It’s still more than a week off, but the US Catholic bishops are out in front, issuing a Labor Day statement this week. Bishop William Murphy, chairman of the (extravagantly titled) Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, wrote the statement, which begins as an encomium to the late Msgr. George Higgins, arguably the last of a species once well known in American Catholic life, the labor priest. Fr. Sirico ably described the strengths and weaknesses of Higgins’ career upon his passing six years ago.
Without question, Catholic social teaching affirms the right of workers to organize in defense of their rights and prerogatives. Whether and how effectively contemporary labor unions serve the common good, or even the interests of their members, is debatable. (Consider that this nation’s largest union, the National Education Association, officially supports unlimited access to abortion, a policy difficult to square with the mission of promoting justice for public school teachers.)
It would be hard not to offer some positive words about unions in a Labor Day statement, and Murphy does so, mostly in the context of his praise for Higgins. Nonetheless, Murphy’s remarks are on the whole an excellent reiteration of the Church’s teaching on labor and the economic sphere. He resists the temptation to opine on policy matters, instead restricting his comments to the solid principles of the Church’s social message. Noteworthy, in light of previous statements emanating from Bishop Murphy’s committee (formerly the Social Action Department) is his emphasis on the individual responsibility of Catholics to form their consciences properly and apply the social teaching in their everyday lives; and his lack of emphasis on recourse to government action as the default solution to social problems.
“An informed conscience,” Murphy writes in connection with upcoming political contests,
moves beyond personal feelings and individual popularity. An informed conscience asks first what is right and true. An informed conscience examines the candidates and the issues from the perspective of human life and dignity, the true good of every human person, the true good of society, the common good of us all in our nation and in this world.
At the risk of nitpicking, I note one passage that seems poorly expressed:
The principle of subsidiarity champions the freedom of initiative that allows everyone scope and opportunity to be creative and productive and reap the benefits of hard work and energy. When taken to the extreme, it can become exploitive of others. Yet joined to the principle of solidarity, subsidiarity and all its creative impulses become harnessed to an end that includes the makers of a vibrant economy.
Subsidiarity, to the contrary, cannot be “taken to the extreme.” Embedded in the concept is the assumption that, when individuals or intimate institutions are inadequate to their normal responsibilities, larger or less immediate institutions should provide the support necessary to meet the need. The perception of solidarity as a kind of check on or correction to subsidiarity is a common one. It is more accurate, I think, to view subsidiarity and solidarity as entirely complementary rather than in tension: subsidiarity is the method by which solidarity is practically implemented.
Nitpicking aside, Bishop Murphy’s words are a salutary reminder that our obligation to practice virtue extends to policy debates, workplaces, and voting booths.