Most Reverend Joseph M. Sullivan
Chairman, Committee on Domestic Policy
Labor Day was established to honor America's workers and the American labor movement. It is an appropriate time for reflection on the meaning and dignity of work, on the rights and responsibilities of workers and their unions, and on our nation's progress toward economic and social justice. In this annual Labor Day statement I invite American Catholics, in the midst of all the other activities of the Labor Day weekend, to take a few moments to think about your own relationship to work, your own participation in the American economy and your own contribution to economic and social justice.
As American Catholics we bring to this task a dual heritage and special responsibilities. Our faith gives us a way of assessing reality, including economic life. It also challenges us to action in the world and the marketplace, to shape what we do in our daily lives by what we believe.
An American Dilemma
As Americans, we are part of one of the most powerful and productive economies in history. Our nation has been blessed with so many natural and human resources. For all our difficulties, we have created an economy which offers remarkable freedom and opportunity for many of our citizens. The private sector is the centerpiece of our economy, creating most of the jobs and developing the technology that sustains our standard of living. The American labor movement offers dignity and protection for workers who choose to exercise their right to organize. Our economic strength, technology and ideas still shape a significant part of the world economy. Our economy has given most Americans a chance to use their talents, support their families and make a contribution to the larger society. We are heirs of a powerful American dream a promise of "liberty and justice for all."
But we also know that for too many that pledge is unfulfilled, the American dream unrealized. Too many have been left behind 33 million still poor in the richest nation on earth. We are haunted by the continuing reality of hunger and homelessness in our communities and the growing gap between rich and poor in our nation. And there are so many in the middle not poor, not rich trying to make ends meet, provide a decent life for their families and make their own contribution to society. Some find their wages and income not keeping pace with their families' needs and the cost of living. The price of housing is putting home ownership out of their reach, and even renting adequate housing stretches their resources to the breaking point. Nearly 30 million workers and their dependents have no health insurance.
We also recognize that racial, ethnic and sexual discrimination still limits the opportunities and frustrates the hopes of many of our sisters and brothers. We are deeply troubled by the fact that one of every four children in America is growing up in poverty. We also know that we live in a world where hundreds of millions of people lack the basic necessities of life. We know that many, both at home and abroad, still lack the dignity of productive work and the hope of a better future. As Americans, we are proud of our country's progress, grateful for our freedom, but still aware of how much more needs to be done to live up to our nation's values and promise.
Our Catholic Heritage
As Catholics, we find in the words and life of Jesus and the teaching of his church the measure of these human realities. We are heirs of a tradition of thought and action on the importance of work and economic justice which goes back centuries.
We follow Jesus, who stood in the synagogue in Nazareth and read from the prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, liberty to captives and new sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed" (Lk. 4:18).
We know from our Lord's story of the Last Judgment in St. Matthew's Gospel that our lives will be measured by our response to those in need the hungry, the homeless, the poor and vulnerable. "As long as you did it for the least of these, you did it for me" (Mt. 25:40). We are called to follow Jesus in 1988, to bring "good news to the poor, liberty to captives, freedom to the oppressed" in our own time and place. We are called to serve and support the struggles of the "least of these" in our own communities.
We are also shaped by a church strongly committed to the defense of the human person. For over a century, our popes have addressed the major economic issues of our time, from Leo XIII's defense of workers and their right to organize to the prophetic encyclicals of John XXIII and Paul VI on human dignity and human rights. And in these last few years, we've seen our present Holy Father's powerful witness for the human person and for solidarity in the human family. Everywhere he goes across the globe, Pope John Paul II stands up for the poor and for workers; he stands with them in their struggles for justice and opportunity. In his major encyclical "On Human Work," the Holy Father stresses the value of work and the church's commitment to the rights of workers, their unions and their struggles for justice.
In his most recent encyclical, "On Social Concerns," Pope John Paul focuses on the international dimensions of economic justice, reaffirming and advancing the church's call for authentic development, it love of preference for the poor and a new sense of solidarity in a world divided by ideology and injustice.
Letter of the American Bishops
In their major pastoral letter of almost two years ago, the bishops of this country sought to apply this universal teaching to the U.S. economy. We asked our people to "measure this economy not only by what it produces, but also by how it touches human life and whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person."
We offered six basic moral principles to guide our assessment of national economic life:
- Every economic decision and institution must be judged in light of whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person. We judge any economic system by what it does for and to people and by how it permits all to participate in it. The economy should serve people, not the other way around.
- Human dignity can be realized and protected only in community. In our teaching, the human person is not only sacred but also social. How we organize our society in economics and politics, in law and policy directly affects human dignity.
- All people have a right to participate in the economic life of society. It is wrong for a person or group to be excluded unfairly or to be unable to participate or contribute to the economy. For example, people who are both able and willing but cannot get a job are deprived of the participation that is so vital to human development.
- All members of society have a special obligation to the poor and vulnerable. From the Scriptures and church teaching, we learn that the justice of a society is tested by the treatment of the poor.
- Human rights are the minimum conditions for life in community. In Catholic teaching, human rights include not only civil and political rights but also economic rights. As Pope John XXIII declared, "All people have a right to life, food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, education and employment."
- Society as a whole, acting through public and private institutions, has the moral responsibility to enhance human dignity and protect human rights. In addition to the clear responsibility of private institutions, government has an essential responsibility in this area.
The Continuing Challenge
The challenge of the letter is as urgent today as when it was adopted some 22 months ago. We need to continue to share its message and act on its implications. In dioceses and communities across our country creative steps are being taken to give life to this letter in education, service and advocacy on issues of economic justice.
Parishes and dioceses are reaching out to the jobless in their midst offering support, training and helping them find adequate jobs. Church leaders are working with leaders of businesses, labor and local government to explore common issues of economic justice. In several states the church has joined with others in advocacy to relieve tax burdens on poor families and to establish budget priorities which assist the hungry and homeless, the poor and vulnerable. Individual bishops and groups of bishops have developed their own local letters on economic justice, assessing local economic realities by the principles of the national pastoral. Tens of thousands of Catholics have made their own "pledge of commitment to economic justice." Much is being done, but so much more needs to be done.
At the national level, some progress is being made. The recently enacted plant-closings law will give workers and their communities 60 days' notice to develop plans and alternatives when faced with major layoffs. The advance-notice provision gives some hope that, working together, those affected and their neighbors can help protect these workers and communities from the most devastating aspects of major job loss. A new fair housing law also has been adopted which strengthens housing discrimination protections for racial and ethnic minorities, women, persons with disabilities and families with children. A modest anti-hunger initiative has passed both houses of Congress, a sign of increased concern about the shameful reality of hunger and homelessness in our nation. Many more steps are necessary to help to realize the vision of our economic letter.
In our letter, the bishops said, "Work with adequate pay for all who seek it is the primary means for achieving basic justice in our society." We greatly welcome the recent improvements in unemployment. Yet millions of our sisters and brothers are still looking for work and cannot find it. Millions more have become so discouraged they have given up the search. Many are working part time although they and their families need full-time employment. We cannot rest when our society is still unable to find a productive place for the talents and energies of so many of our sisters and brothers. Nor can we tolerate a situation when jobless rates are still twice as high in minority communities as in the rest of society. For us, full employment remains the centerpiece of our nation's economic justice agenda.
The Minimum Wage
Work has special dignity in Catholic thought. It is more than a job; it is an exercise of self-realization and self-expression. It is the ordinary way that people meet their material needs. We believe that wages need to be adequate for workers to support themselves and their families in dignity. We supported an increase in the minimum wage in our economic letter as a step in this direction. Congress needs to enact overdue legislation to increase the minimum wage to reflect the impact of inflation. Prices have risen 33 percent since the minimum wage was last adjusted in 1981. People of good will can differ over how best to support low-income working families, but the Catholic bishops have long supported a fair minimum wage as an essential measure of economic justice. We need to ad-just this wage floor to reflect current economic realities. We believe it is a matter of fundamental decency and justice.
Supporting Family Life
Another major challenge is reconciling the competing demands of family and economic life. Families face enormous economic pressures. There is probably no greater threat to family stability than the crushing realities of poverty and joblessness. While many poor and near-poor families do an outstanding job of strengthening and supporting their members, they do so in the face of enormous burdens and frustrations.
In our pastoral letter we urged that economic life be measured for its impact on family life. We need to shape our policies so they strengthen and support families, not undermine them. Policies in the workplace and human services need to accommodate the realities of family life today increasing numbers of women in the work force, more single-parent and two-earner families, among other important changes. This is why we support legislation to protect the jobs of workers who have to take time off to care for a new child or a seriously ill family member. We support the Family and Medical Leave Act because we believe no workers should be fired or lose their benefits because they need reasonable time off to meet basic family responsibilities.
We are also advocating genuine welfare reform, which supports family life, ends discrimination against two-parent families in need and provides real opportunities to escape poverty; efforts to increase the availability, affordability and quality of child care; and proposals to improve access to health care for families.
Housing is a particularly urgent issue for families. As a recent statement of the U.S. Catholic Conference makes clear, our nation needs a major new commitment and creative partnership to help families find and afford de-cent housing. A recent step forward was the successful effort to prohibit housing discrimination against families with children and to strengthen our fair housing laws.
There is currently much talk about the importance of family life. What American families need is not more rhetoric, but concrete steps to support their struggles to live in dignity and to help families meet their basic needs for decent housing, health care and economic security.
Conclusion: A Call to Solidarity
This Labor Day, American Catholics are being called to discover and practice the virtue of "solidarity." By summoning us to solidarity in his recent encyclical, Pope John Paul II is calling us to a new way of thinking and acting with and for one other, especially the poor and vulnerable. Solidarity ties us together. It helps us see each other as members of one family where an injustice to one is a blow to all and progress for those in need strengthens the whole community. As the Holy Father said in his recent encyclical:
"Solidarity helps us to see the 'other' not just as some kind of instrument, with a work capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as our 'neighbor,' a 'helper' (cf. Gn. 2:18-20), to be made a sharer on a par with ourselves in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God."
Solidarity is a work of faith, a sign that we see in the poor and vulnerable the face of Jesus. As believers, we are convinced that in supporting their struggles for dignity, justice and human rights, we serve the Lord.
Solidarity requires us to see in the poor and powerless not some distant problem or abstract issue, but our own sisters and brothers denied their dignity and rights. Solidarity requires us to serve those in need, to join our voices with theirs in pursuit of justice and to work together to defend our God-given dignity and rights. The church itself is called to be a sign of solidarity. In the words of Pope John Paul II: "By virtue of her own evangelical duty, the church feels called to take her stand beside the poor, to discern the justice of their requests and to help satisfy them, without losing sight ... of the common good."
As American Catholics I believe we hear in this call to solidarity echoes of our nation's best traditions of community and the common good. We also hear the traditional social teaching of our church affirmed and advanced. Most of all, we hear in the call to solidarity the challenge to put our faith and citizenship to work in building a church and nation more at the service of the human person, more respectful of the life, dignity and rights of all our sisters and brothers.
This Labor Day in the midst of all our other activities let us take a few moments to reflect on the dignity of work and the rights of the human person. Let us commit ourselves to the pursuit of genuine solidarity in our nation and in our world.