May Day! May Day!

The 1st of May is the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker, to whom Christian Democracy is dedicated. It is also, not coincidentally, International Worker’s Day. In the United States, frustration with the systemic difficulties imposed on working people and the growing wealth gap has erupted into violence in Seattle and Portland. [1]    

Catholic Social Teaching does not encourage the use of violence in response to grievances. But supporters of Catholic Social Teaching do not comprise a sizable number it appears, and the continuing indignities inflicted on working people in the United States are unpleasant to bear for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. To blithely assume that people will simply endure whatever is imposed upon them is completely irrational.  

The living wage, a centerpiece of Catholic Social Teaching [2], has gathered proponents among American working people in recent times for the simple reason that less remuneration for work is unendurable. Those who work, but who do not receive a living wage, are literally impoverished. That means that they must routinely make choices, not between luxuries, or even between luxuries and necessities, but between necessities. People in such straits must choose between food and paying the heating bill, or between medicine and clothes for their children. That so many in a country so wealthy must live in such circumstances is nothing less than a national disgrace.      

What’s more, it is unrighteousness. In Guadium et Spes, sec. 67, a document of the Second Vatican Council, and, hence, part of the Extraordinary Magisterium, we read that “remuneration for labor is to be such that man may be furnished the means to cultivate worthily his own material, social, cultural, and spiritual life and that of his dependents, in view of the function and productiveness of each one, the conditions of the factory or workshop, and the common good.” [3]

In Rerum Novarum, a papal encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, and part of the ordinary Magisterium of the Church, we read: 

“Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, 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.”    

When Leo XIII wrote of sufficient wages, he did not mean wages that are able to support one person only, but the worker, “his wife, and his children….” He wrote that in 1891. In today’s United States, with so many single mothers struggling to support their children, the requirement is at least equally as dire.

The federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is only 60% of what is needed to keep a family of four out of poverty. [3] This is unsustainable. It is not only unsustainable because less purchasing power in the economy is bad for business, it is also so because these circumstances are very likely to drive the population to desperation. Preaching and counseling about the impoliteness of revolt has little impact when conditions become extreme enough. Even if such efforts are likely to be crushed, the effect on the national economy is not going to be a good one. And what of all of our international entanglements if there is war at home? 

Injustice to the wage earner is a “sin that cries to heaven.” [4] We can only pray that our national leadership will come to its senses in time for heaven’s response.

Jack Quirk