Labor Day is twelve days away and the Catholic bishops in the United States have weighed in with a document regarding the economy and condition of labor. Bishop Stephen Blaire authored the piece and he’s come under critique from fellow CV blogger Tim Shaughnessy. I disagree with Tim’s critique and believe it elevates conservative economic doctrine higher than Catholic social doctrine.
My latter charge—which by the way is conceded by Tim himself, when he writes “this document, and much of Catholic social thought, is an incomplete understanding of how wages are determined.” If you agree with this statement, you won’t find anything I have to say remotely persuasive, because I draw on Catholic social doctrine. But if you believe in the primacy of the latter than there are two key points that have to be addressed…
*Labor has primacy over capital in the economic relationship—John Paul II writes in Laborem Excercens, that “labour is always a primary efficient cause, while capital, the whole collection of means of production, remains a mere instrument or instrumental cause.”
*It is appropriate and just to pay someone based on their needs, not merely their production—In an article by Father Robert Johansen at Crisis Magazine (a venue sympathetic to the economic stances of Catholic conservatives), Fr. Johansen pulls together a variety of sources from JPII to Thomas Aquinas to the origins of creation itself to demonstrate that “A just wage, then, should provide a worker with enough to live, and perhaps a little more, so as to enable him to live “becomingly.”
The latter belief is usually associated with Marxism, given Karl Marx’s “from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs” phrase. This proves not that the idea is wrong, but that Marx stole one good idea from the Catholic Church to make his war against faith and family attractive to working-class people who needed to be enticed on board.
The principles above affect not only government policy, but private economic relationships as well. There’s a huge gray area of sorting out actual implementation that goes well beyond what anyone can write in a single blog post.
The current political climate, in which everything is seen through the Obama vs. Romney prism will poison a debate like this. So does the deeper political problem which is that one party has been hijacked by a radical left-wing movement that won’t even accede human rights to the most vulnerable among us in the womb and as such can never be trusted with political power. The need for this economic debate underscores the necessity of getting legitimate Democrats, rooted in their party’s finest traditions back in control.
But the crux of the matter is this—when it comes to formulating a broad understanding of what’s right and wrong in the economic sphere, do you believe that revenue and price considerations are all that matter? Or does work, as Blessed John Paul II writes, have a subjective dimension that goes beyond that?
When it comes to understanding justice in an economy, do you back a doctrine developed over better than a century by an array of popes, or one pieced together by a slew of intellectuals at conservative think tanks? I’ve got nothing against the latter, but it’s their ideas that are subject to the former, not the other way around.
Dan Flaherty is the author of Fulcrum, an Irish Catholic novel set in postwar Boston with a traditional Democratic mayoral campaign at its heart, and he is the editor-in-chief of TheSportsNotebook.com