Again, Roman Catholic Social Teaching has evolved considerably since the publication of Rerum Novarum 1891(On the Condition of Workers)and Quadragesimo Anno (Reconstruction of the Social Order) 1931. These were the seminal documents, but encyclicals that followed have never negated any principles of these two, rather they have elaborated on some points and interpreted them in terms of the current economic situation.
Some of this blog has been a lament over the loss of Roman Catholic Social Teaching in so far as it concerns workers and the duty of changing social structures so that all participate. Both the liberal laity and the conservative hierarchy are accused of focusing on church arguments rather than on the condition of workers or reconstructing society. But what happened?
On February 18, 2011 an article in the “Milwaukee Journal Sentinel” by Annysa Johnson announced that Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki declared his support for Wisconsin public sector workers defending their right to a union and to negotiate wages, benefits and working conditions. Listecki based his support of the workers on a 1986 document (Economic Justice For All) on economic policy published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Work on the document was chaired by then Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee. We will eventually consider this document in the blog, but for now, let’s just say it’s based on the two seminal documents: Rerum Novarum - 1891 and Quadragesimo Anno - 1931. Archbishop Listecki has joined the discussion with economists Reich and Krugman on public economic policy. All of them agree that there is an over-riding moral dimension in economics.
The attack on public workers in Wisconsin is a thinly veiled attack on all unions nationally. The attack focuses on public sector unions. Apparently, “the wealthy criminal class,” as Republican president Theodore Roosevelt called them, (The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris, Coward, McCann et al, 1979, p. 193. ) reasoned that the public would support an anti public worker policy aimed at unions in general. It makes sense that a powerful part of the plutocracy wants to limit their taxes and the power of the people, but there is more to it. Lincoln claimed that democracy in the U.S.A. is – “of the people,” but it is easy to fool “some of the people some of the time.” The PR of the plutocrats is that the government and its workers are the enemy. Is it our heritage to constantly struggle with this issue?
Consider Nathaniel Hawthorn’s complaints about his former position as a ‘Customs Official’ in the introduction of his classic American work, The Scarlet Letter published in 1850. This was less than 100 years after the Boston Tea Party and separation from the dictatorial English imperial monarchy and 11 years before the American civil war.
“Suffice it here to say, that a Customs House officer, of long continuance, can hardly be a very praiseworthy or respectable personage for many reasons; one of them, by the tenure by which he holds his situation, and another, the very nature of his business, which of his business, which - though, I trust, and honest one - is of such a sort that he does not share in the united effort of mankind.”
Hawthorn goes on:
“Why should he work for a living here, or go dig gold in California, when he is so soon to be made happy, at monthly intervals, with a little pile of gold coins out of his uncle’s pocket? It is sadly curious to observe how slight a taste of office suffices to infect a poor fellow with this singular disease. Uncle Sam’s gold - meaning no disrespect to the worthy old gentleman - has, in this respect, a quality of enchantment like that of the Devil’s wages.”
Listecki and the unions are struggling against the insidious and clever PR of the plutocrats and a collective subconscious that tends to hate itself and threaten to self-destruct.