Religion, Workers, and the Economy: Caritas in Veritate

Since the publication of Rerum Novarum in 1891, Catholic social teachings have provided moral and ethical guideposts for economic behavior.  Of particular importance, have been the Papal Encyclicals on the economy that have sought to protect the working class and their institutions in the face of unfettered capitalism.   In Pope Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, the Church goes a step further by providing a critical analysis of neoliberal economic thought and the problems of globalization while reiterating the need for basic protections for workers and unions.

Caritas in Veritate calls us to avoid the pursuit of narrow, short-term economic interests and practice genuine love founded on truth, beginning with justice and pursuing the common good in our economic choices.  The pontiff points to “badly managed and largely speculative financial dealing, large-scale migration of peoples . . . [and] the unregulated exploitation of the earth’s resources.” Benedict writes: “the economy needs ethics in order to function correctly — not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centered.”

Benedict laments that “The global market has stimulated .  .  .  a search for areas in which to outsource production at low cost with a view to reducing the prices of many goods . . . Consequently, the market has prompted new forms of competition between States . . . by means of a variety of instruments, including . . . deregulation of the labour market.”  This has, in effect, “led to a downsizing of social security systems . . . with consequent grave danger for the rights of workers, for fundamental human rights and for the solidarity associated with the traditional forms of the social State.”

The pope writes explicitly that justice abhors great disparities in wealth and that societies need “to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone.”   Employment, however, needs to be “decent work.”  Benedict writes that  such work  “expresses the essential dignity of every man and woman; work that is freely chosen, effectively associating workers, both men and women, with the development of their community; work that enables the worker to be respected and free from any form of discrimination; work that makes it possible for families to meet their needs and provide schooling for their children, without the children themselves being forced into labour; work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard; work that leaves enough room for rediscovering one’s roots at a personal, familial and spiritual level; work that guarantees those who have retired a decent standard of living.”

The encyclical notes that the current market/state logics have constrained union work: “budgetary policies, with cuts in social spending  . . . can leave citizens powerless in the face of old and new risks; such powerlessness is increased by the lack of effective protection on the part of . . .  trade union organizations (who) experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments . . . limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome.”

He affirms the moral importance of unions as an organized voice for the working class.  Benedict XVI challenges workers and unions, however, to change the way they “do business” and model ethical agency.  The message proclaims that the world desires a new way of thinking and working which goes beyond minor regulatory reform.  Solidarity, justice, and the common good must replace the worn out binary logics of markets and States.

Further, labor unions must be more than economic self-interested units caught in the logic of exchange. Benedict dares unions to be in solidarity with workers in developing countries.  This role includes advocating for appropriate foreign aid and re-thinking positions on immigration and migrant workers.  Benedict exhorts trade unions to re-evaluate their political activities as a quasi-interest group and focus more on “defending . . . exploited and unrepresented workers, whose woeful condition is often ignored by the distracted eye of society.”

This encyclical renews the Church’s commitment to labor unions and worker associations.  These working-class organizations, however, do not get off the hook from their responsibility for the current crisis in thinking and action.  Worker associations must be engaged in the work of “caritas,” which inherently includes a passion for justice that advances the common good.  Put differently, labor organizations must be more involved in social justice unionism rather than just economic self-interest.

Labor associations provide key assets for working people to be heard, respected, and engaged in this new world order of post-financial/industrial capitalism at a critical moment in its trajectory.  The current global crisis cries out for a radical new vision.  Working people, the very agents of creating wealth and community, like managers and financiers, are called to choose a lifestyle that is wholly ethical and life-giving.  This moral way of living is not just about individual choices.  Organizational structures and systems must be integrated moral agents.  For unions, I wonder if it is time to let the business-unionism model wither away and allow working-class people to re-invent their associations based on “caritas”?

What is the essence of this “caritas?”  “Solidarity is clearly a specific and profound form of economic democracy,” the pope writes. “Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone.”  Solidarity is both the end and the means.  We are gifts to each other.  Working-class persons and labor unions must be leaders in weaving “networks of charity.”  Labor movements have to be models of a “caritas” called justice.  The world can’t wait much longer.

Brian R. Corbin

Brian R. Corbin is Executive Director of Catholic Charities Services & Health Affairs, Diocese of Youngstown, and a community affiliate of the YSU Center for Working-Class Studies   His blog can be followed at brianrcorbin.com.

This entry was posted in Guest Bloggers, The Working Class and the Economy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Religion, Workers, and the Economy: Caritas in Veritate

  1. Pingback: Religion, Workers, and the Economy — rosemarieberger.com

  2. Father, Are you saying that Marx killed priests? condoned this? Was in any organization that did? In Spain, the Church supported Franco. The anarchists converted some churches into latrines. But kill priests? I doubt it, unless the priests were fighting for the fascists. and Leo 13 wrote his encyclical before even the USR came into being. Father, unpack away. My guess is that the church killed a lot more people in Spain than the reds.

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  3. Ray Tapajna says:

    I worked in several factories while going to college full time and found a vast void between the college class room and the factory floor. I apparently chose the factory floor blue color mentality to live by life even though I was involved with the highest echelons in several corporations.

    Later in life, I was on both sides of the union line. I had a burning 2×4 waved at my head on the strike line by the very same people whose jobs I was trying to save. I drove through strike lines to save companies too.

    It comes down to this – even when the unions were arrogant, all workers as a whole were better off- union and non-union. Plus, if those factory jobs I enjoyed in college were still available, there would be thousands standing in line to get them including college graduates.

    The private sector production union workers have been virtually gone for many years. So all the tirades about unions are really null and void. The private sector production union workers now make up only 15 percent of all union membership. The public sector government and educated related jobs make up more than 50 percent. The rest of the workers are retail workers who do not make that much.

    It is time to get real about many things and as far as Communism is concerned, The Soviet Union and China killed more than 100 million innocent people – millions more than the Germans ever did. In the USA, we were led to call Stalin ” Uncle Joe”.

    See list of our adocacy sites at http://linkbun.ch/aztb and our philsophy and religion site at http://www.therationale.com

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  4. Fr. Sinclair Oubre says:

    Wow, Mike, what a diatribe. It would take a long time to unfold all the statements that you have made. However, it is not paranoia when they really are out to get you. Beginning at least with Marx, but certainly under Stalin and during the Spanish Civil War, bishops, priests, religious, laity and arrested, imprisoned and killed.

    In Spain, the number of martyrs killed for their faith is set at 498. The concern that the Church has with communism is directly related to its lived experience where communists have taken control of power.

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  5. Ray Tapajna says:

    Ray Tapajna Chronicles forecasted our economic storms years ago. Manuel Castells wrote about The Bewildered New World. We write about the latent response of religion and philosophy in the global economic arena at http://www.therationale.com We review the Pope’s encyclical at American-Dream-Burning.tapsearch.com/pope-benedict-economic-emcyclical
    One of the first five saints cannoized by Pope Benedict was Alberto Hurtado. He was an intellectual, lawyer and worker priest in Chile during the 1940s and many Catholics called him a Communist.
    The Catholic Workers led the way for human dignity in the workday for many years and both Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, the founders, were called Communists my many. The Pope ‘s encyclical hits home but it may be too little and too late.

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  6. Jack Labusch says:

    Labor leaders ought to have asked themselves decades ago just what it is they do when they bargain for tax-exempt, commercial health insurance benefits. At least one partial answer is they act as auxiliary sales agents for insurers, helping those insurers to tap into employers’ wages payable accounts to drain a portion of workers’ wages directly into the consumption of health insurance and, ultimately, health care. This is done mostly without any accounting of the price of health insurance on workers’ pay stubs. Some medically insured lower-income workers have up to one-third of the total compensation attributable to them diverted to the consumption of health insurance.

    David Himmelstein, a Harvard physician and longtime health care advocate, reflected in an interview some years ago on his unhappy experience with organized labor allies when he promoted a universal health care initiative in Massachusetts. He suggested a labor party to broaden the appeal of issues, such as health care, often thought of as confined to working class folks

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  7. I wonder what the Pope has to say about radical communist unions? Let’s remember the role of the Catholic Church in the 1930s in the U.S. Father Rice was an FBI informant in Pittsburgh.

    The Church has always seemed to me to take a basically fascist approach to society. Fascist comes from the Italian for a bundle of sticks, the idea being that society consists of various parts bound together in a bundle. Each part must play its proper role to keep the bundle from falling apart. Capitalists must be good, worker must be good, unions must be good. Good being defined in this case by the Pope I suppose, and ultimately by God, who the Pope somehow channels.

    It matters not one whit what the Pope or anyone else says about capitalism. What matters is the organization of workers and their allies, working together to alter radically a system completely incapable of leading to human liberation. If history is any indication, the Church will be on the wrong side when this happens.

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