Labor Day is celebrated in all of North America on the first Monday of September. The holiday was established in the 1880s to provide a day of rest for those who work for a living — a category that, in principle, includes everyone who is gainfully employed, whether full time or part time. Many regard the day as the formal end of the summer vacation — a chance to enjoy one last picnic or cookout before the children return to school.
This column has frequently marked the annual Labor Day observance by reminding readers, and especially those who exercise pastoral authority in the church, of the richness and abiding relevance of Catholic social teaching and of the ongoing challenge to apply that teaching to the church itself.
The Third World Synod of Bishops meeting in Rome in 1971 declared that “While the Church is bound to give witness to justice, it recognizes that anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes” (“Justice in the World,” III, 2).
The U.S. Catholic bishops cited that document in their own pastoral letter, “Economic Justice for All,” in 1986: “All the moral principles that govern the just operation of any economic endeavor apply to the Church and its agencies and institutions; indeed the Church should be exemplary” (n. 347; italics in original).
Because the church should set an example of justice for all other institutions, I wrote in 1997, “it is never permissible to say that working for the church requires people to accept less than what is just. Nor can the church excuse itself by claiming that it is no worse that some other employers in the area.
“The church is always called to a higher standard, which is the Gospel itself.”
“To be sure,” my 1999 Labor Day column concluded, “these pointed words of both the Synod of Bishops and the U.S. Catholic bishops are utterly meaningless if they are not honored in practice in every diocese, parish, school and hospital operating under Catholic auspices.
“Labor Day 1999 offers the church a renewed challenge to practice what it preaches.”
The next year’s column ended on the same note: “Until the church makes the matter of justice in the church one of its highest priorities, it cannot credibly refer to itself as the sacrament of Christ. The principle of sacramentality requires the church to practice what it preaches about social justice and human rights.
“Labor Day is a good time to remember that.”
In 2001 this column quoted from another important document, the apostolic exhortation of Pope Paul VI, Evangelii nuntiandi (“On Evangelization in the Modern World”), in which he insisted that the “first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life.”
People, he said, listen “more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if (they) do listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses … .
“It is therefore primarily by its conduct and by its life that the church will evangelize the world, in other words, by its living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus …” (n.41).
Last year’s Labor Day column ended with an examination of conscience:
“As we approach this Labor Day weekend, the church has another opportunity to reflect on its own record in these matters.
“Does it provide a just wage, adequate health-care benefits and true job security for all of its school teachers, parish ministers, secretarial staff, hospital personnel, newspaper editors and reporters, maintenance workers and the like?
“Does it honor its written contracts, especially after a new bishop, pastor, principal or hospital administrator is appointed and begins to ‘clean house’?
“Does the church recognize that these contracts are enforceable in a civil court, and, if not, are the employees advised of this fact at the time they sign the contracts?
“When church employees who believe that they were unjustly dismissed from their jobs seek relief in the civil courts, does the church routinely appeal to the First Amendment (as it has so often in sexual-abuse cases), arguing that the principle of separation of church and state immunizes the church from the scrutiny of the courts, effectively placing the church above the law?
“As the 1971 World Synod declared, ‘anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes.’
“Nothing teaches like example.”
The U.S. Catholic bishops issue an annual statement just prior to the Labor Day holiday. Last year this column asked if the bishops will ever explicitly repeat and reaffirm a key point in their 1986 pastoral letter, namely, that Catholic social teachings apply to the church itself.
We continue to wait — with hope.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.