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The living word on labour relations

As we celebrate Labour Day it is only fitting to note that the Catholic Church’s teachings promote justice in wages and worker solidarity while defending private property and the rule of law. The clergy and laity are supposed to filter the Church’s teachings into particular social, economic and political situations.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church is a remarkable summary of the official Catholic teaching on justice and peace issues. Concerning the role that labour unions play in civil society, this compendium teaches that labour unions “are a positive influence for social order and solidarity, and are therefore an indispensable element of social life”. The compendium further states that “this makes the practice of solidarity among workers more fitting and necessary than ever”.

Labour unions have spread to every contemporary profession. All these unions play a significant role in the pursuit of the common good, and societies would be poorer if they did not exist.

The Catholic Church teaches that “unions have the duty of acting as representatives for the ‘proper management of economic life’.” Unions, therefore, must play an active role “in the whole task of economic and social development and in the attainment of the universal common good.”

Our Catholic tradition is based on a rich humanistic philosophical tradition that is found in the wisdom of such great thinkers as Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas. Our Catholic teaching is also rooted in the Hebrew prophets, the teachings of Jesus Christ, and the rich tradition of the Catholic Church.

Some commentators even claim that Jesus led a union of twelve but more importantly, He was the first teacher of social justice and one of the first community organisers.

Hence it is our belief that the Church’s views on human work have universal applicability. Workers everywhere and of every faith or no faith can benefit from the wisdom that is found in the Catholic social doctrine on human work.

Catholics in our society constitute an important labour constituency. In his encyclical, Laborem Exercens, Pope St John Paul II stressed the dignity of work as a means to transform nature and achieve personal fulfilment. He also extended the concept of worker to include those who manage businesses and those who perform intellectual labour.

Laborem Exercens begins with a scriptural argument that work is more than just an activity or a commodity but an essential part of human nature:

The Church finds in the very first pages of the Book of Genesis the source of her conviction that work is a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth…When man, who had been created “in the image of God…male and female,” (Gen 1:27) hears the words: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28), even though these words do not refer directly and explicitly to work, beyond any doubt they indirectly indicate it as an activity for man to carry out in the world.

Work was not the result of Adam’s sin, but was given to humanity from the moment of creation. Pope St John Paul draws from this passage the conclusion that work is essential to human nature, and that “man is the subject of work”.

In the modern world, there are many situations that tend to degrade the dignity of work. Pope St John Paul II called these, threats to the right order of values”. For example, when work is treated as a product to be sold, or when workers are considered as an impersonal workforce, then humans are being treated as instruments, and not as the subject of work.

Other violations of dignity include unemployment, under-employment of highly skilled workers, inadequate wages to support life, inadequate job security, and forced labour.

Pope St John Paul II recognised technology as a great benefit, provided it is regarded as a tool and not as a master. However, as we all know, technology also presents unintended consequences.

In some instances, technology can cease to be men’s ally and become almost his enemy, as when the mechanisation of work supplants him, taking away all personal satisfaction and the incentive to creativity and responsibility, when it deprives many workers of their previous employment, or when, through exalting the machine, it reduces man to the status of its slave.

So on Labour Day, we pray for all our workers and people of goodwill—no matter their religious affiliation—in their quest for social justice and peace in our society.