May Day: the Socialist Worker vs. St. Joseph the Worker

COMMENTARY: For the best model for workers, look not to a man named Marx but to a carpenter named Joseph.

The Childhood of Jesus.
The Childhood of Jesus. (photo: Gerard van Honthorst / Web Gallery of Art)

May Day has all sorts of historically varied meanings and traditions among various groups, including Catholics. Since the late 19th century, however, May 1 has been particularly known for its association with workers — particularly, its appropriation if not exploitation by socialists and communists. That began in earnest on May 1, 1889, when socialists launched International Workers’ Day.

“May 1st is May Day, the International Workers’ Holiday,” explains Communist Party USA. “In every nation on earth, working people demonstrate their unity and celebrate those who labor and produce all wealth.” CPUSA adds a complaint: “Ever since May Day was declared an International Workers’ Holiday, in 1889, the capitalist class has desperately tried to suppress all memory of May Day.”

Well, not if socialists and communists can help it. (For the record, socialism was defined by Marx and Lenin as the final transitionary step to communism.) Among the major May Day marches they’re planning this year is a big one in Los Angeles, with a theme that ventures well beyond worker issues: “This year’s theme for the L.A. May Day Coalition … is on lifting up immigrants, worker rights, and fighting against white supremacist brutality against Asian and Black community members,” explains People’s World, the flagship publication of American communism. “We want to lift up our solidarity as community, faith, immigrant rights, LGBTQ+, labor and Muslim organizations, who continue to stand strong with one another in the face of our current challenges.”

For socialists and communists, May Day is their high holy day — the annual major feast day on their ideological calendar. It is their veneration of the worker, albeit channeled to a wider and more destructive purpose. They take a noble cause — workers’ rights — and pervert it into a call for central planning, collectivism and outright abolition of property rights and basic civil liberties, including religion. (Marx and Engels stated: “The entire communist theory may be summed up in a single sentence: abolition of private property.”)

Anyone who has read the writings of these revolutionaries knows that. The Catholic Church knows it. It has warned about socialism and communism in statements going back to 1846, long before the first socialist May Day and even before the publication of the Communist Manifesto. All along, our shepherds warned the flock about how socialists and communists mislead the unwary. 

In his 1846 encyclical Qui Pluribus (On Faith and Religion), Blessed Pius IX described communism as a “dark design” of “men in the clothing of sheep,” who are “filled with deceit and cunning” and who “spread pestilential doctrines everywhere and deprave the minds especially of the imprudent, occasioning great losses for religion.” 

In Quod Apostolici Muneris (On Socialism), Pope Leo XIII in 1878 spoke of the “plague of socialism” seeking “recruits” by “stealing the very Gospel itself with a view to deceive more easily the unwary.” In his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno On Reconstruction of the Social Order), Pope Pius XI called socialism “an alluring poison … apt to deceive the unwary.”

And yet, socialism/communism continued to pick up followers among the imprudent. Every year, May Day was a big day to seek recruits.

Alas, a major pushback came on May 1, 1955. On that day in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Pius XII addressed the Association of Italian Christian Workers, who he told not to accept the “atrocious slander” being “widely spread,” namely, that “the Church is an ally of capitalism against the workers.” Pius XII knew plenty well how communists slandered. They smeared him as “Hitler’s Pope,” a vicious lie that lives on to this day. He wasn’t about to let them claim a corner on compassion for workers. Pius XII stated of these foes:

"For a long time, unfortunately, Christ’s enemy has been sowing discord among the Italian people, without always and everywhere encountering sufficient resistance on the part of Catholics. Especially in the working class it has done and is doing everything to spread false ideas about man and the world, about history, about the structure of society and the economy. It is not rare the case in which the Catholic worker, for lack of a solid religious formation, finds himself disarmed, when similar theories are proposed to him; he is unable to answer, and sometimes he even lets himself be contaminated by the poison of error."

Pius XII reiterated that “the Church condemn[s] the various systems of Marxist socialism.” He also invoked his predecessor’s great encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno. In fact, it’s worth repeating in the year 2021 what Pius XI had emphatically stated there: “Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms. No one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.” Pius XI recommended that those Christians strangely by socialism instead “ought to profess Christian truth whole and entire, openly and sincerely, and not connive at error in any way. If they truly wish to be heralds of the Gospel, let them above all strive to show to socialists that socialist claims, so far as they are just, are far more strongly supported by the principles of Christian faith.” 

In other words, simply follow the Christian Gospel and do Christianity. There’s “no reason to become socialists.” Amen to that.

Above all, said Pope Pius XII on May Day 1955, if you want a model for the worker, look to St. Joseph. Thus, the Day of St. Joseph the Worker was instituted to counter atheistic communism’s attempted appropriation of the worker. Pius XII proclaimed Joseph (rather than Marx) the “Patron of Workers.”

This wasn’t the first time that St. Joseph was invoked in the battle against communism. In March 1937, Pius XI released Divini Redemptoris (On Atheistic Communism), a scathing indictment, declaring Marxism to be a “satanic scourge,” a “fury,” “poison,” a “deluge which threatens the world,” a “collectivistic terrorism … replete with hate,” and a “plague” leading to “ruin” and “catastrophe.” It was a form of “class-warfare which causes rivers of blood to flow,” including destruction of churches and monasteries. Communistic systems were “monstrous” and flowing with “satanic logic.”

“The evil we must combat,” asserted the encyclical, “is at its origin primarily an evil of the spiritual order.”

It is indeed. That’s something that modern Catholics, particularly Catholic publications like America magazine, which recently published, “The Catholic Case for Communism,” clearly do not understand.

In the spiritual order, we should look up to St. Joseph, not down to Marxism.

One pope who experienced this firsthand unlike any other was a Polish laborer named Karol Wojtyla, who on May Day eagerly pointed to St. Joseph. 

It is Joseph, said Pope St. John Paul II, who offers a balanced ideal of workers’ rights and human rights—that is, with God rather than without God. In his 1989 apostolic exhortation Redemptoris Custos (On the Person and Mission of St. Joseph in the Life of Christ and of the Church), John Paul II characterized Joseph as the Guardian of the Redeemer, the “custos,” the protector of the child Jesus. He was a worker who raised a carpenter son, but with eyes fixed on a divine mission and vocation.

How perfectly fitting that this year, 2021, when support for socialism is on the rise, that Pope Francis declared 2021 the Year of St. Joseph. His apostolic letter, Patris Corde (A Father’s Heart), is worth reading at length. It quotes Pius IX, Leo XIII, Pius XII, John Paul II and more. Francis’ statement invokes Joseph the worker in a way that secular socialists will not be doing from their May Day platforms this year:

"Work is a means of participating in the work of salvation, an opportunity to hasten the coming of the Kingdom, to develop our talents and abilities, and to put them at the service of society and fraternal communion…. Working persons, whatever their job may be, are cooperating with God himself, and in some way become creators of the world around us…. Saint Joseph’s work reminds us that God himself, in becoming man, did not disdain work."

Karl Marx didn’t speak of work that way, and neither do the members of the Communist Party USA, the Socialist Workers Party, and the Democratic Socialists of America. Nonetheless, such is the Catholic Church’s higher view of the value of work. 

For May Day 2021, look not to the socialist worker but to St. Joseph the Worker. For the best model for workers, look not to a man named Marx but to a man named Joseph.