The Sanctity of Labor and the Challenges Before Us

Today, the U.S. and Canada celebrate Labor Day, a day honoring workers. What does it mean to honor workers at a time of high unemployment, job insecurity, and the threat of lay–offs? In the U.S., the unemployment rate remains over 9%, with no decrease of the rate in August and the recovery of jobs apparently stalled. As President Obama prepares to deliver his “jobs speech ” this week, he faces immense challenges. Other countries face even higher unemployment rates, with France, for example, at 9.9% and Ireland at 14.4 %.

In the U.S., the first celebration of Labor Day was held in 1882 in New York City, organized by the Central Labor Union. In Canada, Labor Day can be traced back even further, to when Toronto Typographers went on strike for a 58-hour work week in 1872. Religious leaders, both nationally and internationally, recognizing the sanctity of labor, joined labor leaders in calling for justice for workers. Pope Leo XIII, for example, issued Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labor) in 1891, building a biblical foundation for the dignity of the worker.

In today’s tough economic times, it’s important to continue to listen not only to the voices of labor leaders and political leaders seeking to address the challenges before us, but also to the voices of spiritual leaders. We need to focus not only on the facts and figures of an economy struggling to recover, but also on the moral issues. Religious leaders today continue to recognize the sanctity of labor. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example, issued a Labor Day statement this year emphasizing that unemployment and job insecurity “are not just economic problems, but also human tragedies, moral challenges, and tests of our faith.”

The USCCB statement goes on to draw a parallel between the time at which Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum and today:

One–hundred–twenty years ago at the time of the Industrial Revolution workers also faced great difficulties. Pope Leo XIII identified the situation of workers as the key moral challenge of that time . . . This timely encyclical lifted up the inherent dignity of the worker in the midst of massive economic changes. Pope Leo’s powerful letter rejected both unbridled capitalism that could strip workers of their God–given human dignity and dangerous socialism that could empower the state over all else in ways that destroy human initiative.

What does it mean to honor the dignity of the worker today in another time of massive economic change? How can we reject both “unbridled capitalism” and “dangerous socialism” today?

We are living in a time in which there are no easy answers for our economic challenges. In this uncharted territory, we will need to experiment. We will need to hear opposing perspectives, listening for the wisdom in other points of view. We will need to work together across party lines for the good of all, rejecting entrenched, knee–jerk responses. We will need to find a new way forward.

In the words of Pope Benedict:

The current crisis obliges us to re-plan our journey, to set ourselves new rules and to discover new forms of commitment, to build on positive experiences and to reject negatives ones. The crisis thus becomes an opportunity for discernment, in which to shape a new vision for the future (Caritas in Veritate, no. 21).

May we rise to the occasion and view this opportunity to shape a new vision as a challenge worth our best efforts.

7 Responses to “The Sanctity of Labor and the Challenges Before Us”


  1. 1 Mike Nelson September 5, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    Identifying the challenge is easy – discerning the source of the problems we face is much harder as we (all of us, I mean) do not want to have to admit that the economic system is run by people with no ethical sense and even less morality. This is the elephant in the room – those who rape the ‘system’ and reward themselves with obscene salaries and even more obscene bonuses. Until the huge ethical shortfalls of our political, business and public service leaders is exposed and corrective action taken, we will continue to face crisis after crisis – often, one suspects, manufactured by the very people who should be promoting sound business practices and inclusive economics.

    • 2 executivesoulblog September 6, 2011 at 10:47 am

      Yes, it is much harder to change the system when there are so many at the top who do not take their moral and ethical responsibilities seriously. Do you think there are some in leadership who do? What critical mass is needed?

  2. 3 Cathy Perry September 6, 2011 at 12:03 am

    Your compassion, intellectual rigor and spiritual creativity come together to form a foundation of hope in this article about honoring the sanctity of labor.

    Cathy Perry, Founder
    InwardBound Center for Nonprofit Leadership

  3. 5 Mike Nelson September 6, 2011 at 11:20 am

    I am sad to have to say that the real ‘critical mass’ requirement is the number of high level fraudsters, crooks and thieves who are subjected to the provisions of the law, rather than buy their way out. We need a lot more Bernie Madoffs in gaol to make the high level ‘untouchables’ think twice before indulging their greed and potency urges. In Brasil, Presidente Dilma Rouseff has sacked 3 cabinet ministers this year plus several junior ministers and sanctioned court action that has over 120 senior public servants in gaol or before the courts. Her bravery is the critical mass that you are seeking – the bravery of one leader who knows that corruption can only be contained by penalties and fear of consequences, as all the moral talk and ethical education in the world seems not to be effective in bringing about ethical behaviour by the powerful. They are above all that and the rules do not apply to them – ref Cheney et al. Sorry, a dark view but one that is evidence-based, I believe.

    • 6 executivesoulblog September 7, 2011 at 11:56 am

      Sadly, your view is indeed evidence-based, Mike. Presidente Dilma Rouseff is a rare example of bravery. How far do you think she can go before she herself gets ousted for standing up to the entrenched powers?

  4. 7 Mike Nelson September 7, 2011 at 11:34 pm

    We will see – but she is one tough lady who spent 3 years in prison – with torture – under the Brasilian military regime that had the support of a US government intent on fostering/protecting the interests of the US military/industrial complex in South America. Can she handle the pressure (eg to dispose of Ficha Limpa etc etc?) Yes. Will she emerge with a victory against corruption and fraud in the end – I sincerely hope so!! My own Christian conviction is that resisting evil leads to the cross, so we (and I include me) tend to shy away from being brave in the face of evil. Dilma, a nominal Christian knows that there is a cost – but she seems prepared to pay the price. Can the same be said for Obama? Machine politics rules – OK????? Certainly does in my home country, Australia. Sad, tragic and a tribute to the entrenched powers


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