By Marianna Reilly
Is a human being only as valuable as the work she does or the job he has? According to Catholic Social Teaching, people have value not because of what they do, but because of their inherent dignity – and because of that, all workers deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
At the 2011 Social Action Summer Institute, a four-day workshop for Catholic social justice ministries organized by the Roundtable Association of Catholic Social Action Directors, challenged participants to consider the modern-day implications of a cornerstone of Catholic Social Teaching – the concept of the “dignity of work.”
From July 10 to 13, participants discussed the development this concept, which originated with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. Published at a time when people were migrating from the farmlands to the urban industrial workforce, the encyclical responded to the tumultuous redefinition of human labor that was going on in society.
“The Church needed to say something about this – namely, that there’s a moral quality to the work people do, and that all workers must be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of what that work is,” said Tom Dobbins, justice and peace coordinator.
“The encyclical was also groundbreaking in that it declared that workers have a right to private property, earned through their labor – this had never been said before in Catholic Social Teaching,” said Dobbins.
The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) currently defines the dignity of work with the following statement:
The economy must serve people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected–the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property and to economic initiative.
The purpose of Catholic Social Teaching goes beyond an intellectual reflection in a hundred-year old papal letter, said Dobbins. It must be actively discussed, pursued and defended as times change and the needs of workers evolve. That is something the Social Action Institute tries to promote among organizations like Catholic Charities New York, with missions that tied to social justice ministries.
As an organization, Catholic Charities New York upholds the principles of the dignity of work with a variety of initiatives:
- A Commitment to Fair Trade. Only fair trade coffee is served in our cafeterias and at our events. We choose fair trade coffee because it is harvested and produced by workers who are paid a fair and living wage.
- The Work of Human Hands Sale. For the past ten years, Catholic Charities New York has hosted the “Work of Human Hands” sale, in partnership with international relief organization Catholic Relief Services. During the holiday season, a variety of fairly traded goods are available for purchase.
- Support for Community Groups. Catholic Charities works closely with day laborers in the Bronx, providing them with free resources and consultation, and ensuring that they are treated justly and with respect.
- Campaign for Domestic Workers. Catholic Charities supported the campaign for domestic workers, arguing for a higher wage and to ensure basic work standards and protections for those employed as nannies, caregivers and housekeepers in New York.
- Career Coaching and Job Search Assistance. For the past four years, Catholic Charities has provided career coaching through the Help & Hope program, offered in Manhattan and the Hudson Valley. We also help refugees living in New York find work, and have recently initiated a job-placement program for students in our Guild for the Blind.
Panelists at the Social Action Summer Institute included Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans, former Catholic Charities USA President Fr. Fred Kammer, and the USCCB’s Kathy Saile.
Catholic Charities New York has been deeply involved in the work of the Roundtable Association of Diocesan Social Action Directors since 1985, when it was founded by social action directors. For its first 25 years, the Roundtable was a program of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York City before transitioning to an independent organization. The Roundtable is committed to deepening the capacity of social action directors to engage in the social mission of the church.
Learn more information about Catholic Social Teaching: http://www.catholiccharitiesny.org/get-involved/advocate/learn/