Cameron, British Prime Minister, on the Occasion of the G8 Meeting (17-18
10 Laudato Si, no. 237, quoting Catechism
of the Catholic Church, no. 2175.
For parish resources, check out this Labor Day Statement Pastoral Aid.
Catholic Social Teaching on Labor: A Primer
Primer on Poverty, an Option for the Poor, and the Common Good
Selected Quotes of Pope Francis by Subject