The Feast of St. Joseph the Worker: On the Priority of Labor

“We must first of all recall a principle that has always been taught by the Church: the principle of the priority of labor over capital.” (Pope St. John Paul II)

Matteo Pagano, “Christ in Joseph's Workshop” (c. 1610-1625)
Matteo Pagano, “Christ in Joseph's Workshop” (c. 1610-1625) (photo: Public Domain)

May 1 is the Optional Memorial of St. Joseph the Worker. It coincides in many parts of the world with May as “International Labor Day,” a communist-inspired observance, given that communism purported to be the advocate of the worker.

Work is an important element of Catholic social thought, indeed, the most important aspect of Catholic social thought. Other elements, like property or capital, are things – they can belong to persons, but they remain separate from persons.

Work, however, is an aspect of the person: through the act of working, a person expresses himself, creates himself, and—at the same time—does things in the world, expressing the creativity he shares from his participation in God’s dominion over the world.

The question of labor launched modern Catholic social teaching: Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum novarum to defend workers’ rights to unionize and to address a Catholic perspective on laborers’ rights, something communism was attempting to co-opt.

Catholic involvement with the question of labor, however, did not begin in 1891. We speak of ancient Greece as the birthplace of democracy, but we forget that the democracy in antiquity was built on a small class of free citizens, whose lives were typically sustained by slave labor. Even more importantly, the ancient world regarded physical labor as something beneath a free man. Manual labor was the natural lot of slaves, while the free man should—on the basis of the leisure afforded him by the slave girl who washed his toga—be a contemplative.

It was the monastic movement that challenged that vision. When St. Benedict announced his motto, “ora et labora” (prayer and labor), he affirmed two things: that physical labor was not incommensurate with the dignity of free men, and that the active and contemplative were neither enemies nor incapable of some coexistence.

I have always been intrigued by a focus on labor in 20th-century Polish Catholic thought. The apogee of such attention was in the 1970s and 1980s and gave birth to the free trade union movement Solidarność (Solidarity). I call it a “movement” because Solidarity was more than just a union: the typical American union would not have considered, among its first demands in the famous 1980 Gdańsk shipyard strikes, to require that state media in an avowedly atheistic communist country allow the broadcast of Sunday Mass. Solidarity was not just about how to improve the lot of workers but how to build a fairer society.

Writers like Józef Majka, Józef Tischner, Jerzy Gałkowski, et al. were tackling these problems in those days, but they had been preceded by others, like Jan Piwowarczyk and Czesław Strzezewski. Karol Wojtyła had already touched on some social justice questions in his early writings. Indeed, among his earliest articles was his reflections on the “worker priest” movement, written in the late 1940s after his archbishop sent the young priest to Rome (and gave him time to travel in France and the Benelux) for his graduate studies.

Stefan Wyszyński, Poland’s famous “Primate of the Millennium” (of Polish Christianity), distinguished himself already in the 1930s with his writings on the theology and spirituality of work, happily available in English as All You Who Labor (Sophia, 1995). Another forgotten contributor to the theology of work was Teodor Kubina (1880-1951), the Bishop of Częstochowa, who wrote an important work in 1906 emphasizing that labor does not just accomplish temporal things but has a permanent, even eschatological significance.

Surprisingly, with the fall of communism and the economic transformation that has occurred in Poland, that focus on the ethical and theological significance of labor has fallen somewhat into desuetude. Even more surprisingly, apart from commentaries on papal encyclicals, it has also not been particularly prominent in American Catholic social thought as a major object of analysis.

As I mentioned, Wojtyła attached importance to labor and, as Pope, dedicated his 1981 encyclical, Laborem exercens, to the subject. Someone who knows the background of Polish Catholic social thought can see its influence in Laborem exercens. That encyclical deserves continued attention and study.

That encyclical also generated controversy in its own day—and since—with its clear affirmation that labor has priority over capital (no. 12). It’s controversial, because the dominant mindset of Western capitalism is that labor is a factor of production alongside cost. But John Paul insists labor is not just a factor – if it is a factor, it is a qualitatively different one from any other factor because it is a personal factor. It is tied up with the person. Affirming the “principle of the priority of labor over capital” sounds very abstract, until we reduce it to its fundamental truth: money exists for people, people do not exist for money. Money serves people; people should not be serving money.

The problem of labor is a problem in contemporary America. Some people are surprised that President Donald Trump attracted so many workers in the Rust Belt. Perhaps one reason is that neither party seemed to be offering a clear platform in which labor stood front and center in its economic policy.

Oren Cass’s new book, The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America (New York: Encounter Books, 2018), tries to do exactly that: envision economic policies that put work and workers front and center. In the process, he challenges sacred cows of the left (policies undergirding entitlements and social welfare programs) and the right (indirect support of labor by trickle-down economics designed to “raise all boats”). Cass, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is not writing as a philosopher or theologian, but his work-centric analysis of contemporary America and its public policy poses some interesting questions for Catholic social thinkers. If Catholic social thinkers want to promote a society in which labor truly has priority over capital, a society that works (both in terms of promoting employment as well as ensuring that its economic policies themselves work), then cross-disciplinary discussion between policy analysts like Cass and Catholic social thought is appropriate.

In the next few weeks, I hope to draw ideas from Cass’s book and suggest their relevance to Catholic social thought. My goal is not to promote policy solutions as much as to foster discussion of how we can advance social justice for all through economic and policy approaches that are work-centric.

In that way, we can honor the saint who supported the Savior by the work of his hands and the sweat of his brow, who taught his own Son a trade, and whose only word found in the Gospel — indirectly — is that “he named Him ‘Jesus’” (Luke 2:21).

This article originally appeared May 1, 2019, at the Register.