St. Joseph for The Common Good

Yesterday’s feast of St. Joseph the Worker didn’t seem to get much attention. That struck me as odd in an election year so caught up with issues of the Catholic faith and Catholic social teaching.

Karol Wojtyla on the right taking a break from laboring.

The feast was founded in 1955 by Pope Pius XII in response to the Communist celebrations on May Day. Today it’s known as the International Worker’s Day, and the proletariat festival so popular in those heady days of communism still exists… only today it involves less parading and more blowing things up.

Monday’s headlines on Drudge included a report that there was going to be some large sit-in by the worldwide occupation movement. You remember the ubiquitous occupiers, no doubt. Apparently, the prospect of not showering or having regular access to the facilities is just too much to resist.

The plans, assuming enough occupy folks can get out of bed, include peaceful protests against greed. So there were “calls for a general strike with no work, no school, no banking and no shopping.” In the old days this used to be called keeping the Sabbath holy and happened every weekend… but, let’s not bicker about details.

The organizers of this more general occupation want to call this go-around “creative forms of resistance” that disrupt “the status quo.” So they encourage us to “refrain from shopping, walk out of class, take the day off of work.”

Walking out of class is a form of resistance? When I was an undergrad it was called ditching and was the result of an unadulterated sloth made more potent by too many late nights of hilarity. I guess today ditching is high-spirited political protest. Student are no longer consumers of the truth but a “laborers” under the evil thumb of administrators who care not a whit for their plight. Where’s today’s Dickens?

Of course, none of this occupy business is about getting at the real problems of society, and certainly not about helping the poor. The goal is not even anything so laudable as raising awareness of the plight of the poor or the un-employed or of Cubs fans. It is merely to disrupt. Perhaps this is why Oakland saw anarchists smashing in windows and attacking what someone called an “unsuspecting police station.”

Anyway, the point is that sitting before the financial hubs of civilization yelling, “Greed” puts not a morsel of food in a hungry child’s stomach and it inspires no one. Indeed, there is probably nothing more singularly useless than attempting to change the “status quo” by subjecting oneself to weeks of poor hygiene. At least cheering on the Cubs is an act of supernatural hope.

To commemorate yesterday’s feast, I would have preferred Catholics and occupiers have a conversation about the Church teaching on labor and labor unions. Over at National Review Online Patrick Brennan told us recently of the wonders of modern public sector labor unions who have managed to work out for themselves plans for retirement and pensions which put France to shame… France!

For instance, the Massachusetts Bay Transport Authority (MBTA) had until recently a “23 and out” rule so that no matter when you started working for them, you would retire with full pension benefits after 23 years of work. “That has been raised to the punishing figure of 25 years, and now with a minimum age of 55 before they can collect,” says Mr. Brennan. Yes, “punishing,” but punishing to whom?

The Church supports unions. A cursory knowledge of the Church’s social teaching will give you that. What Catholics almost never hear is the other side of the story, the contexts and the nuances of the papal statements about unions. While unions can be good for modern labor, they are not necessarily forces of absolute good. The popes have been clear that unions, like every other individual or body, still must serve the common good.

The sad fact is that the common good is not served by unions that protect incompetent laborers, as is the case with the “rubber rooms” of the New York teachers union. The common good is positively harmed when unions refuse to give up some of the “gold-plated” health plans so that their State can balance their budget … oh and save teachers’ jobs as was the case in New Jersey.

In Bl. Pope John Paul II’s Laborem exercens, he has a thing or two to say about labor and unions. Regarding the latter he says that they should not “play politics.” He wrote that

[Unions] should not be subjected to the decision of political parties or have too close links with them. In fact, in such a situation they easily lose contact with their specific role, which is to secure the just rights of workers within the framework of the common good of the whole of society; instead they become an instrument used for other purposes. [emphasis in original]

So when Jimmy Hoffa Jr. tells the President that there is a war against the GOP and that the unions are the Democratic party’s army do you suppose from a Catholic perspective that this sits as a potential problem for unions? How exactly does it serve the “common good of the whole of society” for a child’s education to suffer for the sake of a union agenda? Well, these are the sorts of questions we should be asking your Catholic neighbors when you sit down for your local beer summits.

As for the larger question of labor, one of the more precious things of JPII’s teaching is his lifting up the virtue of industriousness. See, the Church wants us to get away from the notion that we exist so that someday we might retire, as though work itself is the great curse against mankind. Rather, the Holy Father tells us that

Work is a good thing for man – a good thing for his humanity – because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being.’

Without this consideration it is impossible to understand the meaning of the virtue of industriousness, and more particularly it is impossible to understand why industriousness would be a virtue: for virtue, as a moral habit, is something whereby man becomes good as man. [emphasis in original]

We become more ourselves through labor. Yes, even the mundane tasks of labor can be humanizing. We work, we toil because it ennobles us. This is a message our labor unions would do well to promote… you know… for the common good.

Of course, when one thinks of good, righteous, just St. Joseph one sees the ultimate example of the laborer who gives for the sake of the common good. Our Lady provided Christ our Savior with the very flesh by which we were saved, but St. Joseph made sure that flesh had enough to eat, that its sinews were well cared for, that its muscles well toned. By means of hard labor in the shop, St. Joseph taught the young Jesus what it was to work by the sweat of the brow and so taught him the glorious and invigorating fruit of a work that made the Son of God even more human.

Happy belated feast to you all. I think I might just go home and weed the garden now.



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  • Djohn

    With all due respect to Blessed JPII
    Work is a punishment for sin, we were not intended to work, and there will be no work on the New Earth. Work is necessary because we fell, but lets not get dilly about its glorification.

    Oh and just as a note, public education does not serve the “common good of the whole of society”, so that is a poor choice of examples.

  • Djohn

    So what What your saying is, that there was a system in place that if I went to work for Massachusetts Bay Transport Authority at 18 I could retire at 41, and if I waited until i was 30 I could at 53 and if I waited until I was 40 I could retire at 63…. and now it has been changed so that if I go to work for them at 18 I have to work for them for for 37 years to retire, but the guy who goes to work for them at 30 can work for only 25 to get his retirement?

    How is this an improvement?

    The military works like that too, should we require that you be 55 to get your military retirement benefits?



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