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Slave Wages Condemned by Pope John Paul II

There has been a great effort in recent years by neoconservative and libertarian Catholics and Calvinists to revise Catholic Social Teaching in favor of the enormous corporations which control so much of the property and pay slave wages around the world to gain more property. Just as they opposed the Pope on war, so they oppose him on Catholic economics.

A look at the papal documents shows that this is immoral. However, they continue to promote faulty economics, and their words appear in some Catholic publications and even in presidential speeches. These “neocons” try to stifle any discussion of economics and Catholic social teaching by calling anyone who disagrees with them a socialist. At the Houston Catholic Worker, Casa Juan Diego, we see each day the refugees from the global economy they defend.

A recent Time Magazine article which featured the most influential 25 Protestant evangelicals in regard to the Bush administration featured Catholics. They represent a small group of Catholic neoconservatives who have been advising and continues to advise President Bush on phrases for his speeches which might resonate with Catholic voters. While abortion is always mentioned as one of the issues which is key to Catholic as well as evangelical votes, the rhetoric also tries to claim Catholic philosophy as supporting neoconservative economics and preemptive/preventive war. A few influential Catholics have been drawn into supporting Israeli foreign policy as if it were the foreign policy of the United States.

The latest example is Bush’s use of the term “society of owners.” The critical problem in this sort of robbery of Catholic teaching and terminology is its refusal to admit that workers and their wages are, as John Paul II said in Laborem Excercens, the key to the evaluation of any economic system. Not only in the offshore rush of corporations to find a way to pay the lowest possible salaries, but also in the United States itself, those vast numbers who labor are only able to eke out the barest existence and have nowhere to turn if they are injured or fall ill. They are not able to buy stocks to become that so-called new kind of owner. Ownership escapes them.

Catholic Social Teaching, embodied in papal encyclicals from the last 115 years or so, has presented several key points to be used in the judgment of any economic system. These include subsidiarity (favoring small over enormous), solidarity with those most in need, and a just wage for workers. The present global market fails on all three counts. The Church also teaches that private property is a good-but private property for everyone, not just a favored few wealthy folks. The ideal of distributism, a society in which many people, if not most, could realistically own property, real property, appears not only in Catholic Worker literature and among English distributists like G. K. Chesterton, but is featured as an option in the social encyclicals

Even several groups who have said they are trying to present a “third way” between socialism and unfettered capitalism for the benefit of a few have recently tried to omit the worker in their proposals to implement the papal social program of wide-spread property ownership as initiated by Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum. Economist Rupert J. Ederer, steeped in Catholic Social Teaching, points out the problem in these attempts at revisionism in a recent edition of Pro Ecclesia. Ederer challenges the Social Justice Reviewand the CESJ group’s published idea that “Discussions on ‘just wage’ or ‘family wage’ must give way to access to ownership of wealth producing instruments.” In response Ederer quotes the encyclicals themselves:

“John Paul II in Laborem Exercens (1981) reaffirmed the just wage concept first presented for the context of modern society by Leo XIII in 1891. He stated: ‘Hence, in every case, a just wage is the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system and, in any case, of checking that it is functioning justly.’ (19)

“That takes nothing away from a wider property ownership among workers, since the just wage doctrine was elaborated by Pius XI, and subsequently reaffirmed by Pius XII, John XXIII, and Paul VI, always involved a wage adequate to also enable workers to save and acquire property ….

“What is more, given the performance of the stock market over the past few years, it seems doubtful that the hard-pressed workers would be enthusiastic about investing their savings in equity capital. Finally, it is too often forgotten that not a few of the employee-stock-ownership and profit-sharing plans were cover-ups for the failure to pay a basic just wage in the first place. Some were, in fact, established to discourage the workers from organizing-which Leo XIII emphasized, was their basic natural right!

“Now is not the time to be proposing frosting for the non-existent cake to help our hard-pressed workers. We need to concern ourselves about basic sustenance. It is time for those with a genuine interest in Catholic social doctrine to stand by their embattled Pope and his authentic teaching on this matter of the just wage.”

Ederer is a specialist on the work of Heinrich Pesch, SJ, the economist who so much in-fluenced Popes in the development of Catholic social teaching. Ederer has translated and published Pesch’s 10 volume work, Teaching Guide to Economics (Edwin Mellen Press). However, a shorter, less expensive book by Pesch has recently been published by IHS Press called Ethics and the National Economy (757) 423-0324, www.ihspress.com).


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. 25, No. 2, March-April 2005.