Issue Four

A Laborer Is Worthy of His Wages

Margaret Harper McCarthy Download Article

With this last issue on work we come to the question of justice in all that concerns work: the one doing the work—the worker, what is done or made—the worker’s labor, and the one on the receiving end—the consumer. In sum, we offer an issue on the just order in the workplace.

To think about work that is just, it is necessary to think just about work, to think about what is fulfilling in itself, not just a means to an end, be it money, fame, even the “glory of God.” It is necessary to think, therefore, about what kind of work makes us more human? This is the theme of the review on Russell Muirhead’s gem, Just Work.  

Going to the heart of this question we offer two seminal texts. The first is from Charles Péguy which contrasts the ancient and Christian understanding of work with the bourgeois and post-Christian one. The second is from Laborem excercens, where St. John Paull II takes up one of the characteristic features of the modern workplace, where the laborer is an instrument of production (and separated from the means of it).  According to Genesis, says St. John Paul II, “man alone, independently of the work he does—ought to be treated as the effective subject of work and its true maker and creator,” and never as a cog in a machine, be it a capitalist or collectivist one.

Naturally, a discussion on justice and work must have the Catholic Social Doctrine in view, beginning with its “big picture”—the whole context in which our work is done. Russell Sparkes, an authority on the Catholic Social Doctrine, provides just this in a feature review which centers on John Médaille’s Towards a Truly Free Market where the author looks at the market from the “distributist” principle, offering both criticism of the contemporary economic world as well as viable alternatives to some of its key practices (and features). Then too, apropos of the idea of exchange we take for granted in the “free-market,” we offer a discussion of the older “gift exchange” in a review of Lewis Hyde’s modern classic The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.

Turning to one of the linchpins of Distributism—the place of the family in the economy—Brian Rottkamp introduces us to Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, a discussion of (among other things) the link between the increasing economic inequality and the rise of children born out of wedlock. Is this not an illustration of the “creative destruction” (to use Schumpeter’s phrase) at work in the economy that undermines the very institution which props it up? We are also pleased to have economist Ernie Tedeschi, former senior advisor at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, weigh in on what a “family friendly” tax policy means—especially as this pertains to the most recent tax reform bill.

For all of its promotion of justice in the world, the Catholic Social Doctrine is not simply worldly. Or better, it is deeply “in the world” because it offers something “not of the world.” This is the fundamental message of Not as the World Gives, by Stratford Caldecott, our founding and much-missed editor. Reversing the common view that functionalizes the Church for merely social ends, Strat insists that the Catholic Social Doctrine brings the world up into something beyond itself, through the believer who radiates into the world what he has gazed upon in the liturgy: the Beauty of God.

This theme was central to the founders of the Catholic Worker Movement, as is clear in Dorothy Day’s Peter Maurin: Apostle to the World. For Maurin, good work was tied up with the three-fold way of life: cult (Mass), culture (the common life), and cultivation (agriculture). Understood and lived in this way, work could be seen as directly tied to the sustenance of a common life that was drawn up into something “not as the world gives,” since it helps sustain the culture generated by the sacraments even by cultivating the food necessary for life and the “Creator’s own Body and Blood.” And with respect to the injustices of the day which Day and Maurin fought assiduously as they promoted fair wages, humane working conditions and job security, any call for change at the “structural level” necessarily involved personal voluntary charity (and poverty) in the form of hospitality to the poor. For Day and Maurin the goal was not just to “meet needs”; or better, it was to meet needs most adequately through works of mercy. You will love this review.

Finally, this issue offers some assessment of the current situation relative to the ideals of the Catholic Social Doctrine.  Looking at the question globally, Edward Hadas, a seasoned financial analyst, economics journalist and political philosopher, offers a fair-minded discussion of the “lights and shadows” of the modern workplace. As an example of the “light,” we offer a witness account of the practice that has given rise to so much excitement about prospects for real help for the most vulnerable. The author of our witness piece recounts her involvement in GFM Ministries, a non-profit in South Asia offering “micro-loans” of $100 to $300. At this point, GFM Ministries has over $4 million USD in circulation and is impacting the lives of over a quarter of a million people. Read to see how life-changing the gift of the very possibility of working, even employing others, can be.

Margaret Harper McCarthy is the US Editor of Humanum.

Keep reading! Click here to read our next article, Neither Cog nor Instrument: Work and the Dignity of Man.