Remembering Our Beginnings

The purpose of the Christian Democracy movement in the United States is quite simply, but also quite generally, to bring about the implementation of Catholic social doctrine in the United States. But what are the specifics of such a program? Catholic social teaching touches on a lot of areas, of course, and they are all essential. Still, there is one area of social policy that must be at the forefront at all times, and can never be disregarded if the movement is to retain its Christian Democratic character: the cause of labor, and the standard of living of working people.

While there are many who would fully expect such an emphasis, given the history of Christian Democracy worldwide, such a focus might be surprising to some in the United States who have come to expect attention to other areas of social concern from the religiously motivated. But it is not in disregard of such concerns that the Christian Democratic movement considers the interests of labor to be central, still less is it due to any proclivity to disregard any jot or tittle of Catholic teaching. There are, rather, very compelling reasons why the concerns of working people should be so key to the movement.

For one thing, the interests of working people are central to the movement’s very charter: Rerum Novarum. [1] Pope Leo XIII wrote this encyclical in 1891 in response to “the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class….” Working people in Leo’s day had “been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition.” The problem was compounded through “rapacious usury, which, although” it had been repeatedly “condemned by the Church,” was still being “practiced by covetous and grasping men.” What’s more, “the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade” had become “concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men” had “been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.”

One remedy proposed by the pontiff to alleviate these conditions was a living wage. “Let the working man and the employer make free agreements,” he said, “and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.” He advocated that “a workman’s wages be sufficient to enable him comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his children,” so that he would “find it easy, if he be a sensible man, to practice thrift, and he will not fail, by cutting down expenses, to put by some little savings and thus secure a modest source of income.”

Another solution Leo proposed to enhance the conditions of working people was the formation of organizations for mutual aid. For the Pope the “most important of all” these organizations were “workingmen's unions, for these virtually include all the rest. History attests” he pointed out, “what excellent results were brought about by the artificers’ guilds of olden times. They were the means of affording not only many advantages to the workmen, but in no small degree of promoting the advancement of art, as numerous monuments remain to bear witness.” He envisioned unions that were “suited to the requirements of” the age, and found it “gratifying to know that there” were “actually in existence not a few associations of this nature, consisting either of workmen alone, or of workmen and employers together,” and expressed the hope “that they should become more numerous and more efficient.”

The United States has some distance to travel before it realizes Leo XIII’s vision. In 2010 15.1 percent of Americans lived in poverty. [2] For children alone the percentage was higher, 22 percent, representing 16.4 million children.

Meanwhile, the numbers of American workers who enjoy the benefits of union membership have been decreasing over the decades. In 2012 union membership fell to 11.3 percent of wage and salary workers, down from 11.8 percent in 2011. [3] In 1981, the figure was 20.1 percent, and in 1960 it was 30.9 percent. [3]  

The decline in union membership is not without its impact. There is a striking difference between the earnings of workers who are union members and those who are not. In 2012 the median weekly earnings of those who were union members was $943.00 while the weekly earnings of non-union workers was $742.00. [4]

That these circumstances require attention is obvious to anyone concerned about labor conditions. It is also the case that there are other areas of social concern that ought to be a priority for any Christian Democratic movement, properly so called. Abortion, that euphemism for the killing of unborn children, is certainly a blight on American society. Our government’s proclivity for militarily attacking nations that are no threat to the United States increases a moral debt that will inevitably become due. The American family is in tatters. But the concerns of labor are connected to all of these problems.

A major incentive for abortion is poverty. But if wages decline due to the lack of union protections the burdens associated with additional offspring will find a ready answer in that seeming expediency. Military adventurism has drained the national treasury, leaving less for infrastructure investments that could provide well paying employment for many. Families suffer as two earners in a household become more of a necessity than a road to self actualization.

Current events in the United States also demand action from those who would don the mantle of Catholic social teaching. Right now, fast food workers across the country are demanding a living wage and the right to unionize without intimidation. [5] Wal-Mart employees are taking similar action to improve their circumstances. [6] If we believe that Christian Democracy is good for America this is no time to allow ourselves to be marginalized as to matters that are properly our concern.

The interests of labor and the conditions of working people are, and must be, central concerns of the Christian Democratic movement. It is inadmissible that they could ever become peripheral to our efforts, for they are of the very essence of who we are and our very purpose for existing.

Jack Quirk

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