A Catholic priest involved in labor advocacy says that Labor Day is a time to reflect on Catholic teaching about the role of work in society and in God’s plan for mankind.
“Labor Day is just really an opportunity to focus not on the secular world, but on what our Church teaches,” Father Sinclair Oubre, spiritual moderator of the Catholic Labor Network, told EWTN News on Aug. 30.
Fr. Oubre is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Port Arthur, Texas, in addition to his duties with the Catholic Labor Network. He said his network aims to “re-establish the wonderful tradition” of Catholic social teaching on labor, the dignity of workers, and their right to organize a union.
“The roots of Labor Day are Catholic,” he said. While the origins of the annual September holiday are disputed, the priest credits 19th-century Catholic labor activist Peter J. McGuire with founding the holiday.
Fr. Oubre said Catholic teaching has a positive view of work. Catholics should remember that they are “co-creators in God’s ongoing creation” and are called to “build up the kingdom of God” in their daily labor.
This means that those who are in positions of responsibility, like management or ownership, have “a moral responsibility to work for justice.” They should “recognize that their workers and employees are not simply another means in the production process.”
Workers, for their part, should “reflect deeply” upon their own responsibilities.
“Whether it’s working for an insurance company processing claims or working at a General Motors plant up in Michigan, they are participating in a common effort,” Fr. Oubre said.
“They owe both God and their employer a full day’s work for a full day’s wages. They are really called to work as best they can because they are participating, while they work, in God’s ongoing creation.”
He encouraged those without work to “remain hopeful” and to look to their religious or parish community as “a source of support.”
In his small, predominantly black Texas parish, the priest reported, the most pressing concern is not unemployment but underemployment.
“Either people are being forced to work part-time to avoid losing benefits that go to take care of health care and retirement, or they are having to work multiple jobs because the wages they are receiving are so low that they and their family cannot live on it,” he said.
He said Catholics should search their souls and “not get caught up in the rhetoric of the secular world saying that the market will take care of it.” The sole reliance on the market has been rejected by papal teaching, he noted.
Fr. Oubre also finds some common views of the unemployed are “troubling.” People sometimes assume that those who can’t care for themselves are “obviously just lazy.”
“I think it’s scary in the rhetoric I hear around me, as we focus so much on Ayn Rand and ‘Atlas Shrugged,’” he said, referring to the 20th century novelist who advocated radical individualism and capitalism.
The priest is wary of the mentality that says, “I’ll take care of myself and pull myself up by my own bootstraps.” He stressed that people are “social creatures” and need to care for those who are born with health problems or who suffer crippling accidents.
“I’m speaking of family members whose children are born with spina bifida and have to try to raise their child and meet their health care needs. I’m thinking of the worker who’s driving to work and suddenly is caught up in an auto accident that’s not his fault and is paralyzed from the waist down,” he said.
“We talk about ‘I just take care of myself.’ There’s somethings that happen where people can’t take care of themselves.”
In order to know how to live in the modern economy, Fr. Oubre encouraged the study of Catholic social thought.
He said Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical “Rerum Novarum” rejected both socialism and “the brutal, brutal capitalism that was crushing and killing people” in the transition from agricultural to industrial society. The encyclical stressed that workers “could not justly enter into a contract that paid them a wage that did not give them at least a wage that they and their family could live upon.”
“He clearly condemned unregulated free marketism as well as socialism as being an insult to human dignity,” Fr. Oubre said.
Catholic social teaching on the place of labor has continued through various popes to Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical “Caritas in Veritate.”
Fr. Oubre also recommended that Catholics read the U.S. bishops’ Labor Day statement.
He noted that Labor Day has traditionally marked an increase in political activity.
“It is absolutely imperative that Catholics be authentic to their Catholic social teaching, and not be ‘cafeteria Catholics’ of the left or the right. The real challenge is to conform ourselves to what our Church calls us to.”
“That means being pro-life, that means standing up for the dignity of marriage,” he said. “That also means fighting for the rights of our immigrant community and acknowledging the rights of workers to organize unions and participate in collective bargaining.”
“We have to try to live every aspect of Catholic social teaching,” he said.