A priority in the Catholic Worker movement in the time of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day was the defense of workers against mistreatment and exploitation. Dorothy often quoted the encyclical Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII in regard to workers not getting paid, or being paid a pittance for their work: “To defraud anyone of wages that are his due is a crime that cries to the avenging anger of Heaven” (R.N., n.17).
Reading articles in the press on immigrant workers and the attempted immigration legis-lation, one has to be reminded that we are speaking of human beings. It seems that we are again at the stage of the Spanish conquest where people and theologians argued whether native populations had souls or did not have souls—or the Puritan conquest in which the conquerors were already convinced the natives had no souls.
In a recent article Catholic economist Rupert Ederer, citing the classic text from Rerum Novarum , that Dorothy so often quoted, concluded that the Pope’s statement “puts wage injustice in the same class as abortion, and in a certain sense it foreshadowed abortion.” Rein-forcing the Catholic doctrine of the “just wage,” Ederer points out how “the Catholic Church was campaigning against the coarse selfishness in the economic order that has been rampaging since the industrial era began under the aegis of so-called free market, capitalism, rugged individualism, laissez-faire, etc.,” through encyclicals written by Popes from Leo XIII through John Paul II. In his great encyclical on work, Laborem Exercens , John Paul II declared that “a just wage is the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system.” Ederer reminds us that thus the just wage doctrine “is not to be ignored, minimized or treated lightly. It represents teaching by the ordinary Magisterium because it is a moral doctrine.”
Ederer based the idea of the foreshadowing of abortion on the fact that “the ongoing abuse of the wage system during the industrial era demonstrated widespread contempt for the lives of the great majority of those who must work for wages to stay alive.” In other words, the majority of people were treated as less than human, not of value. This devaluation of the human person laid the groundwork for the acceptance of abortion, a practice which from the earliest day of the Church has been condemned by the Church. It is only a society which does not value each and every human person, even though they may be poor and not sophisticated, which would tolerate such a practice.
Contempt for workers in the 116 years since Rerum Novarum was written has not decreased— as exemplified in the current global economy and in the treatment of undocumented workers in the United States. The current $1 or $2 or $5 a day wages and dreadful working conditions in work outsourced to other countries by major corporations is well documented. In the United States some businesses hire workers at low wages until they are no longer needed, and then call Immigration to deport the workers. Others may not pay their workers at all.
There is no mention in today’s discussions of immigrants about the contribution immigrant workers have made to the economy because they work harder, longer, and cheaper than the citizenry. At the level of talk shows, immigrants are discussed as if they are not persons, almost as if they are cattle.
The immigrant is presented as being costly to the economy, where as a matter of fact, they make one of the most important contributions to society’s economics and are responsible for its successes. Not only that, these workers cost nothing to the economy if they become injured, disabled or unable to work. After injury, they cannot collect disability, Medicaid, food stamps, welfare funds, social security or training programs. We know this to be true because all the hospitals in Houston call us to receive sick and injured immigrants because no other help is available to them after they leave the emergency room.
Deportation of Parents and Mistreatment of Immigrant Families
Worse than abandonment of workers after they can no longer work is the deportation of parents without their children. We have recently discovered how cruel and outrageous the actions of Children’s Protective Services have been with these families. Instead of sending the children home with their parents, they are actually taking it upon themselves to travel to other countries to do a “home stud” before they can decide if they can send the children home. Imagine United States social workers with little training who do not speak Spanish arriving to evaluate the homes of the very poor, many of whom do not even have running water.
Ripping these children from their mothers’ breasts has to be another of those sins that cries to heaven for vengeance.
We need to acknowledge that the twelve million undocu-mented people present in the U.S. are here because our nation wants them here to work and we have obviously have fallen in love with their work ethic. It is unjust and immoral to take advantage of their work and turn around and treat them as subhuman.
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, July-August 2007.