At a recent conference on the social doctrine I found myself in a room full of some very bright people who said they couldn’t figure out what the Church meant by a “just wage,” or a “family wage.” At the time I wasn’t sure what the problem was, and I’m not so sure now either. The social encyclicals do, after all, talk about this with some specificity.
The first pope to address this is of course Pope Leo XIII in Rerum novarum, and the Holy Father takes the question head on. He understood the presumption of his time, as it still is, that a just wage is made just when the two sides agree to it. A contract has been struck, after all. So what’s the problem? Sure, if the laborer signs the contract out of fear or pressure, then it might not necessarily be a just wage. But outside of such a situation, what’s the problem? Pope Leo writes:
To labor is to exert oneself for the sake of procuring what is necessary for the various purposes of life, and chief of all for self preservation. … Hence, a man’s labor necessarily bears two notes or characters. First of all, it is personal, inasmuch as the force which acts is bound up with the personality and is the exclusive property of him who acts, and, further, was given to him for his advantage. Secondly, man’s labor is necessary; for without the result of labor a man cannot live, and self-preservation is a law of nature, which it is wrong to disobey.
The pope goes on to say that if labor were just personal, then, yes, every contract, so long as it wasn’t forced or coerced, would be a just contract for wages. But that’s not the case. Labor is not just personal. The fact that labor is necessary to preserve life makes the wage more than just a mere contract. The employer has an obligation to make sure that the wage they pay is sufficient so that their employee can live.
Some might counter by asking why it is the employer’s responsibility that the worker have enough to live on. Isn’t that the worker’s responsibility? To this, the Holy Father says:
The preservation of life is the bounden duty of one and all, and to be wanting therein is a crime. It necessarily follows that each one has a natural right to procure what is required in order to live, and the poor can procure that in no other way than by what they can earn through their work.
There you have it. We are all obliged to do what we can to preserve life. It would be difficult to claim to be a pro-life Catholic and simultaneously say that we have absolutely no obligation to help preserve life. What’s more, the premise of the question, “why is it my responsibility” betrays the rather modern and liberal notion that we are not responsible for each other. In point of fact, this is the very reason for the Church’s principle of solidarity. As Blessed Pope John Paul II put it, solidarity is the realization that “we are all really responsible for all.”
Other objections to this teaching ask about wages for someone – like a teenager –who is not looking for what is necessary to live on but for extra cash. The answer is that the employer could offer a teenager a much lower wage. In such a case, what is just would we be what the two agree on.
Of all the objections and question, though, the biggest is about who is supposed to enforce this obligation of the employer to provide a just wage. This is what Pope Leo writes:
In these and similar questions, however – such as, for example, the hours of labor in different trades, the sanitary precautions to be observed in factories and workshops, etc. – in order to supersede undue interference on the part of the State, especially as circumstances, times, and localities differ so widely, it is advisable that recourse be had to societies or boards such as We shall mention presently, or to some other mode of safeguarding the interests of the wage-earners; the State being appealed to, should circumstances require, for its sanction and protection.
Note that the pope is aware that there can be “undue interference on the part of the State.” In other words, the answer to who enforces this justice is not always or primarily the State. It seems one of the reasons this is so is because factors vary so significantly from one place to the next. The cost of living in New York is far different than it is here in Omaha for instance. So a minimum wage across an expanse like our great nation seems ridiculous on its face. In fact, in my searching for the term “minimum wage” in the social documents, I found only one instance, and that in Mater et magistra which does not in any way talk about an imposition of a minimum wage by the State.
This is where most people who claim to be representatives of the Church’s social teaching end up losing their way. Close readings of the documents show that the Church is in favor of a role played by the State, but not an exclusive or primary role. The way most people talk about just wage today, one wouldn’t know it.
In his encyclical Mater et magistra, Pope John XXIII seems to echo Pope Leo’s distaste for “undue interference on the part of the State” when in paragraph 71 he writes:
71. We therefore consider it Our duty to reaffirm that the remuneration of work is not something that can be left to the laws of the marketplace; nor should it be a decision left to the will of the more powerful. It must be determined in accordance with justice and equity; which means that workers must be paid a wage which allows them to live a truly human life and to fulfill their family obligations in a worthy manner.
One might think that the “will of the more powerful” refers to the will of the business man. However, that’s what the bit about the “laws of the marketplace” means. That is, the question of an employer-determined wage is already covered by the phrase about the marketplace. Rather, I think the will of the more powerful refers to the will of the politician.
So if not the State to determine wages, who? It cannot only be left to employers to determine the wage. So the pope says that some kind of board should be in charge of judging this obligation, i.e. some sort of non-governmental group should monitor the situation. The group would have recourse to the State so that, if an employer is failing to live up to his obligation, the group could then ask the State to step in. But the board itself is not part of the government. They could be a society of concerned citizens or a union. [the reader should understand here that the Holy Fathers had a different understanding of unions than exist today.]
You might be wondering at this point about the employer who can’t afford to pay a fair wage. Would it be fair for him to be force to pay it by this board or by the State? Well, first, the employer is always free to hire the teenager who isn’t looking for the “bread-winner” salary that an adult would be. The employer would have to deal with the ephemeral nature of the teenager though.
Still, the Church teaches that no employer should be forced by the State or by this intermediary board to pay more than they can afford. Pope Pius XI understood this. He wrote the following in Quadragesimo anno:
72. In determining the amount of the wage, the condition of a business and of the one carrying it on must also be taken into account; for it would be unjust to demand excessive wages which a business cannot stand without its ruin and consequent calamity to the workers.
No one is suggesting that businesses pay their employees more than they can afford. This is obviously not good for the workers either. No business = no job. Indeed, Pius’ language on this issue of excessive wages gets pretty strong. He goes on to say that excessive wages can result in unemployment,
For everyone knows that an excessive lowering of wages, or their increase beyond due measure, causes unemployment.
The goal is not just a perceived justice in the wage rates but also that people have work. This is of course the lesson to which some unions seem completely oblivious as they drive some industries into the ground. Unfortunately, union leaders by and large have a job to seek the interests of the employees in opposition to or apart from the good of the business. Such a paradigm – one rejected by the Church’s social teaching by the way – can only lead to disaster. And disaster is what we’ve gotten.
It should be noted that John XXIII says that if a business can only afford to pay a worker a minimum wage, there should be an effort to remunerate the worker in other ways, such as part ownership in the business. In fact, the popes have been generally in favor of cooperative ownership of businesses in order to encourage communion between management and labor and to fight against the oppositionist attitudes that are so poisonous between them.
What’s more, the popes argue that laws that force a blanket solution on all businesses in an area, or across a nation, can prove to be destructive. Relationships between employer and employee can be complicated and particular to that area. The justice of the wage at any business depends on the profitability of the business, on the personal needs of the owner and on the needs of each individual employee. What Pius XI tells us is that employer and employees are to work together to figure out the wages, and Blessed John XXIII says:
Other factors too enter into the assessment of a just wage: namely, the effective contribution which each individual makes to the economic effort, the financial state of the company for which he works, the requirements of the general good of the particular country—having regard especially to the repercussions on the overall employment of the working force in the country as a whole—and finally the requirements of the common good on the universal family of nations of every kind, both large and small.
This begins to get at the heart of the Church’s teaching here. As I wrote recently, labor is not just some commodity to be traded on the open market. We ought not encourage an attitude that sees a man’s labor as just one more “thing” to buy and sell. It is, rather, something attached to a human person. Thus, labor has a value according to what the employer can afford, and it has a value according to what the laborer can afford.
Given my limited amount of free time as a father of three and as a husband, my labor has a different value to me than it did when I was a single man and had leisure time to spare. My time for labor is scarcer now, and thus I need to make sure I get greater remuneration for my labor than before. This is how a family wage enters into the picture.
It is John Paul II who uses the phrase a “family wage” in Laborem exercens. He tells us that it is
Just remuneration for the work of an adult who is responsible for a family means remuneration which will suffice for establishing and properly maintaining a family and for providing security for its future.
This is again part of the larger teaching on solidarity. Families are good for society. They are the fundamental cell of society. Thus, support for families supports the common good, an obligation for every citizen Catholic or not. Therefore, business owners have an obligation to help families as best they can. As odious as daycare may be to some people, if a business offered free daycare to its employees, it could go a long way toward employee loyalty and work ethic. “We are all really responsible for all.”
Again, objections to this teaching abound. I often think it interesting, however, that while many understand the crucial importance of the family and that undue interference by the State is a bad thing, few offer any alternative. The constant meme is about getting the government off our backs. But then this is followed quickly with the refusal to recognize any obligation on the part of individuals to help the family. It just strikes me as odd. If it’s not the State, then it’s us… which means you. If it’s not you, then it’s the State…. Or better it is us and the State. Ahhh that great Catholic both/and.
Of course, all the objections to this teaching will be legitimate to some degree. This is because we’re dealing with human nature. Every system is prone to abuse. What I think is disingenuous is the notion that because this teaching is “hard” that it is therefore useless. I often hear good people say, “This is all pie-in-the-sky stuff. The Church can’t tell us how to run our businesses.” That’s true to a point, but the Church can tell you what the moral life looks like, and She teaches pretty clearly that if you are not at least trying to offer those who work for you a just wage or a family wage, then you’re not living up to your moral obligations.
A lot of the bristling that happens when this teaching is mentioned is rooted in fears about huge salaries being demanded by employees. I don’t think I can emphasize enough the fact that employees are called to be responsible as well. They cannot demand more than is just from the employer. Also, they should not demand more than they need to meet their basic needs. Cable TV is not a basic need. A new car every three years is not a basic need. A cell phone for your twelve year old is not a basic need. Vacations to Disney World are not a basic need. You get the picture I think.
What can we do about it? Well if you’re a Catholic business man, recognize that treating your employees well is a concrete way to invest in your business. You don’t have to sacrifice profit and thus the business, but you can consider reducing rapid expansion of the business for the sake of the care you give your employees. If you’re an employee, it can be easy to want to demand more money. Believe me. But stop for a second and consider what your NEEDS really are. Your employer is not obliged to make sure you can regularly afford that $5.00 coffee.
More than anything, however, is that Catholics need to try to escape the paradigm of competition that the world wants us to believe is at the heart of all of reality. We can do the right thing and still take care of our families. We can trust that the good God will take care of us in the end. We can work hard and know that, when done in love, we and our work is pleasing to the Lord.