Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Sept. 3, 4 or 5
Strongly religious voters of all faiths back Francis’ stands for worker rights and against income inequality, according to Lake Research Associates, commissioned by the labor federation and Service Employees International Union. Workers rights finished fourth in strength, tied with income inequality, behind children’s issues, poverty and racism, when voters rated the power of all recent papal messages.
With unions, the Pope – and what he’s said about working people and economic issues since he was named Bishop of Rome in 2013 – reminds us of the relationship between organized labor and faith, especially the Catholic Church.
Francis himself also is quite popular: At 67 percent, respondents view Francis “favorably” or “very favorably.” (The average U.S. member of Congress draws 42 percent; even Oprah Winfrey is just 61 percent.)
“The poll revealed religiously affiliated voters support an agenda that fosters a family-friendly economy and support what the Pope has to say on related policies,” the federation stated.
The tie between faith and labor is strong.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last year in their Labor Day message said, “Labor unions and institutions like them embody solidarity and subsidiarity while advancing the common good. They help workers not only have more, but above all be more.”
This year, the Bishops said, “Wage stagnation has increased pressures on families,” praised “collective action,” and noted, “Unions and worker associations, as with all human institutions, are imperfect, yet they remain indispensable.”
Apart from such recent expressions of solidarity, the Church and Christianity generally haven’t always been closely allied with labor. The Church in some centuries was closer to royalty and governments than workers and peasants. Also, Christianity has been ruthless in past centuries, from the Catholic Church’s Inquisition, to Protestants persecuting “witches.”
In the 1800s, the Catholic Church prohibited participation in secret societies like the Ku Klux Klan and Masons, and that included the first U.S. labor union, the Knights of Labor, founded in 1868. Of course, in the 19th century, unionists were threatened with discharge or violence, so secrecy was vital. Further, Knights’ president Terence Powderly was a devout Catholic and close to clergy. So through an appeal by Baltimore Cardinal James Gibbons in 1887, the Vatican in 1888 lifted its ban on the Knights and started viewing organized workers as a key part of the flock. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII in his letter “Rerum Novarum” criticized the concentration of wealth and power, and upheld the right of voluntary association, specifically commending labor unions.
Championing workers and activism isn’t really new. Leviticus in the Old Testament says, “Do not oppress your neighbor … do not keep wages of the worker.” Jeremiah says, “A legitimate government upholds the rights of the poor and vulnerable.”
In the New Testament, II Timothy says, “The hard-working farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops.” And John praises “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
Besides Scripture, the Catholic Church has considerable social teachings and an explanatory Catechism, which combine to stress the support that the Church gives labor.
The Catechism says, “Work is for man, not man for work,” and “Recourse to a strike is morally legitimate when it cannot be avoided, or at least when it is necessary to obtain a proportionate benefit.”
Moderate Pope John Paul II in “Laborem Exercens” asserted the “principle of the priority of labor over capital.” And conservative Pope Benedict XVI in “Caritas in Veritate” backed labor, arguing that in a global economy marked by massive mobility of labor, workers’ rights “must be honored today even more than in the past.”
Still, it’s true that Pope Francis has seriously challenged the economic status quo, condemning what modern capitalism has become: “an unfettered pursuit of money … the dung of the devil.”
Indeed, Michael Sean Winters, who wrote the 2012 book “God's Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right,” recently commented that Francis’ personal identification with working people and the poor will probably be obvious this month.
“When Francis makes his visit to the U.S., there will be plenty of union members lining the streets cheering him on,” Winters said. “I don't think we will see any signs that read, ‘Hedge fund managers love Pope Francis’.”
[PICTURED: Illustration from The Catholic Labor Network.]