Today in the United States we celebrate Labor Day. Its purpose was to honor those who struggled in the fight for labor rights, as well as recognize the importance and value of those who work.
But today’s celebration is still a special day for the Church because the Church had a role in this struggle, and that struggle marked out a path for the Church that continues today.
To appreciate what that was one must remember what it was like in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With the Industrial Revolution, workers were drawn first from farms and then from Europe, mostly Eastern Europe. Great wealth was gained for a few—sometimes called Robber Barons—but long hours and low pay were the result for many. In those days:
There was no minimum wage.
There were no unions.
There were no laws for safe working conditions.
Workers could be fired for any cause.
There were no child labor laws; children could work at any age.
There were no health care or death benefits.
The world was shocked when Pope Leo XIII published Rerum Novarum in 1891. He proclaimed that there should be a minimum wage, enough to support a family; if it didn’t happen naturally, the state should mandate it. He also supported unions so that workers could collaborate together and have the power to negotiate with their employers.
During World War I, the Catholic bishops in the United States had formed the National Catholic War Council in order to find chaplains for the American armed forces. After the war, they decided they need to continue meeting in order to teach the values of our Catholic Faith in a way that would provide a lasting peace at home. Given the instability of the workers and working conditions, they issued a pastoral letter in 1919—one hundred years ago. In it, they advocated for:
a minimum wage,
benefits for widows and dependent children,
social security for the elderly,
child labor laws and other things.
These things would—with the help of many other people of good faith—become part of the New Deal.
Today we celebrate the efforts of those who have gone before us. We can take pride in their hard work and struggles. We are proud of our Church and its work in the past. The National Catholic War Council is known today as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Our bishops and the Catholic Church continue to teach, guide us, and call us to action on behalf of the unborn, the elderly, immigrants, workers, the poor in the United States and in other countries, and many other things
We rejoice that we too are called to continue the work of our Lord who proclaimed:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.