Originally published 8/27/2013
Labor Day traditionally marks the end of summer in the United States. Most of us observe the holiday without much reflection on labor and its meaning in our lives and our society. Many trends have contributed to this lack of identification with the concept of labor including the conversion from a manufacturing to a knowledge-based or service-oriented economy and the erosion of collective bargaining and unions. However, labor is a fundamental feature of human life and is central to our dignity and flourishing. For this reason, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issues an annual letter to mark Labor Day. I would like to share a some key features of the place of labor in a Catholic philosophical anthropology (a theory of being human) in order to show why the bishops have identified the need for immigration reform as central to their labor day message.
Our labor, i.e., our work, is how we provide sustenance for ourselves and our families. But work is also a way that we express our creative natures – it is a means of self-expression. Clearly, when we speak of our work as our vocation, it even assumes a spiritual dimension as an expression of our relationship to God. In our creativity, we image the activity of God and in discerning the work proper to us, we respond to God’s call. In our culture, we often recognize these higher dimensions of work in the professions such as medicine and in highly-compensated paths that we term careers.
Unfortunately, our attitudes are often quite different toward work performed at the low end of the wage scale. We somehow have come to dichotomize the labor ladder into the “makers” at the more fortunate end and the “takers” on the lower rungs. Such a view is implicitly suspicious of those on the lower end and can blind us to our duty to foster opportunity for all.
The Bishops in their letter have kept in sight the fundamental principles of the Catholic social justice tradition. This tradition sees the state as established to foster the common good, i.e., the conditions for all community members to participate to their full capabilities. This tradition prioritizes giving a “hand up” over a “hand out.” It recognizes that people do not seek dependency but an opportunity to contribute to their community. When one views our society through the lens of these principles, the immigration question comes clearly into focus. The struggles of immigrant workers to find work, to provide for their families, and to have a say in the shaping of their lives are the defining features of their day-to-day existences. Once we are liberated from prejudices that assume people intrinsically are “takers,” we see our essential similarities and our differences recede.
The Bishops tell us, “Whenever possible we should support businesses and enterprises that protect human life and dignity, pay just wages, and protect workers’ rights. We should support immigration policies that bring immigrant workers out of the shadows to a legal status and offer them a just and fair path to citizenship, so that their human rights are protected and the wages for all workers rise.
We honor the immigrant worker by remembering that the building of America has been carried out by so many who fled persecution, violence, and poverty elsewhere, coming to America to offer their talents and gifts to support themselves and their families. We welcome the stranger, the refugee, the migrant, and the marginalized, because they are children of God and it is our duty to do so. But at the same time it is important to end the political, social, and economic conditions that drive people from their homelands and families. Solidarity calls us to honor workers in our own communities and around the world.”
On this Labor Day, I wish you a full appreciation of the value of your work. And I pray that we might all be bound in the hospitality that flows from mutual respect and solidarity.
Mark G. Kuczewski, PhD
The Fr. Michael I. English, SJ, Professor of Medical Ethics
Chair, Department of Medical Education
Director, Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics & Health Policy
Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine
For the full USCCB Labor Day Statement, go to: