Catholic Social Teaching and the Living Wage

The Centre for Theology & Community l

Living Wage Week begins this Sunday (5th November). In his last blog, our Director Angus Ritchie looked at the Gospel readings set for that day in the lectionary. In this third blog, he looks at Catholic Social Teaching and the Living Wage.

In his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, Pope St John Paul II affirmed a series of human rights relating to family life. They include:

  • the right to exist and progress as a family, that is to say, the right of every human being, even if he or she is poor, to found a family and to have adequate means to support it;

  • the right, especially of the poor and the sick, to obtain physical, social, political and economic security;

  • the right to housing suitable for living family life in a proper way;

  • the right to expression and to representation, either directly or through associations, before the economic, social and cultural public authorities and lower authorities;

  • the right to form associations with other families and institutions, in order to fulfil the family’s role suitably and expeditiously;

  • the right to emigrate as a family in search of a better life.

In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI wrote that

the dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner #32

Later in the encyclical, he considers what is meant by the word “decency” in regard to work:

It means work that expresses the essential dignity of every man and woman in the context of their particular society: work that is freely chosen, effectively associating workers, both men and women, with the development of their community; work that enables the worker to be respected and free from any form of discrimination; work that makes it possible for families to meet their needs and provide schooling for their children, without the children themselves being forced into labour [emphasis added]; work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard; work that leaves enough room for rediscovering one’s roots at a personal, familial and spiritual level; work that guarantees those who have retired a decent standard of living. #63

This is precisely the logic behind the Living Wage. It is calculated to be the level of pay required to enable workers to sustain a personal and family life, and contribute to the wider life of a community, and still have enough money to meet their material needs.

In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis emphaises that work for social justice needs to begin by listening to the poor. This is the method of community organising – working for justice with and not just for those who are on low wages, and recognising that a Living Wage is about the full inclusion of all workers and families in society:

Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society. This demands that we be docile and attentive to the cry of the poor and to come to their aid.

As the Pope observes “A mere glance at the Scriptures is enough to make us see how our gracious Father wants to hear the cry of the poor.”

He first lists some of the key passages in the Old Testament:

“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them… so I will send you…” (Exodus 3:7-8, 10). We also see how he is concerned for their needs: “When the Israelites cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up for them a deliverer” (Judges 3:15). If we, who are God’s means of hearing the poor, turn deaf ears to this plea, we oppose the Father’s will and his plan; that poor person “might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt” (Deuteronomy 15:9). A lack of solidarity towards his or her needs will directly affect our relationship with God: “For if in bitterness of soul he calls down a curse upon you, his Creator will hear his prayer” (Sirach 4:6).

As he goes on to show, these same themes are central to the New Testament:

The old question always returns: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods, and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:17). Let us recall also how bluntly the apostle James speaks of the cry of the oppressed: “The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (5:4). …

Finally, he turns to the feeding of the Five Thousand, interpreting Jesus’ challenge to his disciples in a way that connects very directly with the campaign for a Living Wage and affordable housing:

In this context we can understand Jesus’ command to his disciples: “You yourselves give them something to eat!” (Mk 6:37): it means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter. The word “solidarity” is a little worn and at times poorly understood, but it refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity. It presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few.

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