When Kentucky legislators proposed anti-union “right to work” legislation in 2017, Bishop John Stowe of the Lexington Diocese spoke out boldly in defense of Catholic social teaching on unions and worker justice. The following remarks were delivered by Bishop Stowe at the Catholic Labor Network’s first annual livestreamed Labor Day mass:
The beautiful account of creation found on the first pages of Scripture demonstrates God’s work and artistry. It reveals God’s generosity: God gives humanity dominion over all He has made. By giving us fertility and the command to multiply, God invites us to work as co-creators. Just as in the Eucharistic liturgy we offer up “what earth has given and human hands have made”; there is a partnership into which we have been invited by the All Powerful and All-Loving creator. When the work of our hands and minds, when our skills and training engage our intelligence and our sense of wonder and curiosity, when we truly partner with God to share in the ongoing work of creation-we can celebrate work, celebrate accomplishments, celebrate advances in technology and the increase of production of the fruits of the earth. We can see how work is indeed dignified, humanizing, and how it is a major factor in our sense of satisfaction with our lives.
This Labor Day finds us in the midst of a global pandemic. It invites us to consider not only the dignity of human work as a share in God’s creation, but calls us to deepened solidarity with those who have been labeled “essential workers” but too often treated as expendable when it comes to the profit margin. Those whose work in the vast field of health care and care of the elderly; in the various occupations that harvest, ship, stock, sell and prepare our food; in countless incarnations of the service industry; in the delivery of our mail (and ballots) and in a variety of government and human services; now even in the classroom and in so many venues where the threat of infection is real their compensation and benefits rarely reflect the nobility of their designation as essential.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Archbishop of Newark, has referred to this moment in which we are not only facing ongoing infection and the climbing death toll of the COVID-19 pandemic but are also having to face the consequences of the systematic racism that has infected our society since the times of colonization, as an “apocalyptic time”: not only in the scary sense in which we popularly use that word, but in its more original and biblical sense- that of uncovering what has been hidden. The remnants of human enslavement and the great discrepancies in the treatment of workers, especially those of color and the poor, are made all the more obvious as some of us have the opportunity to work from the safety of our homes while others have no such option. The Gospels present Jesus, the Eternal Son of God who enters into our human existence, as one who is not afraid to get his hands dirty. Jesus is not afraid to enter into the messiness of the human condition, he is unafraid of breaking bread with those considered sinners, he does not hesitate to touch the suffering even when it would render him unclean in the eyes of many, he does not hesitate to perform the essential work of healing and liberation on the sabbath. Jesus sees all of this as his mission, the work he is sent to do- the essential “work of the Father,” as it is called in John’s Gospel.
Jesus prepared himself to do the work of building the Kingdom by first experiencing the human condition in a family, like all of us. He learned a trade, was known as the carpenter’s son, used his own hands to shape, carve and build the wood that earth has given. He gathered fishermen and a tax collector to share in his mission. He preached and he exemplified solidarity with the human family- beginning at his baptism, when he the sinless one, took his place in line with the sinful awaiting the chance to be washed clean and he remained in their company through his crucifixion between two criminals. The carpenter’s son is in our midst as we face this pandemic and continue to struggle for the rights of workers in solidarity.
Recent popes have helped us meditate upon the potential of dignified work as a path to holiness, a path which can very well include, but must also transcend, what the world considers “satisfaction”. We progress from the satisfactory to the noble when our work is more than about remuneration. From the children of Adam and Eve, who tilled the land and tended flocks, to our contemporaries at keyboards designing artificial intelligence- work has the capacity to transform our world, to build upon the marvelous gifts of creation- to again combine “what earth has given and human hands have made” to create an offering to be presented to the Father.
Modern Social Catholic Teaching began with the question of work. When Pope Leo XIII wrote the encyclical that would become the basis for our social doctrine, the industrial revolution was well underway. Means of production were advanced by the use of machinery, human labor fueled the engines of industry, but the connection between what a person produced and what society consumed was no longer so clear. When the laborer could not afford to purchase what his or her sweat produced, there was a disconnect. Despite all outward signs of progress, poverty was increasing among the working class who had to work longer hours in unsafe conditions.
Pope Leo was not at all content that Karl Marx and those who shared his atheistic materialist framework should be the only ones talking about the “alienation of labor”. The disciples of the carpenter from Galilee should have something meaningful to offer the masses whose labor was diminishing, rather than building up, their dignity. Leo wrote, and inscribed into Catholic teaching, a foundational premise that workers had the right to organize to advocate collectively for fair pay and safe working conditions. He argued for a sense of the common good and for maintaining the proper balance between capital and labor, with each recognizing the need for the other and cooperating for the common good.
When subsequent popes have addressed the pressing social needs of their times, the question of the dignity of work remained the touchstone. Saint John Paul II, who had worked in a factory while attending an underground seminary, insisted that work must be “subjective”, that is the worker should exercise autonomy and dominion, rather than allowing work to become “merchandise”, bought and sold at the lowest price.
Our Catholic tradition has beautiful and meaningful things to say about the dignity and nobility of work; but what about that work which no one wants to do or that has become demeaning? A substantial part of my diocese is in the coal country of Appalachia. The extractive industries, first of timber then of coal, dominated that local economy. They provided work. Countless workers in the mines could take pride in their role of fueling industry and as they frequently say down here, “keeping the lights on.” But there was another side to that story as big companies found it more expedient to pay nuisance fines than to maintain mine safety standards and when miners who put food on the table and educated their children from their hard work underground suffered from black lung and sacrificed much of the quality of their lives. It is no wonder that coal miners feel the heaviest part of the burden when important environmental regulations and economic factors have terminated their work- they are stuck within the polluted environment but have few if any options for alternative employment.
We should also consider the plight of those whose back-breaking labor brings food to our tables- and yes, even to our Eucharistic table. Exposure to chemicals and pesticides in addition to the work itself are creating a pattern of workers trapped in a cycle that allows them to feed themselves but makes life-threatening illness almost inevitable.
We know that the need for laborers draws people from places where the opportunities for work to support a family are quite limited, places where poverty and desperation create endless cycles of violence. Yet for decades we have failed to create just immigration policies for the vast majority of hard working immigrants and create legal pathways so that they can fully participate in the society they help to build and sustain. As we prayerfully offer our own labor for sanctification, we must also be mindful of those whose work and whose very selves are exploited in the most undignified ways through human trafficking.
In just a few moments, we will place the “fruit of the earth and work of human hands” on the altar. Let us be mindful of all of our work and unite it to the labor represented in these elements. When the bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, we celebrate the work of our redemption as we are nourished by the very one who invites us to share in his work as he has shared in solidarity with ours.
May our nourishment at this table strengthen and sustain us to be co-workers with the Creator and to work for the enhanced dignity of all whose labor is consumed in our society. May it strengthen us to discover what is being revealed in our times and respond in solidarity and justice.