BY: SR. PATRICIA A. TALONE, RSM, Ph.D.
Sr. Talone is senior director, ethics, Catholic Health Association, St.
Fr. John A. Ryan, perhaps the 20th century's greatest
teacher of Catholic social theory, wrote presciently in the
1910 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia of a "better,
though still remote, day" in which the "extreme" methods then
employed by unions would be discarded in favor of "milder practices"
to ensure workers' rights.1 Of course, Fr. Ryan wrote
long before our postindustrial, postmodern age. Contemporary
Catholics continue to examine and interpret the church's teaching
regarding labor in the light of ever-changing economic and social
reality. Both the 1994 and 2001 editions of the Ethical and
Religious Directives for Health Care Services remind us
that we must be "communities" of care marked by a "spirit of
mutual respect" for one another.2 Surely this search
for of a true community echoes Fr. Ryan's hope for a "better
day" in labor relations, including those found in Catholic health
Nineteenth- and early 20th-century church teaching on labor focused primarily
on the industrial sector, rather than the service sector, a fact that makes
the application of the teaching to contemporary health care challenging at times.
After all, a Catholic health care organization does not merely deliver a product;
it commits itself to a ministry. The primary object of a Catholic health care
organization is not primarily financial gain, but the care of the poor, sick,
and vulnerable; it seeks financial strength to serve the ministry. In a Catholic
health care organization, the usual employer/employee dichotomy is replaced
by a community of people dedicated to working together toward a common goal.
When, therefore, contentious arguments erupt between management and employees
in such an organization, people both inside and outside the ministry are often
dismayed and discouraged.
A Fair and Just Workplace: Principles and Practices for Catholic Health
Care, a working document published in 1999 by the Domestic Policy subcommittee
of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB),* provides critical guidance
for health care boards, sponsors, administrators, employees (and leaders of
the unions to which some employees belong) on heeding the bishops' call to "find
common ground." The church's teaching on labor is situated historically, developing
in response to concrete realities within a changing society. However, certain
constants shape this teaching and must inform and direct the ministry's approach
to workforce issues.
History and Context of the Church's Social Teaching
Some writers assert that the church's social teaching on labor began in 1891
with Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum and has remained consistently pro-union
ever since. The reality is much more nuanced and complex. The church's social
teaching has its roots in traditional scholastic philosophy, but it found its
voice at the beginning of the industrial revolution. Church leaders at that
time expressed concern and indignation at the plight of workers in industrialized
countries. Bishops, who were first and foremost pastors, spoke out about the
state of workers because they saw the effect that deplorable working and living
conditions had on the lives of so many of the faithful. Building upon Catholic
teaching regarding the intrinsic worth of each person, they asserted people's
need to obtain work (especially when they were heads of families) and decent
working conditions, their dignity as employees, and their right to a life separate
from their work.
As early as the 1830s, pioneering church leaders such as Wilhelm
Emanuel von Ketteler, bishop of Mainz, Germany, tried to steer
a middle course between socialism and individualism, encouraging
"associations" of workers in similar trades. Bishop von Ketteler
emphasized the mutual responsibilities of workers and factory
owners in early industrialized Germany. A few decades later,
other religious, such as Cardinal Henry Manning, archbishop
of Westminster, England, served as mediators between workers
and management. In the United States and Canada, church leaders
initially forbade membership in the Knights of Labor because
they considered that early union a secret society. Membership
in it would, they feared, weaken Catholic workers' allegiance
to their faith. The violence and intimidation employed by some
late 19th-century unions did not endear them to church leaders
concerned about anarchy. However, prelates such as Cardinal
James Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore, conscious of his own
humble Irish origins and deeply committed to the poor, sided
with the workers' right to join trade unions and intervened
on their behalf in the Roman Consistory of 1886. Working together,
men like Bishop von Ketteler, Cardinal Manning, and Cardinal
Gibbons forestalled a formal church condemnation of labor unions,
and their speeches and writings ultimately positively influenced
Pope Leo XIII.
Building on the foundation provided by these and other local bishops, Leo
XIII issued his groundbreaking encyclical, Rerum Novarum, which asserted
people's right to work, to a just wage, and to join what he called "associations"
(para. 49).* Not a paternalistic document, Rerum Novarum emphasized the
duties of both workers and employers. The former were admonished to work well,
respect property, and avoid violence of any kind (paras. 41-44), whereas the
latter were to proffer just wages, reasonable working hours, and a safe workplace
(paras. 32, 41, and 44) Forty years later, Pope Pius XI, in Quadragesimo
Anno, addressed the faithful in the context of the Great Depression and
the threat of totalitarianism, then dominant in Russia, Italy, and Germany.
Pius reiterated the rights of workers to organize (paras. 32 and 35), and by
promoting the principle of subsidiarity—decision-making at the appropriate level—insisted
on the legitimacy of their voice in the workplace (para. 80). Pope John XXIII,
in Mater et Magistra, 1961, described the rewards of labor in such a
way as to include a just wage and even profit sharing (para. 168). He implored
workers to use collective bargaining rather than strikes (paras. 97-103). John
believed that respect and good will must mark relationships between workers
and employers as they labored together for the common good (para. 78). The 1965
Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes taught that human labor is superior
to other tools of economic activity and must be respected as such (para. 67).
The document maintained that workers had the right to found and join labor unions
and to have goods sufficient enough to support themselves and their families
(para. 69). Building on Mater et Magistra, the council fathers expressed
primary concern for and commitment to the common good of society (para. 26).
Pope Paul VI, in Populorum Progressio (1967) and Octogesima
Adveniens (1971), broadened the church's teaching by voicing
concern over the changing world order. The pontiff's travels
in Latin America, where he had personally witnessed the poverty
of the people, greatly influenced his social encyclicals. He
reminded those who live in the industrialized northern hemisphere
that their southern sisters and brothers, who labored to feed
the north, suffered from underdevelopment (Populorum Progressio,
paras. 6-13). Concerned about communism, the pope declared that
unions were admissible as long as they were truly committed
to the good of workers and were not based on materialistic or
atheistic philosophy (Populorum Progressio, para. 39).
Recognizing the limits experienced even by wealthy countries,
the pontiff expressed concern that trade unions, abusing their
power, might demand more than society could afford to give them
(Octogesima Adveniens, para. 14). Eschewing a cookie-cutter
approach to labor, Pope Paul VI maintained that solutions must
be worked out on a regional basis, allowing those involved to
ascertain what was best for each locale (Octogesima Adveniens
para. 50). Recognizing the inherent dignity of work itself,
he insisted that participation in and responsibility for work
were as important to the building of the community as the amount
of goods such work happened to produce (Populorum Progressio,
para. 19). Therefore, workers must be involved in the dialogue
necessary to build community.
Providing the most systematic consideration of the nature of work by any pope,
the current pontiff, Pope John Paul II, in Laborem Exercens, 1981 also
saw unions as a force that could unite people in the formation of community.
For John Paul II, every aspect of work—being done, as it is, by people who are
made in God's image and likeness—is subject to their dignity and expresses their
spirituality (paras. 19, 25, and 26). If Laborem Exercens is systematic,
then Centesimus Annus (1991) is historical, having been promulgated on
the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. The pontiff sees the market economy
as good on the whole, but he expresses serious concern about modern consumerism,
linking this aberration to environmental problems (paras. 30-32). Although the
pope endorses workers' self-expression through unions, he follows the lead of
his predecessors in urging responsibility on the part of both worker and employer
and dialogue and harmony between them (paras.104 and 105).
Continuing Relevance of Church Teaching
Like their 19th-century predecessors, contemporary American bishops reflect
upon the social, ministerial, economic, and moral realities their pastoral duties
set before them. Thus, the publication of A Fair and Just Workplace.
In a sage understatement, they observe that changes in the ways health care
is delivered, financed, and structured pose significant challenges for our shared
ministry. Catholic health systems and institutions exist in their respective
communities as providers, employers, advocates, and citizens, with reciprocal
relationships and responsibilities in each of these functions.
Often whole communities rise or fall, depending on whether their Catholic
health care institutions survive and flourish. Disquietude in either internal
or external forces increases stress in all of such an institution's relationships,
bringing with it the potential to challenge and even alienate the communities,
our co-workers, and our patients and residents—thereby putting the future of
the ministry at risk. Looking at the church's teaching on labor, one might easily
conclude that the models that arose during the industrial revolution do not
necessarily or directly apply to contemporary society, especially to its service
sector jobs. How then, do Catholic health care leaders heed the USCCB's admonition
to seek guidance from the church's social teaching?
The church's teaching has never been static. It arises in particular historical
contexts and builds, with thoughtful reflection, on its already rich tradition.
Although this article's admittedly cursory survey of the social teaching from
before Rerum Novarum to the present day shows development, it reveals
warnings as well. However, the teaching contains strong themes, reiterated over
more than 150 years, that can assist contemporary Catholic health care leaders
as they work to build the respectful communities of care to which the Ethical
and Religious Directives call us.
These themes can be described in the following way.
Because individuals are made in God's image, organizational relationships
and actions are evaluated in light of whether they build up or tear down human
dignity. An individual lives and works within the context of the human community;
interdependence with others thus characterizes our relationships and
our responsibility toward one another. Individuals work out their salvation
primarily in their homes and through their work. Therefore, church teaching
upholds the dignity of work, the right to work the right to a
safe workplace, a just wage, and compensation that extends beyond
mere financial remuneration to include aspects of the worker's family commitments.
Workers collaborate with one another and with employers in the process of
building up the community. Therefore, employers, in a spirit of respect, dignity,
and collaboration, involve workers by granting them an active voice in the
workplace. The voice in the workplace makes participation possible. It stands
to reason that one given the opportunity to participate more fully in
his or her work can grow and develop through work. In organizations, this principle
expresses itself through subsidiarity, which gives the individual as
much responsibility and accountability as possible, while, at the same time,
providing an environment in which decision making is done at the proper level.
Because of the unique interdependence we humans possess, we likewise have
the right to join (or not join) associations whose purpose is
to further workplace justice and excellence. But workers, unions, and management
alike must recognize that greed, violence, intimidation, and coercion are totally
unacceptable because these actions tear down rather than build up the community.
Commitment to the common good characterizes the faithful working community.
The Catholic understanding of this notion—far different from the utilitarian
notion of the "greatest good of the greatest number"—is expressed by John XXIII
in Mater et Magistra. The pontiff described the common good as "the sum
total of those conditions of social living, whereby men [sic] are enabled more
fully and more readily to achieve their own perfection" (para. 65).
Applying the Teaching
In this article, I have traced the historical context from which the church's
key themes regarding labor have developed. Part of the richness of the Catholic
Church's tradition lies in the fact that it does not attempt to provide definitive
answers for every possible scenario the faithful must face, but, instead, proffers
moral guidance and sacramental and spiritual support for mature, responsible,
faithful decision makers. It would be presumptuous to suggest explicit applications
for health care trustees and administrators. However, one can safely assert
that the church's long tradition urges organizations to value their employees
as their greatest resource. Such organizations must elicit, listen to, and implement
employee participation, collaboration, and suggestions. The Catholic Health
Association's performance improvement research (Living Our Promises, Acting
on Faith) corroborates an old truth: Organizations that align their expectations
and tools for employees and managers with relevant training, provide vehicles
to enable performance, articulate clear performance measures, and require accountability
and appropriate follow-up will achieve greater employee satisfaction. In so
doing, they give substance and form to the church's teaching on labor.
None of these suggestions will fully assuage or rectify the tensions experienced
in today's health care work force. If we are ever to achieve Fr. Ryan's hoped
for a "better day" in labor relations in Catholic health care, we will only
do so through understanding of, reflection on, and commitment to the church's
long and evolving social tradition.
- John A. Ryan, "Labor Unions (Moral Aspects)," Catholic Encyclopedia
Appleton, New York City, 1910. The text of Fr. Ryan's article can be found
at newadvent.org/cathen/08724a.htm. The passage cited is on p. 8.
- U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Ethical and Religious
Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, Washington,
DC, 2001, p. 9.
Copyright © 2002 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.