Growing and strengthening west Michigan's middle class
GRAND RAPIDS September 22, 2015– Pope Francis arrives in Washington, DC, today for a six-day trip to the United States, where he’ll meet privately with President Barack Obama and a delegation of U.S. Catholic Bishops, address Congress and the United Nations, and participate in a number of masses and interfaith services. His trip also includes a stop in Philadelphia.
Much of the buzz around Pope Francis has come as a result of his unwavering dedication to speaking out on behalf of the oppressed, the poor, workers, the sick and the environment. For many conservatives, his statements on climate change and the dangers of capitalism have come as a shock and even a reason to attack the pope himself.
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, a Roman Catholic, recently spoke out against Pope Francis’ views on corporate greed and climate change by saying that he doesn’t “get [his economic] policy from [his] bishops, [his] cardinal, or [his] pope“– even though he’ll readily admit that he gets his views on abortion and gay marriage from them. Rush Limbaugh has gone so far as calling Pope Francis a “clown” and a “Marxist.” And conservative columnist George Will wrote in the Washington Post this week that many of Pope Francis’ statements have the “intellectual tone of fortune cookies.”
But are Pope Francis’ statements on wealth, poverty, work and unfettered capitalism really that radical or new? And should they come as a surprise to anyone?
Not at all, according to Catholic Social Teaching. When it comes to respecting workers’ rights, the Catholic Church has been on the side of labor since Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum (“On the Condition of Labor”) in 1891:
The most important of all [workplace associations and organizations] are workingmen’s unions. . . . Such unions should be suited to the requirements of this our age – an age of wider education, of different habits, and of far more numerous requirements in daily life. It is gratifying to know that there are actually in existence not a few associations of this nature, consisting either of workmen alone, or of workmen and employers together, but it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient.
We read in the pages of holy Writ: “It is better that two should be together than one; for they have the advantage of their society. If one fall he shall be supported by the other. Woe to him that is alone, for when he falleth he hath none to lift him up.” And further: “A brother that is helped by his brother is like a strong city.” It is this natural impulse which binds men together in civil society; and it is likewise this which leads them to join together in associations. . . . Private societies, then, although they exist within the body politic, and are severally part of the commonwealth, cannot nevertheless be absolutely, and as such, prohibited by public authority. For, to enter into a “society” of this kind is the natural right of man; and the State has for its office to protect natural rights, not to destroy them; and, if it forbid its citizens to form associations, it contradicts the very principle of its own existence, for both they and it exist in virtue of the like principle, namely, the natural tendency of man to dwell in society.
Pope John Paul II, in 1981 wrote Laborem Exercens (“On Human Work”):
All these rights [of workers], together with the need for the workers themselves to secure them, give rise to yet another right: the right of association, that is to form associations for the purpose of defending the vital interests of those employed in the various professions. These associations are called labour or trade unions. . . . Their task is to defend the existential interests of workers in all sectors in which their rights are concerned. The experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies.
In 1986, the U.S. Catholic Bishops wrote Economic Justice For All:
No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself. Therefore, we firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably now seen in this country, to break existing unions and prevent workers from organizing.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing U.S. workers and unions today is that of developing a new vision of their role in the U.S. economy of the future. The labor movement in the United States stands at a crucial moment. The dynamism of the unions that led to their rapid growth in the middle decades of this century has been replaced by a decrease in the percentage of U.S. workers who are organized. American workers are under heavy pressures today that threaten their jobs. . . . In these difficult circumstances, guaranteeing the rights of U.S. workers calls for imaginative vision and creative new steps, not reactive or simply defensive strategies.
Pope John Paul II wrote Centesimus Annus (“On the Hundredth Year”):
Furthermore, society and the State must ensure wage levels adequate for the maintenance of the worker and his family, including a certain amount for savings. This requires a continuous effort to improve workers’ training and capability so that their work will be more skilled and productive, as well as careful controls and adequate legislative measures to block shameful forms of exploitation, especially to the disadvantage of the most vulnerable workers, of immigrants and of those on the margins of society. The role of trade unions in negotiating minimum salaries and working conditions is decisive in this area.
Pope Benedict XVI wrote Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”) in 2009:
Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions. . . . The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level.
The global context in which work takes place also demands that national labour unions, which tend to limit themselves to defending the interests of their registered members, should turn their attention to those outside their membership, and in particular to workers in developing countries where social rights are often violated. The protection of these workers, partly achieved through appropriate initiatives aimed at their countries of origin, will enable trade unions to demonstrate the authentic ethical and cultural motivations that made it possible for them, in a different social and labour context, to play a decisive role in development.