Homily 26th Sunday Year A (9/25/11) – Social Teaching/Just Wage

Fr. Dwight P. Campbell, S.T.D.

     “O Lord, you had just cause to judge men as you did: cause we have sinned against you and disobeyed your will.” Yes, God is a just Judge, and he expects that we, in our social and economic relations, treat each other justly. The Church has a beautiful body of teaching in this area – a teaching which arose in response to what is known as the Industrial Revolution; i.e., the rise of industry with those who own the capital or means of production, pitted against the workers or laborers; and in response to the writings of Karl Marx and others who proposed socialism and communism as a solution to the problem of the capitalists v. the workers.

     This social and economic teaching of the Church began formally to develop about 120 years ago with the first great social encyclical written by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, called Rerum Novarum (On the “New Things” of the Social/Economic Order).

     On the one hand, Pope Leo XIII denounced Karl Marx and the Socialists who denied the existence of God, and held that the individual is here to serve the State and that private property should be eliminated with the State owning all property. On the other hand, the Pope condemned laissez-faire capitalism which allowed the owners of the capital to exploit the workers for their own gain.

     Pope Leo XIII laid out the perennial teaching of the Church, that private property is a God-given right; but, that it is not an absolute right because private property is subordinated to the common good, and that in God’s plan there is something called a universal destination of goods for the benefit of all; that in reality, God, the Creator of all, allows us to use the goods of the earth, but we must be good stewards. Furthermore, those who own the capital or means of production must be fair to workers, and that workers have the following rights:

–         a just wage – to enable a man to support his family so that his wife and children do not need to work;

–         that workers have a natural, God-given right to organize and form labor unions in order to collectively bargain, because individual workers have no bargaining power with the owners of the means of production;

–         there should be a reasonable working day – so that one does not work 12 or 16 hours;

–         safe working conditions with compensation for injury or sickness;

–         a day of rest to worship God and spend time with one’s family; and

–         to earn enough money for a pension and retirement.

     The Church’s social teaching is a light in the darkness of this world’s present economic structures.  Over the past 120 years numerous Popes in their writings have expanded and further clarified this teaching. 

     The Church teaches that the primary goal of an economic system is not to acquire more money and goods, to increase personal wealth; this only leads to greed and a consumerist mentality. Rather, the goal of an economic system – including good businesses which operate within it – should be to benefit the human person, to foster the moral and spiritual growth of human beings. This is why Pope Benedict XVI, in his most recent social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), teaches that business and economic activity must be guided and informed by charity, the love of God and neighbor, and be governed by moral truth.

     Why? Because our ultimate goal is not earthly ease and comfort, but eternal rest in Heaven. God made us to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this life, in order to be happy with Him forever in Heaven. And Jesus tells us that whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published in 1994, teaches that “the relation between morality and economics is necessary, indeed intrinsic: economic activity and moral behavior are intimately joined to one another” (331).

     The problem is that many of those who operate within our present economic system, which now encompasses the world, often do not have the good of the person as their overriding goal; their practices are not informed by charity and are not guided by moral truth; rather, their primary goal is amassing more and more wealth, motivated by greed.

     During his papacy, Pope John Paul II taught that the basis for a just social order begins with the principle of the universal destination of goods, so that all people may benefit from the world’s goods and resources. Moreover, he taught that the practical means to assure that people and families are able to acquire sufficient food, clothing, housing, education, etc., is the just wage.  In his encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work), he taught that “a just wage is the concrete means of verifying that the justice of the whole socio-economic system and of checking that it is functioning properly.” 

     The Pope teaches that a just wage is basically a family wage, i.e., “a single salary paid to the head of the family for his work, sufficient for the needs of the family without the other spouse having to work outside the home.” A just wage facilitates bigger families; couples have the confidence to be willing to have more children without being anxious about how to provide for them.

     We know that the principle of a just wage has been undermined in our present economic system. In theU.S., real wages have fallen over the past forty years. Scores ofU.S.corporations have moved their manufacturing plants overseas. Why? To better the lives of people there? No, simply to make a bigger profit because workers in other countries are paid what is tantamount to slave wages and they receive no benefits asU.S.workers receive – and as basic justice demands.

      About 20 years ago I lived inMexicofor a couple of months while studying Spanish. I inquired whether the workers employed in the GM and Ford auto plants were paid a wage so that they could afford a house with running water. I was told, “No”; workers were paid about a dollar an hour, 8 dollars a day.

     About 15 years ago, soon after U.S.companies began moving their manufacturing to communist China, I recall listening to an interview on National Public Radio of a Sears senior VP. When asked if he had any qualms of conscience about this practice, in that the Chinese laborers were paid slave wages and were treated unjustly, he replied:  “I do not concern myself with moral or ethical questions; my job as an executive for Sears is to earn the biggest profit for our shareholders.”

     Well, the fact is that our workers here in theU.S.cannot compete with the slave labor inChina: About 15 years ago I recall reading that the average wage for a factory worker there was about 17 cents an hour. Recently I’ve read that workers now make the equivalent of about $140-$150 per month – which amounts to about 75 cents an hour – and the heads ofU.S.companies are now complaining, because this is reducing their profits! Well, still, workers here in theU.S.cannot compete with what is still effectively slave labor.

     Over many decadesU.S.workers, through forming unions and collective bargaining, fought hard battles to gain the basic rights which the Church teaches are due to them in justice:   a just wage, reasonable working hours, a day of rest to worship God, health and retirement benefits, prohibition of child labor, etc. Chinese workers have no such rights, they have no benefits that workers here have, because they have no right to form labor unions in their “workers’ paradise.”

     I’ve read stories about good, moral business owners who complain that they can’t compete with companies that manufacture oversees and pay slave wages. I’ve been told that many manufacturing plants have left thisKenoshaarea – I’ll bet for this very reason.

     My own opinion is that the leaders of our country – and here I’m speaking of both parties, Democrats and Republicans – have sold the American blue collar worker down the river. Neither Democrat nor Republican leaders oppose exportation of our industry overseas in order that corporate owners and shareholders can make bigger profits; as one commentator says, they are “two wings of the same bird of prey.” Leaders of both parties promote so-called “free trade,” but free trade in our present system is not fair, ethical trade. In reality, U.S.corporations are exploiting workers in Chinaand elsewhere. Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Centesimus Annus refers to such practices as “ruthless capitalism.”

     And here is another point to consider in regard toChina: This past week I read thatChina’s one-child policy has resulted in the murder of 400 million Chinese babies by either forced abortion or infanticide. In other words,Chinahas been built into an economic superpower on the blood of hundreds of millions of innocent children. Moreover,Chinacontinues to persecute the Catholic Church, arresting bishops and priests. Some propose levying a minimum 10% tax on any country that violates religious freedom and human rights violations – a wonderful idea!

     It makes my blood boil when I walk into a store and try in vain to find a product made in theUnited States. Almost everything is manufactured inChina; what little else that is not made inChinais almost all made in some other third world country – again, at wages far below what aU.S.worker makes.

     The upshot of all this is that the middle class is effectively being eliminated. I read in yesterday’sKenoshanewspaper that “The state’s median household income, adjusted for inflation, fell 14.5% between 1999 and 2010, according to US Census Bureau estimates released Thursday.” Nationally, the decline is 8.9% over that same period.

     I have a cousin who just lost his job as a computer technician after 19 years with a company. He was told that if he wanted to keep his job he could move toIndia. I’m sure we could all tell similar stories. Our manufacturing base is largely gone in this country; computer industries are having work done overseas – all for cheap labor, motivated by greed. The goal should be to raise the standard of living for workers and families in all countries around the world to the level of our workers here in theU.S.

     A couple of years ago Pope Benedict XVI addressed the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and said: “The worldwide financial breakdown has . . . shown the error of the assumption that the market is capable of regulating itself, apart from public intervention and the support of the internalized moral standards.” He said this erroneous assumption is based on an “impoverished notion of economic life as a sort of self-calibrating mechanism driven by self interest and profit seeking.” Here the Pope criticizes the laissez-faire economics of Adam Smith and the free market proponents in theNew World economic order.

     Instead, the Pope explained that economics has an essentially ethical nature as “an activity of and for human beings. . . . economic life should properly be seen as an exercise of human responsibility, intrinsically oriented towards the promotion of the dignity of the person, the pursuit of the common good and the integral development – political, cultural and spiritual – of individuals, families and societies.” Furthermore, he acknowledged the need for “looking to comprehensive and objective standards against which to judge the structures, institutions and concrete decisions which guide and direct economic life”; that “all economic decisions and policies must be directed towards ‘charity in truth.’” 

     Let us pray that this will happen, and that the Church’s teaching may be a guiding light to all.

 

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