Guest Commentary – August 24, 2020

Newspaper with computer on table

Our Catholic duty to justice in the workplace

On June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland established Labor Day to occur annually on the first Monday of September. This holiday is an opportunity to commemorate the value that workers, employees and work itself provide to our society.

Three years before our nation began to hail the harmony between boss and laborer, Pope Leo XIII was about to issue a historical call to action. That call would start a revolution that would forever recast justice in the mold of Gospel-modeled relations among people.

Human dignity is foundation

Around the globe, the year 1891 saw numerous sectors of society engulfed in fierce labor disputes. Owners and managers were at the throats of their workers. Workers were going for the jugular of owners and managers.

On May 15, 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued his circular (encyclical) letter titled “Rerum Novarum” (https://www.newadvent.org/library/docs_le13rn.htm). It was a summons from the heart of the Church. It was a plea for secular and religious leaders to unite with the pope in a worldwide effort at conflict resolution.

That letter takes its name from its own opening line. There, the pope attributes the labor disputes to “an attraction to new things” (In Latin, “Rerum novarum cupidine.” For the pope, that fascination blinded people to the value of the human person in the workplace and in society itself.

It was the pope’s boldness of faith that brought him, and had him invite others, into the thick of a social tragedy with a surprising remedy. He invited all parties in the disputes to consider placing their workplace relations on a completely fresh foundation. That foundation was the scriptural principle of the dignity of every human person.

From multiple places and within a glut of phony excuses, we now find the value of the human person regularly reduced to nothing.

It is crucial that we accept and trust the redemptive impact we have on society when we make our workplaces schools of formation for relating that is just. “Rerum Novarum” broke new ground as a magna carta for workplace justice rooted in the dignity of humanity.

In that fact alone, we have an incentive in every diocese and every parish of our nation to revisit our personnel policies. We have good reason to re-embrace them as covenants — or to re-form them into covenants — by which all parties promise, and assist one another in keeping the promise, to expand each other’s dignity and worth in their working together.

Manual rooted in the Gospel

In preparing this commentary, I read a random sampling of personnel policies and procedures for Catholic entities. The introduction to one of them impressed me in particular when it stated:

“In many ways this manual may appear to be no different than any other personnel manual. But it is fundamentally different.” Then it joined together two equally compelling goals.

They wanted the manual to be rooted in the Gospel. This recognizes the dignity of those who work to carry out the mission and the sacredness of the mission itself. Linked to that was the goal of responsible stewardship of the funds contributed to carry out the mission. This requires an even-handed demand for an all-in work ethic from all employees, including supervisors and managers.

In the United States, we have constitutional protections that allow us to establish workplace cultures that are compatible with our Gospel-centered beliefs. “Employment at will,” which includes “termination at will,” workplaces can easily be mistaken as an exception to those protections.

However, from the perspective of our faith, all employees, managers and supervisors are both disciples and apostles of just and harmonious relating. Nothing prohibits us from providing employees with orientation, formation, required annual or more frequent performance assessments, progressive improvement processes and exits with dignified assistance if termination becomes necessary.

Our protections allow us to require personnel officials to be immersed in the Church’s social justice teachings — especially on justice in the workplace. As servant leaders, those officials are expected to advocate impartially for employee and employer, fostering a spirit of mutual service between both.

‘Beacon of justice’

One of the many principles that arises in “Rerum Novarum” is participation. Informed people are involved people. Use your website to give more than employee names and titles. Say a little about what each does and how. Keep employee rosters up to date.

Above all, provide easy access for all to view personnel policies and procedures. Those pages belong to everyone and, to be sure, they are meant to provide a beacon of justice to a struggling world.

Father Pat has been a priest in our diocese for 44 years. Before retirement, he served as a pastor for 24 years and as “priest-for” at parishes without a local pastor. He served as priest secretary for the late Bishop Walter F. Sullivan and as interim director of the diocesan Office of Human Resources.

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