National Catholic Reporter
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Issue Date:  August 1, 2003

A century of Catholic church defense of workers


During the tumultuous union struggles at California’s Catholic Hospitals in the 1990s, Msgr. George Higgins -- the well-known “labor priest” -- often quoted a statement of the 1971 Synod of Bishops, which asserted, “While the church is bound to give witness to justice, she recognizes that anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes.”

Higgins (who died in 2002 at age 86) dedicated more than a half century to labor issues. He was unrelenting in his attempts to help the church apply more than a century of teachings on workers’ rights to its own institutions. “In today’s world,” Higgins wrote, “our large Catholic institutions have a glorious opportunity to set the example for the rest of the church and society in general. These institutions should not only follow legally established labor rules but should set the highest standard for fair treatment. Our role as Catholics is not only to respect workers’ rights, but to be exemplary.”

Higgins and others who, like him, worked to bridge the gap between Catholic social teaching and the largely secular world of labor organizing had a rich history of Catholic teachings to call on.

In May 1891, in response to the dehumanizing working conditions imposed by the Industrial Revolution, Pope Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum -- his pivotal encyclical on capital and the condition of workers. Rerum Novarum is credited with dissolving the space between the church and the worker.

“We may lay it down as a general and lasting law,” Pope Leo wrote, “that working men’s associations should be so organized and governed as to furnish the best and most suitable means for … helping each individual member to better his condition to the utmost in body, soul and property.”

Over the next century, Rerum Novarum inspired four commemorative encyclicals re-emphasizing the “human dignity” of all laborers and the rights of workers to organize for just treatment.

The first of these commemorations was Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (The Fortieth Year) issued in 1931. Three decades later Pope John XXIII issued his Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher), which added to the discussion the state’s responsibility never to “shirk its obligation of working actively for the betterment of the condition of the workingman.”

Next came Pope Paul VI’s Octogesima Adveniens in 1971, issued for the 80th anniversary of Rerum Novarum and on the heels of his Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples), which The Wall Street Journal labeled “warmed-over Marxism” just after its release in 1967.

The most recent tribute to Pope Leo’s key encyclical is Centesimus Annus, issued in 1991 by Pope John Paul II, who had already placed himself squarely on the side of workers a decade earlier in his encyclical Laborem Exercens.

One century after Rerum Novarum offered its exhaustive alternative to the popular socialist teachings of the day, Centesimus Annus remained unflinching in a world where socialism -- and anything resembling it -- was considered dead. “It is unacceptable to say that the defeat of so-called ‘real socialism’ leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization,” John Paul wrote, “It is necessary to break down the barriers and monopolies that leave so many countries on the margins of development, and to provide all individuals and nations with the basic conditions which will enable them to share in development.”

Pope John Paul was no less resolute on his vision for how to get from here to there. “To achieve these goals,” he insisted, “there is still need for a broad associated workers’ movement, directed toward the liberation and promotion of the whole person.”

These influential encyclicals have been the fuel for more than a century of pro-labor stands from within the church. From the Knights of Labor to today’s AFL-CIO, organized and organizing workers have looked to the Catholic church for support.

Still, recent events in McAllen, Texas, underscore the universal difficulty of merging words with actions and give new urgency to the words and work of Higgins, who warned, “Church leaders and administrators of church-related institutions must recognize the right of their employees to organize if the workers so desire. Attempts, direct or indirect, to circumvent or interfere with the free exercise of this right could divide the Catholic community and neutralize the effectiveness of our programs for social justice both at home and abroad.”

Jeff Guntzel writes from Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, August 1, 2003

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