In Honor of Labor Day



Catholic Social Teaching is all about the reality that God wants every human being to be an active participant in bringing his love and provision to the world. So when­ever possible, Catholic teaching insists that the people clos­est to a particular need or problem should be the ones to fill that need or solve that problem. That, in a nutshell, is Subsidiarity.

Active Cooperation with, Not Passive Acceptance of, the Will of God

Subsidiarity harmonizes with the Dignity of the Human Person because in Christ’s salvific work human beings are at the center, not as passive subjects but as active participants. As C.S. Lewis notes:

He seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures. He com­mands us to do slowly and blunderingly what He could do perfectly and in the twinkling of an eye. He allows us to neglect what He would have us do, or to fail. Perhaps we do not fully realize the problem, so to call it, of enabling finite free wills to co-exist with Omnipotence. It seems to involve at every moment almost a sort of divine abdication. We are not mere recipients or spectators. We are either privileged to share in the game or compelled to collaborate in the work, “to wield our little tridents.” Is this amazing process simply Creation going on before our eyes? This is how (no light matter) God makes something—indeed, makes gods— out of nothing.

Subsidiarity is crucial because every human being— made in the image and likeness of the Creator—is made for active participation in his creative work of saving a broken world. Our dignity in living out that reality makes our work a true participation in the work of God by assisting him in the creation and salvation of the world. We are “God’s fellow workers” (1 Corinthians 3:9) because his work of creation and redemption is ongoing till the end of time.

Secondly, because each and every person has unique gifts to contribute to the Common Good, no person may be merged into the collective and lose his or her identity. We are immortals. The state (and any other system we create) is a temporary human artifact which exists only to stem the disastrous effects of the Fall. It exists for us, not we for it, because man is the only creature on earth God has willed for its own sake. And since we are material creatures who express our love and the grace of God through mate­rial means, each person should be able to own property so that each person has something to share with others.

Third, Subsidiarity is as essential as the Dignity of the Human Person and the Common Good because, more than merely sharing material things with others, we must share our very selves with others through our work. No small part of work is the joy of finding one’s vocation or calling or mission in life—of discovering who we are and what God made and gifted us to be and do. We see it in the moment we realize we were born to sing or do science or heal others or teach or cook or do the myriad other things we love. To be sure, not every menial job is the fulfilment of our aspirations. But no small part of giving our life to others consists of discovering our gifts in doing work and realizing that we become more ourselves in the doing. It is the very opposite of being merged into a col­lective to find out who we are by discovering our gifts and talents. It is joy to discover our place in the community we love and serve and bless other people by bringing those gifts to the table.

And, of course, in the ultimate natural act of human fruitfulness and cooperation with God’s creative will, we give of ourselves to one another in love so profoundly that we actually become participants in God’s work of creat­ing another immortal human person, a baby, and help to raise that human being to maturity through lives of deeply personal self-donating love and care.

Mary as the Model of Subsidiarity

If you want to get the hang of it, think of the Blessed Virgin Mary as the icon of what we all do every time we say “Yes” to contributing to the Common Good. In the Annunciation, God comes to her personally. Mary does not receive a form letter addressed “To Whom It May Concern.” God calls her by name as the human being she is. In the paradox of the divine plan, she has been prepared from all eternity with the graces and gifts she needs to do the work and bear the sufferings she must bear in accom­plishing her mission. Yet at the same time she is given complete freedom to choose to say “Yes” or “No.” And in her Yes Mary finds not slavery, but fulfillment. Her soul magnifies the Lord and her spirit rejoices in God her Savior (see Luke 1:46-47). Mary’s “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38) is not passive. It is a willed choice to actively cooperate with God’s will. In that “Fiat!” she chooses, not merely acquiesces to bear the Word made flesh through her.

Every person who cooperates with the will of God is, to some degree or other, doing the same thing. Disciples of Jesus are conscious that they are cooperating with God because they are privy to his revelation that he is the vine and they are the branches and apart from him they can do nothing (see John 15:1-5). Others, like the sheep in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, may discover only later they were cooperating with God; at the time they thought that they were just “doing the decent thing.” God, who does not care if he gets the credit, is not picky about that. What he cares about is our obedience to him because through it we are transformed into the likeness of his Son Jesus and our capacity to receive more grace from him increases and makes us happier.

This is why God gives us the gift of work.

Tending the Garden

Some people think work is not a gift from God, but a curse. But this is not so. God places man in the Garden to “till and keep it.” It is part of our primordial mission as creatures in the image and likeness of God to do fruitful work—part of the way in which we share in the creative work of God himself. Work has become more complicated and painful due to human sin and the curse it brings to all things we touch. Yet despite all that it has not ceased to be God’s gift. Our dignity still dignifies our work.

Note that: we do not have dignity because we work. On the contrary, our work is dignified by the fact that we who are made in the image and likeness of God do it. We do not earn the right to exist by our work. Our existence is a free gift from God. But part of that gift is the right to work and, by that work, to receive the just reward of labor and to cooperate with God in providing his blessings to ourselves and others.

This, in fact, is the primary way in which most people contribute to the Common Good. Most children are housed, most naked people clothed, most students are taught, most bellies are filled, and most neighborhoods kept in good order by ordinary people going to work, caring for their families, and doing the ordinary things people do. God wills that we be his hands-on partners in shaping the world through our work and creativity. We provide goods and services, compose songs, invent medicines, create web­sites, fix cars, raise children, devise faster microchips, whip up new pizza recipes, create the wheel, write plays, and bust new dance moves as sub-creators acting in the image and likeness of the Creator.

Just Reward for Labor

In return for a day’s work, what we require (and what God demands that employers give their workers) is a living wage.

What is a living wage?

A living wage fulfills four criteria:

1. Families can live at a standard of decency appro­priate to their society.

The standard of decency changes and evolves over time, of course. Things that an average middle-class American thinks of as normal and ordinary, such as indoor plumbing or glass windows, would have been beyond the means of the wealthiest nobles of Richard Lionheart’s court. Likewise, there are many places in the world where clean tap water is still a dream. But roughly speaking, of course, the idea is that people of average income should be able to live reasonably on the normal spectrum of their society.

2. They do so without working undue hours.

The idea here is a balance between work, leisure, and sleep—about eight hours for each—with a day or two of rest for play and worship. Leisure, not forced labor, is the basis of culture. It is from leisure time that most of civilization has been born. Making time for play and hobbies and social pursuits and sports and goofing around is how civilizations stay healthy.

3. They do so without both spouses being forced to work outside the home (if they choose to do so, that’s another story) or children forced to work inappropriate hours or under inappropriate con­ditions.

The Church’s social thought always puts a huge premium on the good of the family and on the chance for children to be children in a secure home close, if possible, to one or both parents.

4. They do so without undue reliance on government support or consumer credit.

In other words, both employers and employees must practice fiscal responsibility. Employers must pay their employees enough that they are not forced to rely on welfare to make up what is insufficient in their pay. (So, for instance, corpo­rate welfare in which taxpayers, not the employer, cover the insufficient wages of workers violates Subsidiarity). Likewise, workers must live within their means and learn to budget so that they can provide for their families, save for the future, and have enough to share with the community.

That is the goal. But in this fallen world, this goal (and many others in the world of human labor) is often not met. Employers cheat. Workers goof off. Slipshod work is done, and so forth. What then? We will discuss that in Chapter 6.


One Response

  1. > The state (and any other system we
    > create) is a temporary human artifact
    > which exists only to stem the disastrous
    > effects of the Fall.

    But for the Fall, man would have lived free from coercive jurisdiction? This can’t be maintained. There would be a “state” even without The Fall. A better one for sure, with no need to exercise the coercive authority it possesses, but still possessing it.

    There are two issues: 1) Civil Authority, and 2) the body that exercises it. The latter is a temporary human artifact, necessitated by the former which is not.

    In short, government or “the state” is a positive and necessary good. This or that government may be more or less good.

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