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Home : Faith/Spirituality : Archbishop Vlazny's Past Columns
8/29/2012 10:17:00 AM
The Dignity of Work

Most Rev. John Vlazny
Archbishop Emeritus of Portland

When our Chancellor, Mary Jo Tully, is involved in preparing youngsters to receive the sacrament of Confirmation, she not only expects the youngsters to be familiar with the ten commandments of the church and the eight beatitudes of Jesus, she also insists that they become familiar with the seven themes of Catholic social teaching.  These themes speak to us about the importance of building a just society and living holy lives in the midst of all the challenges in today’s world.  

One of those seven themes is “the dignity of work and the rights of workers.”  We American bishops have articulated that theme in these words: “The economy must serve people, not the other way around.  Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation.  If the dignity of workers is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected – the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property and to economic initiative.”

In his landmark encyclical, Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II asserted that work is an obligation, a duty on the part of each and every one of us.  We are to work out of regard for others, especially families.  But we also must work to support the society in which we live, the country in which we are citizens, the human family of which we are all members.  The Holy Father went on to state that work is a good thing because through our labor we not only transform nature, adapting it to our own needs, but we also achieve personal fulfillment as human beings and thereby each one of us becomes “more a human being.”

In his own first encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that in many cases, poverty results from a violation of the dignity of human work.  This occurs when work opportunities are limited because of unemployment or underemployment, 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 in his or her family.”

Every year our United States Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development issues a statement before Labor Day about the dignity of work and the rights of workers.  The present chairman of that committee is Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, California.  In this year’s document we bishops readily acknowledge that so many still struggle with the broken economy and its sad impact on family lives.  The simple truth of the matter is that today’s economy is not producing enough decent jobs.  Too many of our fellow citizens suffer from unemployment and underemployment or are living in poverty with their basic needs going unmet.  This is a great failure for a proud and strong nation like our own.  We people of faith stand with those who are suffering most.  We offer them our solidarity and we urge our legislators and all private citizens to do what we can to help them meet their basic needs.

This year’s statement addresses three major points.  First of all, our broken economy at present is leaving too many of our sisters and brothers without decent work.  Next, economic renewal and support for workers must become priorities on the national and local agenda.  Finally, and probably most importantly, our nation must do what it can to build a more just economy.

Presently more than twelve million workers who are looking for work simply cannot find a job.  Then there are the ten million families who are the “working poor.”  These folks work hard, but they are not compensated adequately to meet their own basic needs.  More than 46 million people in our great nation live in poverty, 16 million of whom are children.  In the current political campaign we hear a lot about the economy but scarcely anything about the moral imperative to overcome pervasive poverty in a nation like our own which is endowed with such amazing economic resources and power.  In addition, many heads of family are forced to work second and third jobs, placing further strain on the well-being of their families.  At present there is great danger that workers will be exploited or mistreated in a variety of ways.  Immigrants and their families are especially vulnerable, highlighting once again the need for a comprehensive immigration reform.

The call for economic renewal urges that workers and their families be the very centerpiece of our efforts to strengthen the economy.  Work is much more than a paycheck.  It helps people raise their families, develop their own potential, share in God’s creation and contribute to the common good.  Unions and other worker associations have a unique and essential responsibility in this needed economic renewal.  Good and effective unions bring workers together to speak and act collectively to protect their rights and pursue the common good.  Like the church herself, sometimes unions fall short of the promise and responsibility which is theirs.  Excessive polarization and partisanship inevitably put unions in conflict with the common good.  The renewal we seek would require business, religious, labor and civic organizations to work together to help working people assert their dignity, claim their rights and have a voice in the economic policy of our nation.

When so much is at stake during a time like this, we all need to step back and think about the moral and human dimensions of too much poverty and not enough work.  We urge candidates for office and their campaigns to address the moral imperative which is ours to resist and overcome poverty.  In the bishops’ document on Faithful Citizenship, we assert, “Economic decisions and institutions should be assessed according to whether they protect or undermine the dignity of the human person.”  Presently the bishops are developing a pastoral reflection on work, poverty and the broken economy.  Whoever wins in November, this will be an important agenda at all levels of government.

Labor Day is right around the corner and there are still untold numbers of working people in families with urgent and compelling needs.  Catholics across this nation are asked to join together in special prayers for all workers, but especially those who are nowadays living without a job and struggling to live in dignity.  It would be wrong for Catholic citizens to stand on the sidelines with their fingers crossed, hoping that someone else will come along and prod our government to create a truly just economy that honors the dignity of work and the rights of all workers.  Happy Labor Day!

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