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.



  • Paul Dion

    Before I was to graduate from the University of Santo Tommaso di Aquino in Rome with my masters in Theology hanging in the balance I had to pass the comprehensive 90 minute oral exam. One of the questions I was asked was, “How do you understand the catechism answer, ‘We are create in the likeness and resemblance of God.'” I answered by using productive work [labor] as the foundation for my answer. The questioner’s frown melted into a smile about five minutes into my “presentation.” I knew then that I had nailed it. Even in Latin, mind you.
    Omar, you nailed this one. I think you were a little hard on the “Occupy” folks, but your Theology can’t be questioned. After all, the “Common Good” is the foundation of of our existence.
    God bless you in your mission. Blessings,

    • Omar Gutierrez

      Thanks Paul… and I’ll try to be easier on the occupy folks in the future.

  • dom

    but wouldn’t that assume sincerity?

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  • JQ Tomanek

    Good article Omar. I would also like to note that Pesch recommended worker councils among laborers and among labor and management. Rather just one side pitted against another, this setup seems reasonable so that two parties are not just screaming over each other but work together for a common good.

    • Omar Gutierrez

      Thanks JQ. Pesch’s ideas as I’m sure you know, greatly influenced Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno. As I recall they were were also influential on John XXIII who mentions this very idea of an intermediary institution between the laborer and the employer.

  • Henry

    I guess I’m just wondering about some of the actual Catholic solutions to these problems. Sure, teachers in NYC should give up access to their health care…but where are they going to replace it? How many older teachers hare pre-existing conditions? What sort of plan that fits the call to universal health care access do you envision to cover these teachers? Furthermore, benefits like pensions were negotiated in the past, whether they are harmful now or not. As reducing pension benefits seriously impacts how one will be able to retire (if at all), can you describe a Catholic plan that respects the dignity of retirees, especially as related to their health care? Let’s not forget that the CBO projects that under the Ryan plan, the cost of care will rise beyond the inflation-adjustment of vouchers. I guess my point is that it’s fine to point out these issues, but instead of just rejecting these unions point-blank, what solutions do you see in store?

    • Omar Gutierrez

      Hi Henry, I didn’t say that the teachers of NYC should give up their access to healthcare. What I said was that the NYC teacher’s union was protecting incompetent teachers…which it is. I also said that New Jersey teachers in their battle against Chris Christie could give up, not access to health care, but aspects of a plan that would easily be considered “Cadillac.” At that time, union members got full health, dental and vision coverage without paying any percentage of their premiums and when they retired they would get that plan for life, again, without a single dime of contribution. Is it too much to ask that they pay 1-5% of their premium for the sake of the common good… so that NJ can balance its budget and save teachers’ jobs? Can’t union members sacrifice a little bit too? The Catholic plan, to answer your questions, is that unions understand that they exist not just for their laborers but for the sake of the wider community. I’m not rejecting unions point-blank. I’m saying that they need to live up to their fullest potential… which is what the popes have been asking for since 1891.

      • Henry

        I flat-out disagree with your logic. Unions include some incompetent workers, so therefore all should see benefits cut? That’s true of every workplace in America! I challenge you to find an office that does not have someone who cuts corners, is lazy, etc. Should all members of that team have to contribute more because of the issues of a few? No logical organization would function like that. And the idea that unions in NYC are protecting the most incompetent is challenged by the fact that NYC is moving towards value-added assessment.

        • Omar Gutierrez

          Wow, Henry, maybe you’re reading a different blog and comment here or something, because I don’t see where you’r coming from. Your characterization of my “logic” doesn’t even come close to what I actually wrote. I’ll try one more time though… so here it is. First, I’m not saying that “cutting corners” or “being lazy” is incompetence. What I’m talking about is the fact that when a NYC teacher shows up to work so drunk that they pass out in front of the class they shouldn’t still get paid by NY with full benefits to sit in a room and do nothing for 8 hours. Have you not heard of these “rubber rooms”? One NYC teacher was so bad and so regularly drunk that she blamed the NYC teachers union for enabling her alcoholism. She said that if there had ever been any real consequences to her horrid behavior, she would have sought serious help much sooner. Second, the logic is not that some workers are lazy so benefits should be cut. I’m not sure where you got that one. What I said was that when a union worker has benefits that are so luxurious they ought to consider reasonable and minor concessions to their fantastically amazing benefits for the sake of the greater good. What’s so wrong with suggesting a little sacrifice from everyone… especially those who enjoys benefits unheard of in the private sector? Is that clear now?



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