Editorial: The Dignity of Work

St. John Paul II: ‘The worker is always more important than profits and machines.’

(photo: Pixabay)

President Donald Trump has occupied the Oval Office for only a few weeks. But one presidential priority is unmistakable: He wants to boost manufacturing jobs for American workers.

Trump has talked about applying 35% tariffs on automobiles produced outside of the country. He has floated some incentives for companies that open factories in the U.S., like reductions in corporate taxes and regulations that many consider burdensome. And within days of his inauguration, he met with the CEOs of the nation’s three largest automakers to drive home his message.

The president’s campaign to “buy American and hire American” has sparked its share of criticism. Some policy specialists and business leaders say his “America First” stance ignores the interdependence of the global economy. U.S. workers don’t need protectionism, they need help to adapt to a changing marketplace, argue the naysayers.

Setting aside the technical aspects of this policy debate, no one can dispute the urgent need to get more Americans back to work, and that should be a wake-up call for Catholics.

“Between 1969 and 2016, both comparable peak years in the business cycle, there has been a long-term decline in work by prime-age men, from 94.5% to 85.0%, and by young black men, from 76.3% to 53.2%,” read a new report published in the winter 2017 issue of the journal National Affairs.

The scope of the problem surely requires a collaborative response from government, corporate America and U.S. schools, which still fail to provide many students with a strong foundation in math and science and also neglect to encourage trades such as plumbing, electrical and carpentry, long a part of the country’s labor force.

But there is also a clear and important role for the Church, or more precisely, for individual Catholics working in tandem with their parishes, Catholic Charities affiliates and local business leaders.

The dismal numbers of sidelined workers tell a story of extinguished hopes in working-class communities, where broken families, drug and alcohol addiction, and rising rates of suicide are now commonplace.

What can Catholics — business owners and service-oriented volunteers, bishops and college students — do to make a difference?

In January, Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute and the author of The Conservative Heart, tackled that question in the first CEO lecture for the Busch School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America.

Brooks argued that any action to overcome poverty and reduce unemployment should begin with an examination of conscience.

In Brooks’ view, “the utter conviction of the worthlessness of another human being” has entrenched social pathologies in our poorest neighborhoods. But just as Jesus sought out the poor and weak, and embraced their dignity, so his 21st-century disciples must do the same, said Brooks.

“If we want to change public policy and we want to change American culture, it’s not good enough to burn a bunch of money to help poor people,” he told his audience of college students. 

When we heed Pope Francis’ call to leave the comfort of our homes, offices and rectories, and go to the peripheries, our lives will change, and we will change lives.

The “throwaway culture” mentality tells the father who has been jobless for four years, “You’re done.” In contrast, the business owner who conducts home visits through the St. Vincent de Paul Society tells him, “I know what it’s like to lose a job, and I’ve got an idea for you.” The throwaway culture says, “Food stamps are enough.” But the parish volunteer can say, “Join us for dinner. We’d like to share our plans.”

Indeed, when we reach out to an unemployed parent, we better understand that work, whether in an office or a workshop, is ennobling, and the failure to sustain one’s family spawns despair.

As the faithful look for opportunities to bring spiritual and practical support to the unemployed, we can turn for inspiration to the powerful legacy of Catholic social teaching.

Our Church exhorts us to respect the common good, to affirm the inalienable dignity of each human being, and to avoid bureaucratic solutions, whenever possible, so we can stay close to those we serve. This is why Catholic social teaching prizes the idea of subsidiarity: that decisions should be made where possible by the lowest or least centralized competent authority.

Indeed, as our new president presses U.S. corporations to bring jobs back to America, Catholic social principles can help protect the rights of all U.S. workers, including the newly employed.

The Church’s vision of human flourishing requires “that each individual is to be protected by a moral framework of human rights and that the work a person does, whether manual labor, mining, or intellectual and professional work, is understood as an expression of their dignity,” said Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston at a recent conference, “Erroneous Autonomy: The Dignity of Work.”

Pope Francis, he said, “has argued strongly that, in the midst of the forces of technology and globalization, people cannot be reduced to arguments for greater efficiency.”

That message echoes Pope St. John Paul II’s own repudiation of a globalized culture of death that imposes the will of powerful nations on weak, developing countries. Thus, even as our new president moves ahead with his “America First” agenda, we must carefully evaluate its impact on the dignity and rights of weaker nations that might be deemed ripe for economic exploitation and what Pope Francis calls ideological colonization.

Meanwhile, ordinary believers can begin with heeding St. John Paul’s call, from a talk he gave in Sydney, Australia, in November 1986: “It must be said over and over again that work is for man, not man for work. … The worker is always more important than profits and machines.”