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Concerning just wages

John O'Callaghan | Monday, March 1, 2010

Just a few thoughts on the discussion of just wages and the working poor taking place in The Observer right now. There are those on the one side who emphasize that the Church has no specific teaching on just what the exact figure of a just wage should be, and even that Christ himself doesn’t talk about just wages — His teaching is completely otherworldly. There are those on the other side who seem to think that somehow the Church suddenly woke up in 1891 to talk of economic justice when Leo XIII wrote “Rerum Novarum,” having lived in darkness and ignorance before the industrial revolution. Sometimes it seems that serendipitously that’s when the Church finally started to agree with the author. But let’s just consider a few All Stars of the Catholic tradition.

For those who fixate on Christ not talking about just wages, will any of his disciples do? If not Jesus, might we consider his brother James, a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ? “Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord. You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure; you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.” And for those who think the Church was in the dark on all this until 1891, how about St. Basil, “The bread that you store up belongs to the hungry; the coat that lies in your chest belongs to the naked; the gold that you have hidden in the ground belongs to the poor.” St. Bernard says, “The poor cry ‘it is ours that you spend; what you stupidly spend is cruelly taken from us.'” Might St. Thomas Aquinas be relevant, the medieval figure Leo XIII held up for us as the exemplar then and now of Catholic wisdom? “Goods which some have in abundance are owed by natural right to the sustenance of the poor; the Lord commands not only that a tenth part, but all that is superfluous be given to the poor.” Even the bête noir of the Galileo affair, St. Robert Bellarmine wrote, “If one should wish to argue that what is superfluous need not be given to the poor in strict justice, he still cannot deny that it should be done out of charity. However, it matters little whether one goes to hell for lack of justice or from lack of charity.”

None of this settles whether a minimum wage ought to be nine bucks or 10, but it does establish a setting that ought to animate the thoughts of all people of good will talking about just wages and places the burden of proof upon those who would argue for the minimum, not more.

Perhaps the difficulty experienced by one and all in working together to address the issue of a just wage at Notre Dame for the working poor who clean our toilets, wash our halls and offices, cook our food and make our places of worship and study so beautiful, is that both antagonists argue in terms of what the minimum we must do is, like the rich young man of the Gospel who seemed to want to know the minimum he had to do to be good. Maybe we need to change the terms of the discussion and ask whether we are doing as much as we can, or whether in our desire for lower tuition and nicer dorms, or higher salaries and benefits for ourselves, we aren’t fattening ourselves up for the slaughter, denying the natural right of the poor and rushing headlong into Hell for want of justice or charity. Few of us will take the counsel of perfection that Christ gives the rich young man, to sell all that we have and give it to the poor in order to follow Him. I complain as much as anyone, perhaps more, that I’m not being paid enough; and I’m not. Then I laugh, and make it to confession if I can.

But perhaps you and I could do just a little bit more than the minimum, whatever it is. Whenever we do the minimum for the least of our brethren, we do the minimum for Him. So, whenever we think we have determined the minimum, let’s do more. With James, let’s give thanks for all good gifts around us sent from Heaven above; but let’s also ask whether there isn’t just a little bit of excess in those gifts that we could give to others in their wages, wages where justice and charity might meet and embrace. In that way perhaps we will give greater thanks for the working poor among us in whom we find the image of God absent in all these other gifts.

The rich young man went away and wept, for he had many fine things. Does Notre Dame weep for the poor? Our Lady does. But do we?


John O’Callaghan

associate professor

Department of Philosophy

Feb. 25