The Catholic Case for Labor

COMMENTARY: If we want to support workers, we should do what Jesus and his Church would do, not what Karl Marx and socialists would do.

A coal miner poses under a statue of Saint Barbara, the patron saint of miners, in a mine gallery March 24, 1990, in Oignies, France.
A coal miner poses under a statue of Saint Barbara, the patron saint of miners, in a mine gallery March 24, 1990, in Oignies, France. (photo: Patrick Kovarik / AFP via Getty Images)

Labor Day, begun in America in the late 19th century, is one of those days fraught with debate over how best to honor it. In America, it is very much separate from International Workers’ Day and May Day, which were more European and were started and pushed by communists and socialists. In Labor Day, Americans have sought a true day of rest from their regular daily labor and a break from yet something else politicized and ideologized.

For Catholics likewise, these days have been fraught with debate. No other institution has claimed more members for more centuries than the Catholic Church. No group of trade unionists or communists or socialists can match it. The Church has long taken a lead on labor, preaching the dignity of the person and work from a spiritual perspective. Communists and socialists, to the contrary, sought to separate the worker from the spiritual. The Church, in turn, found itself under relentless attack by communists and socialists who tried to claim the worker.

As an example of how united the Church has been in its effort to more authentically represent workers, consider two glaring examples from the height of the global Great Depression: Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno and Dorothy Day’s The Catholic Worker.

Released in May 1931, Quadragesimo Anno was a seminal Church document. It included an extended critique of what some Church progressives and socialists were claiming was a “more moderate” and acceptable form of socialism. The encyclical noted that these socialists might try to “approach the truths which Christian tradition has always held sacred,” but if one was seeking “demands and desires” consistent with Christian truth, there was “no reason to become socialists.”

The encyclical advised: “Those who want to be apostles among socialists 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 and much more effectively promoted through the power of Christian charity.”

In other words, if you want to help your fellow man, simply be a Christian and follow the Gospel. One need not “connive at error” in support of socialism. 

This is a timeless lesson that Catholics must remember still today, including those asserting that Catholics can or even should be socialists or communists. In July 2019, the Jesuit-run America magazine actually ran a piece titled “The Catholic Case for Communism.” It was a shocking article, especially in light of two centuries of consistent Church teaching against communism and socialism.

In fact, Quadragesimo Anno flatly rejected the idea that Catholics and Christians could be socialists. Read carefully:

We make this pronouncement: Whether considered as a doctrine, or an historical fact, or a movement, socialism, if it remains truly socialism, even after it has yielded to truth and justice on the points which we have mentioned, cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth. … If socialism, like all errors, contains some truth (which, moreover, the Supreme Pontiffs have never denied), it is based nevertheless on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity. Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.

That is a clear rejection of both communism and socialism, which, said Quadragesimo Anno, “wander far from the precepts of the Gospel.”

These are crucial distinctions, and yet so many Catholics have seemed unable to make them, especially those long ago identified by Pope Pius IX in his 1846 encyclical Qui Pluribus as “imprudent.” Issued two years before the Communist Manifesto was published, Pius IX warned that these secular-atheistic ideologies are “filled with deceit and cunning” and that their advocates “spread pestilential doctrines everywhere and deprave the minds especially of the imprudent, occasioning great losses for religion.”

The “imprudent” have long been victimized by these ideologies, including many Catholics.

It will surprise many left-leaning Catholics and conservative Catholics alike to see that Dorothy Day’s The Catholic Worker also strove to make these distinctions. A striking example was the front page of the September 1938 issue of The Catholic Worker, which carried a headline declaring that “Catholics May Not Join C.P.” (the Communist Party). The editors stated: “[L]et us place first things first. We cannot subscribe to a philosophy both materialistic and atheistic in essence which finds no room for the divine element in solving the social and economic problem.” The editors said emphatically: “Communism is intrinsically in error and no one who would save civilization may collaborate with it in any undertaking whatsoever.” They affirmed that “no true Catholic can be a member of the Communist Party.”

Ironically, the piece in America magazine arguing “the Catholic Case for Communism,” which was written by a member of the Canadian Communist Party, appealed to Dorothy Day. 

So many modern Catholics educated in liberal universities and unfaithful Catholic colleges are unaware of their Church’s rich record against communist and socialist ideologies. They have been seduced by those doctrines. They likewise might be shocked to learn of the unpublished schemas of Vatican II.

In early 1962, there were three “preparatory schemas” written up and initially approved by the “General Session” of Vatican II. The first and lengthiest was titled, “On the Care of Souls With Regard to Christians Infected With Communism.” It was approved that February, as was the second document, titled, “On the Care of Souls and Communism.” The third document, approved in April, was titled, “On the Apostolate of the Laity in Environments Imbued With Materialism, Particularly Marxism.” The second schema lamented:

“There are a large number of people in many nations who, although they were not born into ignoble families and they were even baptized and educated in the Catholic Church, are enticed by communism, enlist in communist organizations, and vote for communists in political and administrative elections. Many of them, indeed, do not adhere to communist philosophical doctrines in their hearts, and the only basis of their merely practical support for the communist cause, or at least the principal one, is that they regard it as an effective way to bring about the perfect establishment of social justice, and, in fact, for obtaining a better salary or wage for less work, for receiving an equal part of the division and distribution of wealth and material goods, and for living a more comfortable and easier life. However, those who favor communism only for economic convenience are mistaken.”

Catholics should not be duped. If they want to support workers, they should do what Jesus would do, not what Karl Marx would do; do what the Church would do, not what socialists would do.

The Church has been blessed with wonderful teachings providing a balanced and integrated understanding of labor and economics, from statements like Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum to Pope John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens and more. Catholics should turn there for insights on labor — on what John Paul II referred to as man’s “call to work.”

“Only man is capable of work,” observed John Paul II, “work occupying his existence on earth.”

We must carry out that work in a way that connects our labor to the divine. It is part of our daily existence.

In America today, Labor Day 2022, Catholic Americans don’t need calls for “the Catholic case” for communism or socialism or other destructive atheistic creeds. We need to continue to follow the Catholic case for labor.