A Reflection for the Feast of St Joseph the Worker
Pope Francis made headlines this week calling the disparity between the pay received by men and women for the same work a “pure scandal”. And today Bishop Christopher Saunders weighed in on work issues, roundly criticizing the economic policy of the Australian government. The Feast of St Joseph the Worker is a good time to reflect on how these issues are connected with our faith, our family life, and efforts to make the Reign of God present in the world.
Is Work Central to a Just Society?
For a very long time the ‘worker question’ was seen as the center of Catholic Social Teaching. Disrespect for the dignity and rights of workers was the central concern of Leo XIII’s landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum. Rerum Novarum has a special place in Catholic Social Teaching as the first social encyclical of the modern period. Social justice teachings are often issued on anniversaries of Rerum Novarum. While work issues like fair pay remain very important in a Catholic vision of a just society, Blessed Paul VI framed them within the context of the concept of integral human development in his encyclical Populorum Progressio. Populorum Progressio is the only other social encyclical to be marked by anniversary encyclicals – Benedict XVI perceived it to be so important that he called it the “Rerum Novarum of the present age” in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate (n 8). Integral human development – the development of the whole person, and of all persons and communities – is bigger than workplace relations, and requires policies that extend beyond economic objectives.
Why the history lesson? The development of Catholic thinking around issues of work is important for understanding the positions being taken by Pope Francis, and by local Bishops like Bishop Saunders. These are not ideological positions but principled stances grounded in Christian anthropology, and the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching. They evolve as we place our faith resources, such as Scripture and tradition, in dialogue with changing social, and economic situations. Pope Francis and Bishop Saunders aren’t playing politics – they are doing public theology.
Work is for People and Communities
Bishop Saunders spoke out today because he is the Chair of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council. The Chair of the Council customarily issues a pastoral letter for the Feast of St Joseph the Worker. You can read the full text here. https://www.socialjustice.catholic.org.au/publications/pastoral-letters/574-2015-the-dignity-of-work-when-it-matters-most
Bishop Christopher Saunders reminds us that the dignity of work is found in its capacity “for individual and family fulfillment, for building up the community and for securing the wellbeing of future generations”. In his Pastoral Letter for the Feast of St Joseph the Worker this year he stresses that “society fails its citizens at these three levels where the economy does not generate sufficient employment and when government does not adequately intervene to promote job creation and maintain basic wages and income support.” He critiques the Australian government’s economic policies on a number of fronts.
Building up the Community
Bishop Saunders argues that a person-centered economy would seek to build up vibrant communities rather than refusing to provide basic services for remote Indigenous communities, effectively shutting them down and pushing people off their ancestral lands because they are ‘economically unviable’. Job creation and income support are required to enable these communities to continue to care for their country and community members. As the Bishop of Broome, Bishop Saunders responds to these members of his Diocese as people and communities with problems and potentials, and most importantly, an inherent God-given dignity, rather than as economic units or line items in a budget. Our families and communities should not be torn apart by economic forces. The economy exists to serve people, not the other way around – a point that Pope Francis continually draws our attention to.
Work and Family Life
Pope Francis’ comments about equal pay were made in the context of an address on family life and the economic pressures experienced by families. Many factors contribute to the growing income disparities between women and men in Australia, but in the end it comes down to the lack of value attributed to the work that women typically do, whether in the workplace or the home. Scandal is not too strong a word for this!
Before Vatican II, Catholic Social Teaching tended to equate work with paid employment. More recent teachings have begun to consider unpaid work in the family and community in more detail. The traditional response was to argue for a minimum wage for one spouse that is sufficient to support a family. This may not be the best way to support family life in the context of a modern state with a sophisticated tax transfer system. Nor does it meet the integral human development needs of all women. Saint John Paul II argued in his Letter to Women that women have a right to participate in the workforce and that their contributions are needed there. In Laborem Exercens he hinted at some kind of social wage for the work of rising children saying that women should not be economically disadvantaged for choosing to raise children (n 19). In other words, he argued for the freedom to follow one’s vocation, whatever that may be. In the “pure scandal” address, Pope Francis also made a point of saying that family breakdown cannot be blamed on women’s participation in the paid workforce.
Many individuals and families struggle to find life-giving ways of combining sufficient paid employment to support the family with unpaid work in the family and community – and how this work is distributed among family members at any given time. It is not a matter of one size fits all. The goal of integral human development leads us to consider what will enable the full realization of the potential of each member of the family, and their contribution to the common good of the community as well as that of the family. Catholic Social Teaching does not have pat answers to these dilemmas. The Synod on the Family may lead to further developments in Catholic Social Teaching in this area as it considers the lived reality of family life, which so often falls short of the ideal.
The Wellbeing of Future Generations
Bishop Saunders questions the Australian government’s emphasis on keeping older workers in the workforce longer, while at the same time failing to provide training and opportunities to gain experience for young people. Pope Francis often pairs his comments about the old and the young stressing the need for societies to care for and include both groups, rather than focusing only on those who are seen as valuable in the workplace. Work should serve the needs of all generations. Our economic policies should not pit one generation against another but rather care for all and make space for the contributions of all – as we try to do in our families too.
At its best, the social security system provides a safety net across the life cycle, providing us with assistance when needed and a way of contributing to support for others when we are in a position to do so. Bishop Saunders points to the inadequacy of the social safety net in Australia, and of unemployment benefits in particular. He rejects the government’s emphasis on reducing social security expenditures and calls instead for greater attention to tax concessions – such as those on superannuation – that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest, and the failure to effectively tax corporations that shift profits offshore. In this way he points to the duty of all groups in society to contribute to the common good according to their capacity, making sure that every person and every group has what they need and can achieve their potential. At the family level we call this same dynamic sharing and helping each other to grow.
As we honor St Joseph the Worker today, let us reflect on the work that we do, whether paid or unpaid. Does it contribute to the wellbeing of our families, communities and future generations?