By Frank Wessling
“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.”
This was the voice of the Catholic Church 120 years ago declaring that a living wage was a matter of justice. It comes from the encyclical Rerum Novarum (Of New Things) issued by Pope Leo XIII in May 1891. An old economic system was disappearing in the Western world and the modern capitalist system seemed to reduce workers to powerless cogs in a production machine. There was a crisis of confidence in the established institutions of society, including the Church.
Workers were being lost to socialism and unions inspired by socialism, which at the time was the only countervailing power resisting an unrestrained capitalism. That letter by Leo, subtitled “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor,” was the opening step by the Church into the new world being born as old paternal patterns of society gave way to the era of individual and political liberty. It was the beginning of a new strand in Catholic thought that we call social justice teaching.
We are now more than a century beyond Rerum Novarum yet there are still two basic classes in society: those with economic power and those without. Across the years nearly every pope has repeated and refined and advanced the Catholic teaching that economic life must be ordered to the common good of society, with special care for the weakest and most vulnerable members. Those who have power, whether in the form of money or position, have a duty to risk it for the common good, not simply use it for their own pleasure.
Here in the United States a deep strain of individualism finds that message hard to swallow. It’s my money, I earned it, and I can use it however I want. That expresses a common mood among us. It’s a mood that has helped set up a new crisis of confidence in our institutions. Government, banks, corporations — there seems to be no center, no high ground where hope is in view for ordinary people. The news is bad, everyone is nervous, jobs aren’t there, Wall Street is a casino and national politics is a captive of money, ensuring that money flows only one way — up.
The poor and near poor multiply while the middle class shrinks and the rich keep the money.
We were told a few years ago, at a time of exuberant selfishness among money men, that greed is good. No, it isn’t, although a great many of us failed to be clear about that. Greed got us where we are today. It wrecks personal relations and social relations. As a habit it turns persons and societies ugly and blinds us to that reality. Greed undermines justice and is the opposite of charity and love.
Do we need a new papal encyclical to tell us all of that and save us? The Gospel does it better — if we turn to it and take it seriously.