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Just Work and Wage

Msgr. Anthony Frontiero is a U.S. priest on the staff of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in Rome. In this Fathers for Good podcast, he talks about this month's topic, Just Work and Wage.

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Patrick Kelly 

What Is a Just Wage?

Patrick E. Kelly, an attorney and graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, is the Vice President for Public Policy for the Knights of Columbus. Fathers for Good asked him to explain some principles of “just work and wage.”

FFG: What is the basis for a “just wage”?

Kelly: As many of our readers may know, the landmark document on the Church’s modern social teachings is Rerum Novarum (Of New Things) in 1891, in which Pope Leo XIII analyzed the effects of industrialization and outlined a few principles that still hold true today:

1. Work must be subject to the needs of man, not man to the needs of work;

2. workers must be respected in their human dignity and paid a wage that allows them to support themselves and their families in accord with that dignity;

3. workers have the right to form associations and unions to bargain for better conditions;

4. although the goods of the earth were created by God for all persons to enjoy, the Church reaffirms the right of private property as a way of protecting laborers and the family, which is the basic social group that precedes the formation of any state.

It is important to approach the idea of a “just wage” within this context, because work is the ordinary way in which an individual gains access to the goods of the earth; and for the vast majority of workers, the wage he earns from his work determines to a great degree how much of these goods he and his family can access. So a just wage is involved, really, in the plan of God for the world, and denying a worker a just wage is a serious offense. One of the “Sins that Cry Out to Heaven” is to deny the worker his wage.

FFG: So what is a “just wage”? Can you put it in dollars and sense?

Kelly: A just wage (which can also be called a “living wage” or “family wage”) is pay from an employer that is sufficient for a worker to support himself and his family. It is different from a “minimum wage,” which is an hourly wage set by a government as the least you can pay a full-time worker.

A just wage is not so much a set number or salary as it is a commitment by an employer to pay his workers what is fair within a particular market, taking into account the workers’ contribution to the employer’s business and the needs of the workers and their families to live with human necessities and dignity. It also implies a fair day’s labor by the worker, so that he gives to his employer his best effort and in this way builds up the good of the company, his fellow workers, and perfects his own potential and personality.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states (#2434): “A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work.” Quoting the Second Vatican Council, the Catechism continues: “Remuneration for work should guarantee man the opportunity to provide a dignified livelihood for himself and his family on the material, social, cultural, and spiritual level, taking into account the role and the productivity of each (worker), the state of the business, and the common good.”

Those are rather big considerations, especially the “common good,” which is why there is such a debate over what exactly a just wage looks like in terms of the present economy, when employers often compete globally with others that operate on totally different salary structures and worker conditions.

FFG: Some Catholic commentators suggest the Church favors capitalism; others say the Church leans toward a controlled economy. Is the truth somewhere in the middle?

Kelly: I think it is fair to say that the Church views economic systems such as capitalism and controlled economies as just that – systems of relations among persons that have various strengths and weaknesses. The Church sees man, and not systems, as the focal point of economics, and judges an economic system according to the dignity of the human person and laborer.

Having said this, the Church is clear about the necessity of private property for a person to develop the fullness of his humanity and the protection of his family – thus communism and other enforced systems of “communal” ownership are ruled out. In order to provide for himself and his family and to plan for the future, a person must be able to own property and to buy and sell assets.

The Church also indicates, especially in John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus, that market economies (that is, economies based on forces such as supply and demand and competitive pricing) appear to provide the best and most efficient means of distributing goods and services in large societies. While there must be some regulation and planning by government toward fairness and justice, this must be done under the principle of subsidiarity, wherein a larger organization must not assume or subsume the duties of a smaller organization.

Yet John Paul II warns that consumerism and materialism are real threats in a capitalist culture. By appealing solely to the material dimension of the person, consumerism traps people in attitudes and lifestyles that hamper spiritual growth or movement toward fulfilling one’s personal vocation.

John Paul drew a fascinating parallel between Marxism and capitalism. The goal of Marxism was to liberate the worker from the chains of oppression and alienation, yet in reality Marxism only increased alienation of the worker from his work. Capitalism’s modern workplace can also be alienating if there is no concern for whether an employee grows or diminishes as a person.

Ultimately a person in a consumer society such as our own experiences alienation if he is unable to transcend himself and live in solidarity with others.

Fathers for Good: The Church’s social teaching has been called a “best kept secret” that even many Catholics don’t know about.

Patrick Kelly: There is some truth to this, but now we have such great resources as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which is sort of a catechism on social justice. The Compendium is divided into three major sections with many subsections that really reach down into the basics of social justice. The three sections are:

1. God’s Plan of Love for Humanity

2. The Family, the Vital Cell of Society

3. Social Doctrine and Ecclesial (Church) Action

The foundation of social doctrine is very simple since it is the basis for all moral action: Avoid evil and do good. All people agree with this. But we will see divisions among people almost immediately when we state further: You cannot do evil to bring about good. Some people will say that performing a “small evil” is worth what they see as a great good, but that is against the moral law and the social teaching of the Church. So disagreements can be seen at a very basic level of social issues.

Further questions and problems arise in applying the basic principles to particular and complicated situations that come up in everyday life among persons, within the political policies and economy of a nation, and in relations between states. Some current issues are just war, capital punishment and our topic this month, just work wage.

Yet of all the organizations in the world today, it is the Catholic Church that has the most experience in this area, having dealt with the social question for centuries, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As the Holy Fathers have stated, the Church is an “expert in humanity.” Even from a strictly secular standpoint, no other entity has been addressing the social issues as long as the Catholic Church.

FFG: Is Pope Benedict XVI coming out with an encyclical on social justice?

Kelly: Yes, the word from the Vatican is that the Holy Father will release an encyclical on social justice in early 2009. Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said recently that Pope Benedict’s Jan. 1 “Message for the World Day for Peace” gives a good summary of what the new encyclical will be about. It is entitled “Fighting Poverty to Build Peace.”




A View from Wall Street

Joe Cullen, an editor for a major Wall Street firm, talks about the economic meltdown and the dignity of the worker.

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