New Pope will defend labour rights

Pope Benedict XVI is expected to continue his predecessors’ left-leaning stance on labour, while pursuing their ultra-conservative line on matters of personal morality

The Catholic Church stresses the rights of workers and has said that unions are indispensable. Church leaders have, in the past, criticised “rigid capitalism” which, they say encourages the acquisition of money for its own sake.

Property and capital should serve the workers, it says. However pure socialism has been criticised because it does not ensure that assets will be used in the interest of workers when the state becomes the new oligarchy.

Johan Verstraeten, a theologian at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, says: “I cannot see this Pope or his ideas disconnected from the traditional position on labour.”

He cited the church’s first great encyclical on labour, Rerum Novarum written in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII. It stresses the importance of a decent salary.

“Salary should not be based on supply and demand, but on the dignity and needs of the workers and their families. A low salary is unthinkable for the Catholic Church,” it says.

The church also takes a position against the laissez-faire state in the encyclical. “The state should intervene to protect workers, to prevent exploitation,” it says.

Rerum Novarum also defends the rights of trade unions. Verstraeten said the encyclical says that, “workers should be free to organise and unite themselves to defend their legitimate interests”.

Jim Corkery, an associate professor of systematic theology at the Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy in Dublin, cited another encyclical, Laborem Exercens (On Human Work) written by Pope John Paul II in 1981.

Someof its key tenets include:

  • A mother’s place is in the home. Childrearing duties take precedence over other work
  • Workers have the right to strike, but it should not be overused: “Abuse of the strike weapon can led to paralysis of the whole socioeconomic life and this is contrary to the requirements of the common good of society.”
  • The environment, which Jean Paul II said was being “intolerably polluted,” should be protected
  • Workers have the right to migrate to find employment: “Man has the right to leave his native land for various motives – and also the right to return – in order to seek better conditions of life in another country.” 
    While technology can benefit the millions living in poverty ‘exalting the machine reduces man to the status of slave’.

Corkery says: “I know of nothing in the theology of Benedict that would suggest he would take a different shift in regard to work. He will follow the line on social teaching, particularly as expressed in Laborem Exercens.”

Michael Naugton, director of the John A Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought in Minnesota, agrees. The new Pope will continue the social mission of the church, which has always entailed defending the rights and dignity of human labour, he says.

Naugton mentioned an essay that Benedict, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, wrote in the early 1990s, in which he was critical of a free market economy that pursues maximum profit.

According to Naugton, Ratzinger feels: “This is dangerous ideology because it instrumentalises labor and people. It eliminates the moral person in this sphere of activity.”

While the Pope is expected to follow his predecessors’ path on labour, certain issues and topics will be of great concern to him, Verstraeten said, including:

  • regions of the world where people are still exploited
  • access to the labour market in a knowledge society
    the tendency in the western world and Japan to overestimate work at the expense of contemplation
  • the need to redevelop a balance between leisure and work
  • the importance of giving meaning and perspective to work so that people know their job is part of a greater process.

Although Benedict XVI will not buck tradition, his focus may be different.

“John Paul was a go-getter, he was out there in people’s faces,” said Corkery. “This pope is more scholarly, more reflective. He focuses on the human being as a receiver, whereas his predecessor focused on man as an actor and doer.”

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