Pope Leo XIII

Pope Leo XIII

One of the interesting bits from Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum is in paragraph twenty where the good pontiff decides to lay out the responsibilities, and not just the rights, of employers and employees. Some of what he says would probably be accepted by the average American with no problem whatsoever while some other parts… well let’s see what he says.

The responsibilities of the “proletarian and the worker” says the Holy Father are pretty straight forward. The employee is to do the work agreed upon well. They should never injure the person or the property of the employer. This “never” would apply, apparently, even if they were an unjust employer. Actually, say the pope, the employee is never to engage in violence or disorder to defend one’s cause. Some have taken this to mean that strikes are off limit, but this is not what Pope Leo means and it is certainly something which is explicitly allowed by later popes. Lastly, and one of my favorites, Pope Leo XIII writes that the employee is

to have nothing to do with men of evil principles, who work upon the people with artful promises of great results, and excite foolish hopes which usually end in useless regrets and grievous loss.

Don’t associate with hucksters or liars because, as the Dread Scott Pirate said in A Princess Bride: “Life is pain, your highness. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to sell you something.” In order to be a responsible worker one must avoid things like ponzi schemes and a sure thing of a bet, and the best way to avoid those is by avoiding “men of evil principles.” That’s pretty sound advice. Now what are the responsibilities of the employer?

Before we get to that, it is the typical free-market stance to argue that the relationship between employer and employee is simply one determined by contract. That the two of them have agreed on the contract is a sure sign of justice. They are exchanging, after all, a commodity, which in this case is labor. The Church does not see it that way, however.

According to Catholic social teaching, labor is not just some commodity to be traded like any other sort of widget or raw material. Labor is an extension of the person who does the labor and it is the fundamental means by which the human person maintains their own life. It is not, then, a simple or mere contract. It is a relationship wherein two persons agree to help each other based on the gifts which God has given each of them. With that in mind, then, what are the responsibilities of the employer for this employee, this person who has entrusted his livelihood to another?

coal minerWell the duties of the “wealthy owner and the employer” are first “to respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character.” This means that the employer ought not look down on his laborers because they are working with their hands and he with his mind and wit. Working for gain, say the Holy Father, is “creditable.” It can be a noble thing, especially for a family, and so the employer must respect this.

The corollary to this is that the employer must know that to view a person and their labor as a mere means to an ends, is to violate this appreciation of the dignity of the human person. It is, says the pope, “truly shameful and inhuman.” Looking at a balance sheet, then, where labor is just a line item on the sheet along with materials and other overhead costs, is to treat people inhumanely. This ought to be a sobering thought for any businessman. But there’s more.

Pope Leo XIII then says that the when dealing with employees, the employer must take into account the good of the employees soul and make sure they can meet their religious duties, for instance. They should also try to protect them from the hucksters warned about earlier. What if wealthy businessmen told their employees about the dangers of certain kinds of investing or the advantages of this vs. that kind of life insurance or got them training in personal finances as like those of Dave Ramsey or Phil Lenahan’s Veritas Financial program?

The Holy Father goes on to talk about overly taxing employees, and making sure that jobs are assigned appropriate to age and gender. But one of the more important responsibilities of the employer is that they must be conscious of how their demands on their employees affect family time and thus family life. Even if an employee gets that time off that is legally or contractually required, can more time be given off for special circumstances or is the stress of the job being taken home? After the death of his wife, my friend’s company let him be home with his four children for three months…paid. That shows a true commitment to family.

Lastly, of course, there is the question of a just wage, a notion which would take another post or two to unpack. But for now it is sufficient to say that the employer has a responsibility to make sure it’s offered. Pope Leo writes,

Doubtless, before deciding whether wages are fair, many things have to be considered; but wealthy owners and all masters of labor should be mindful of this – that to exercise pressure upon the indigent and the destitute for the sake of gain, and to gather one’s profit out of the need of another, is condemned by all laws, human and divine.

Andrew Carnegie made lots of money and used a most of it to help found schools, libraries and beneficial funds.

Andrew Carnegie made lots of money and used a most of it to help found schools, libraries and beneficial funds.

The Holy Father expands on this later, but note that this question of a just wage is, for him, one of human and divine law. So that he writes, if an employer should defraud an employee of a wage for their labor, they have committed a crime that calls for vengeances from Heaven. There are only a handful of other crimes that so call for vengeance. Among them is the murder of the innocent and sodomy. Bilking employees of a just wage is no small matter friends.

These are all the responsibilities of an employer, and these are responsibilities which the Holy Father says are part and parcel of the natural law. It is in paragraph twenty-one where Pope Leo goes on to give the Christian view of matters, a view that goes above and beyond the natural rights and responsibilities.

We’ll talk later about a just wage, but how does any of the above affect the way you or I might think about economics and the candidates that are currently vying for our vote?