Catholic Social Teaching is For Catholics, Too

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“Behold the hire of the labourers, who have reaped down your fields, which by fraud has been kept back by you, crieth: and the cry of them hath entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.” – James 5:4

It would be difficult to argue that there has ever in history been a greater emphasis on matters of social justice within the Church. Pope Francis has made economic conditions — particularly those that lead to youth unemployment — one of the principle concerns of his pontificate, as has been seen in many of his personal statements, along with his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.

But if the light is being shown on inequality and poverty in a particularly focused way in the 21st century, it hardly begins and ends there. The Church has long taught that defrauding a worker of his wages is one of the four sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance (CCC 1867). In his landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII echoed the words of St. James:

Doubtless, before deciding whether wages are fair, many things have to be considered; but wealthy owners and all masters of labor should be mindful of this – that to exercise pressure upon the indigent and the destitute for the sake of gain, and to gather one’s profit out of the need of another, is condemned by all laws, human and divine. To defraud any one of wages that are his due is a great crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven. “Behold, the hire of the laborers… which by fraud has been kept back by you, crieth; and the cry of them hath entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.” Lastly, the rich must religiously refrain from cutting down the workmen’s earnings, whether by force, by fraud, or by usurious dealing; and with all the greater reason because the laboring man is, as a rule, weak and unprotected, and because his slender means should in proportion to their scantiness be accounted sacred. Were these precepts carefully obeyed and followed out, would they not be sufficient of themselves to keep under all strife and all its causes?

Again, Pope Pius XI took up the cause in Quadragesimo Anno. He made an important distinction, however, when it came to those businesses which themselves were deprived of enough revenue to pay their workers justly:

[I]f the business in question is not making enough money to pay the workers an equitable wage because it is being crushed by unjust burdens or forced to sell its product at less than a just price, those who are thus the cause of the injury are guilty of grave wrong, for they deprive workers of their just wage and force them under the pinch of necessity to accept a wage less than fair.

While these moral and theological examinations of justice in wages are most often seen as a critique of large companies or of wealthy individuals in whose employ workers may suffer from scarce earnings due to greed, there are, in the modern world, some additional perpetrators often encountered by the Catholic who attempts to engage in industrious commerce.

First, there is the problem of working for the Church herself. There is no surer path to financial insolvency than for a hard worker to direct their energies towards some form of full-time Catholic apostolate, or to slave away for long hours as a Director of Religious Education, or to teach at a Catholic school. I have known not a few teachers who have received scandalously low wages for their efforts – wages so low that they could no doubt earn more flipping burgers. I have seen DREs forced to live on less than subsistence wages, relying instead indefinitely on government welfare programs to shore up their income so that they may feed and (usually insufficiently) house their dependents. This becomes a particular problem if they embody the Catholic ethos of “oppenness to life” and have a large family.

I suspect few individuals have ever had aspirations of becoming wealthy while working for the Church, but by the Church’s own teaching, the worker in a Catholic apostolate or school should expect to “be paid a wage sufficient to support him and his family.” (QA 71) It is inexcusably hypocritical that the same clergy who wield the Church’s social teaching as a weapon against the titans of industry — often claiming that this is a non-negotiable moral imperative — often fail so completely when it comes to applying this standard to those under their own employ.

What a scandal it is to see dioceses paying out millions of dollars in abuse lawsuits, all while their own staff have been chronically underpaid – and often poorly treated. Just ask the young teacher I know, a father of four, who moved across the country to take his first job — underpaid, with no benefits — at a Catholic school a few years ago. He was summarily fired just a few days before Christmas, after the completion of only one semester. Why? Not because he wasn’t working diligently, but because his inexperience — a known factor when he was hired — had caused some complaints from parents over the difficulty of the tests he administered to his students. This was a problem the school administration decided it would be easier to deal with by removing him from his position rather than coaching him through. He was left stranded in an unfamiliar city without a support network, unable to pay his rent, or feed his family.

How’s that for social justice?

The median household income in America is roughly $52,000 a year. Contrast that against most teachers at private Catholic schools, who often make less than $30,000 a year. These jobs once belonged to priests and nuns who were not paid for their work, but that era is gone. With religious vocations chronically diminished, laymen are going to have to keep filling the void. And well they should.

But how can they if they can’t keep food on the table?

Second, there is the problem of Catholics doing business with other Catholics. It is an all-too-frequent occurrence that when Catholic business owners find occasion to work with fellow Catholics — be it from their parish, or referrals from family or friends — there is a presumption that any products or services they offer should be given at a deeply discounted rate, if not entirely for free.

To give one example that hits close to home: because we have a large family and are unable to get by on a single income, my wife works as a real estate agent and broker, which allows her to work mostly from home. While her fees are negotiable, she has a set percentage that she typically charges for a long list of services that she provides. This includes not just an enormous investment of her time, but also of money. If she’s selling a house for a client, she pays up front and out of her own pocket for professional photography, marketing materials, custom websites, telephone answering services, showing services, interior staging consultations, food and drink for open houses, and the distribution of listing information or marketing materials to thousands of websites and other agents. She pays thousands of dollars a year in dues and continuing education to maintain her license and access to the Multiple Listing Service. Additionally, I’ve watched her act as a general contractor, completely designing and overseeing remodeling projects — sometimes lasting weeks — just to help her clients get every dollar they can out of their home sale.

For this, she receives not one penny until the home is sold.

As a buyer’s agent, she drives people to dozens of homes at her own expense, writes countless carefully-constructed contracts, negotiates every detail in her client’s favor, and often walks the less-experienced agent on the other side of the deal through the process. She sometimes works with these clients for as long as a year before they find the right home. She works mornings, nights, and weekends — sometimes even while pregnant — and almost always takes calls unless she’s sleeping, at dinner, or in Mass. She works very, very hard.

And again, she does not get paid until a closing happens, no matter how long it takes or how much money she’s put in.

But she’s lost tens of thousands of dollars in fees over the years by working with Catholic clients who for various reasons say they can’t — or won’t — pay her for services rendered, often after they have already agreed to do so. Others will only enter into an agreement with her if she is willing to work for a fraction of her usual rate on the basis, ostensibly, of our shared faith. She is expected to understand why she is being asked to work for almost nothing. After all, we’re all in this together, aren’t we? We all know what it’s like to have not a lot of extra money and a lot of extra kids, right?

Yes. We do. Which is, not to put too fine a point on it, why it’s so important that we get paid for the work we do. I know very few people who show up at their office job week in and week out and are OK with not receiving a paycheck on time – or at all. Why should this be any different?

My wife has a big heart. I’ve seen her agree time and again — against her better judgment — to help out a Catholic family in need. We do know what it’s like for things to be financially difficult. We live it every day. But this almost always requires more work than usual, due not only to the challenges presented by the client’s financial constraints, but also because for some reason despite their insistence on paying pennies on the dollar, these same clients are often unreasonably demanding. At the end of these transactions, we not only earn less, but often, nothing at all. In some cases, these same clients have ignored the professional advice they’ve hired my wife to give them, have consequently gotten upset when they didn’t get the results they wanted, and then handed their business to someone else (who always promises to do it even cheaper) after she has already invested months of time, money, and effort.

Yes, there are agreements in place. Yes, they are legally enforceable. But why should that even be an option? Why should a Catholic business owner be forced to consider litigation against a Catholic client to receive fair pay for services rendered? Should not fairness and justice and virtue rule the day? Shouldn’t Catholics be, if we believe what we say we believe, a pleasure to do business with? Should we not always be able to trust each other to act in good faith, with honesty and integrity?

Curious if it was just our experience, I reached out to others. Each respondent said they had had similar experiences. None contradicted it. One put it succinctly:

When I was in the private sector, I made it a policy to avoid doing business with faithful Catholics. If they were my customer, they expected me to do everything for free; if I was their customer, they thought they could do half-ass work and I would not complain because we were both practicing Catholics. Ugh.

Do we really believe that our shared faith in Christ and His Church entitles us to handouts? To unearned charity? To being not frugal, but cheap? Should we not be the upstanding members of our own communities, practicing ethics in all of our business affairs, paying agreed-upon prices fairly, and ensuring, to the extent that we are able, that we pay our legitimate debts? Certainly, there are hard times that all of us fall upon. Certainly, there are real situations where charity is required, and where pro bono work is needed. But these situations should be clearly understood up front, and voluntarily entered into – not considered the status quo and simply expected.

While it is true that we have encountered Catholic clients over the years who are a joy to work with, and true examples of justice and fairness, it is unfortunately the case that they are in the minority. It is a shame when Catholics are less virtuous in their business dealings than those members of society who reject our Christian values, but nonetheless understand that a fair day’s work should be met with a fair day’s pay.

As Catholics, we should demand more of ourselves, and of our our brethren in Christ.

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