Is The Capital-Labor Divide Still Relevant?

Underlining Key Tenets of Church Teaching in a Job Market of Contradictions

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

With American Labor Day just passed, and as Italians slowly (very slowly!) get back to work following their August holidays, it’s worth recalling one of the founding tenets of modern Catholic social teachings: the “priority of labor over capital.”

Starting with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, the popes have constantly supported the rights of workers over those of employers when it comes to collective bargaining, limited working hours, workplace safety, child labor, a “living wage” and a host of other issues.  It’s less often noted that Catholic social teaching also requires workers to be diligent, honest, and just as concerned for the common good as their bosses must be.

Anyone who’s had to work for a wage knows that this is an idealized picture of the modern workplace, where fewer and fewer employees are represented by labor unions or work for the same company their entire adult lives; some even become mini-capitalists themselves by owning stock in the companies they work for.  One of my early employers told me that “we’re going to use you just as you use us,” which certainly sounds like the “real” truth about capital-labor relations.  As one cynic put it, if work was so great, you wouldn’t have to be paid to do it, and there are days when we’ve all dreamt of telling our boss to take this job and shove it.

But the supposedly realistic way of looking at work misses something more important about the human need to be productive and useful to other people while also taking pride in providing for oneself and one’s family.  Having responsibility for a family implies a certain division of labor in the family itself, as the terms “breadwinner” and “homemaker” reveal, even as these terms have come to sound old-fashioned to our feminist-conditioned ears. Indeed just as the stable husband-wife-children family is becoming (an increasingly rare) one among many options in today’s world, so is our understanding of work as encouraging social responsibility.

Modern workers hear contradictory social messages.  On the one hand, some aspects of the modern workplace tell us that we should all become “capitalists,” i.e. independent, self-directed investors seeking returns on investments in ourselves and others.  On the other, the modern welfare state exists to provide for our every need from cradle to grave and remove any real incentives to take risks, innovate and prosper.  As a result, we have a hyper-competitive elite as well as a slovenly underclass with a bureaucratic redistributive machine trying to keep things in balance between them.  No wonder therapists have to deal with so much burnout and aimlessness at the same time.

All of which makes me wonder whether Catholic social teaching is adequately providing us with the conceptual tools we need to improve society.  In an article in the September issue of First Things, Acton’s Sam Gregg makes the case that the Church has yet to absorb the economic lessons of the late-20th and early 21st centuries, relying on outdated models of government-corporate-union cooperation.   Having put in my time at the Holy See Mission to the UN and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, I would certainly agree, adding that most Western societies themselves are balanced (perhaps torn) between classic-liberal and progressive tendencies that the Church’s teaching simply reflects.  Political moderation may be a good thing for the Church as a whole, although one wonders whether it does not lend some credence to the charge that Christians are lukewarm residents in the City of Man.

While no one seriously opposes principles such as the common good or human dignity, the test of Catholic social teaching must come in the actual lives of men and women in society.  Can these principles actually be put into practice with any reasonable hope of success? Of course, it’s a high standard to meet, one that requires us to think and act selflessly when the rest of the world and our own weaknesses urge us to do otherwise; the results are often hypocrisy and dissimulation.  The entire modern political project initiated by Machiavelli and carried out by others are in some way an attempt to resolve the problem by lowering the bar in order to achieve practical results through a manipulation and re-interpretation of what has been considered moral.

So, yes, Catholic social teaching is, in some way, unrealistic.  It’s caught between ancient and modern understandings of nature, virtue and politics and tries to have the best of both worlds.  But if there’s one Church teaching that meets the test of reality, it’s that of original sin – and thankfully also of God’s unending mercy and grace.  In the end, we will have to rely on the witness of everyday saints, dutiful bosses and workers alike, who follow His will above all the contradictions and problems of our world while remaining firmly rooted in it.

Kishore Jayabalan is Rome director of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

Kishore Jayabalan

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation