Archbishop Wuerl on Labor Day
Happy Labor Day! The following is a reflection on Labor Day by Archbishop Wuerl which can be found in the current issue (8/30/07) of the Catholic Standard:
In a small park in front of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart church in Northwest Washington is a statue of Cardinal James Gibbons. Seventy-five years ago, at its unveiling, the president of the United States, then Herbert Hoover, highlighted the significance of Cardinal Gibbons' contribution to our country, including championing "the cause of labor in moments of crisis." The ceremony followed on decades of the successful application of Catholic social teaching to the world of economics, business, labor and management.
At the heart of Catholic social teaching is the respect due each person precisely because each of us is created in the likeness of God and the call to be attentive to the needs of one another. As we observe Labor Day, we recall that the history of the labor movement in our country has been intertwined with the articulation and application of the Church's social teaching on the dignity of each person and the value and worth of human labor.
There are those who make a very strong case, and arguably a decisive one, that the moral and philosophical framework that energized and sustained the struggles and efforts of working women and men in the early days of organized labor are found in Catholic teaching.
With the promulgation of Rerum Novarum in 1891, the Church sought to confront the terrible exploitation and poverty of European and American workers at the end of the nineteenth century. The Church applied the principles of her social teaching to the conditions and issues emanating from the Industrial Revolution.
The focus of the encyclical includes the dignity of work, the right to private property, the principle of collaboration instead of class struggle as the fundamental means of social change, the rights of the weak, the dignity of the poor and the obligations of the rich, the perfecting of justice through change and the right to form professional or labor associations.
In Luke's Gospel account of the beginning of Christ's public ministry - the Gospel for Labor Day - Christ came to proclaim a kingdom that is not yet fully with us, but at the same time is unfolding in our midst. He validated his vision by revealing that he was sent by God to reveal God's plan and will. For the follower of Jesus, revelation as the source of truth, the reality of the kingdom of God and the daily struggle to realize something of the kingdom in this life are foundational truths.
Catholic social teaching is grounded in these truths and the tensions they create. It also rests on the firm conviction that what we do in this life, what justice we realize in this world, endures as a sign of God's presence and the beginnings of God's kingdom (cf. Matthew 25:31-46).
From the vantage point of revelation, human life is seen as sacred because it is potentially divine. Each human being becomes Christ's brother or sister and, therefore, our sister or brother. Our final destiny is life eternal with the Father. No one is merely a digit on the state census. None is an alien in this life because each is capable of becoming a citizen of God's everlasting kingdom. This makes available a whole new approach to human problems.
Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical letter on the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum entitled, Centesimus Annus proposed a "rereading of Pope Leo's encyclical... to discover anew the richness of the fundamental principles which it formulated for dealing with the question of the condition of workers" (Centesimus Annus, 3.1).
The pope reminded us that "rereading the encyclical in the light of contemporary realities enables us to appreciate the Church's constant concern for and dedication to categories of people who are especially beloved to the Lord Jesus" (11.1). We are reminded of the often noted "preferential option for the poor," which the pope defined as a "special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity" (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 42).
While it would be inexact to say that Jesus promoted any particular political, social, or economic program, he did establish basic principles that should characterize any just, humane, economic or political system. Among these is a "preferential option for the poor."
The Church's social teaching continually calls us to recognize in our Catholic teaching not only a guide for the present, but also the foundation on which to build as we move into the future and face new issues.
On Labor Day, we celebrate the continuing importance of the organizational support of working people and the mystery of God's creative power working its way through everything that we describe as the fruit and product of human labor.