The worker’s magna carta
LABOUR AND JUSTICE:
The worker in Catholic social teaching
by Gavan Duffy
With introduction by George Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney
(Gracewing / Freedom Publishing)
Paperback: 300 pages
Rec. price: AUD$45.00
Queensland author, Gavan Duffy, focuses upon one of the overarching commercial interactions in history: between buyers and sellers of labour – that is, between employers (long known as masters) and employees or workers.
But he also assesses the roles of slavery and serfdom and their far from inevitable demise. It is all too easily forgotten that slavery prevailed for most of European history, and even longer in non-European societies.
Duffy’s is thus a very long story, one that focuses upon the place of the worker in Biblical and ancient times, through the medieval era and into modern times. He concludes with an assessment of today’s globalising economic order – ever-expanding free and peaceful exchange of goods and services worldwide – and its predecessor, Europe’s industrialising era.
No Australian university-based historian of labour – so many of whom simply mouth 19th century procrustean clichés – has embarked on such a foray. As a result, Duffy’s Labour and Justice: The Worker in Catholic Social Teaching, stands out as a pioneering study.
Yahweh, the Hebrews’ God, says Duffy “is a worker”, one who fashions “the world with his own hands like a potter”.
Citing Genesis 2:7, he says: “He takes the dust of the earth and forms a figure out of it, and then breathes the breath of life into it and it becomes a living being.”
Duffy stresses that the Old Testament’s concept of Yahweh “as a worker contrasts with the pagans’ notion of their gods”.
He further highlights examples of similar attention in the Psalms and other sacred texts which ennoble labour and call for respect of both work and those engaged in it.
“You are not to exploit the hired servant who is poor and destitute, whether he is one of your brothers or a stranger who lives in your town. You must pay his wage each day…” (Deuteronomy 24:14, 15).
Similar early beseeching existed for justice, and Duffy provides examples of exhortations on behalf of the worker in the Gospels and Epistles.
He presents evidence of the beginnings of a changing attitude to slavery as Christendom permeated the pagan Roman Empire; but “this change of attitude did not express itself in opposition to the institution of slavery as such but rather involved… a change in attitude towards the person of the slave”.
Slavery not only prevailed in Imperial Rome before, during and after Christ’s lifetime on Earth, but, as African-American economist and scholar Thomas Sowell stresses, it existed contemporaneously across Africa, the Middle East, South, East and South-East Asia until at least late in the 19th century, a considerable time after Christian Europe discarded it.
Slavery was universal to the human race, but only Christendom, even if belatedly, discarded it, until it re-emerged last century, thanks to the twin totalitarian ideologies of Communism and Nazism, in the Soviet slave-labour camps (the Gulag) and the Hitlerite concentration camps.
In medieval times, Church councils, assemblies, conclaves and monasteries played important liberating roles. Duffy cites one estimate that, by the end of the 13th century, many thousands of Benedictine houses existed in Europe.
“Gradually the condition of the slaves, particularly those on the ecclesiastical estates, improved as the principles of Christianity were brought to bear on the institution of slavery and work in general,” Duffy writes.
“Enactments were constantly being made in the interests of slaves, providing for the protection of maltreated slaves and for the help and patronage of those who were liberated.
“Such provisions included the securing of the validity of slave-managers, compelling rest on Sundays and feast days, forbidding or limiting the traffic of slaves, and forbidding that freemen should be reduced to slavery.”
Yet, half a millennium on, Europeans re-emerged as slave-owners and traders, acquiring their human booty from African suppliers, via Islamic traders, for the slave-driven economies of Brazil, the Caribbean, Central America and the southern states of the United States.
But, even here, slavery was ended due to the protracted efforts of religiously-inspired individuals in Europe and the United States.
Sowell confirms Duffy’s assessment. He says: “We may wonder why it took 18 centuries after the Sermon on the Mount for Christianity to develop an anti-slavery movement, but a more profound question is why not even the leading moralists in other civilisations rejected slavery at all.” (Sowell, Black Rednecks and White Liberals. p.116).
Canadian historian Martin Klein writes: “There is no evidence that slavery ever came under serious attack in any other part of the world before the 18th century” (Klein, Breaking the Chains: Slavery, Bondage, and Emancipation in Modern Africa and Asia. p.14).
These unprecedented late 18th century moves began with the Quakers who saw enslavement as “morally intolerable”, after which that energetic conservative Anglican, William Wilberforce, took up this truly revolutionary cause in Parliament.
His legislative victory against this human trade led to Britain’s Royal Navy playing a pre-eminent role in combating slavery worldwide, a fight waged especially against Islamic traders and autocrats, primarily though not solely off the coast of Africa.
Duffy’s treatment of the modern phase, 1500 to the present – what economic historians refer to as Europe’s “preconditions to take-off” and its industrialising era – offers an equally original perspective.
It is here that one encounters that long over-used word by totalitarian leftists – proletariat.
Duffy sets the scene for this in his chapter, “The Rise of the Proletariat”, thus: “Hilaire Belloc argued that just as the institution of slavery and the old pagan servile state slowly approached a distributive [broad property and asset-owning] state under the influence of the Catholic Church and slowly disappeared as Catholic civilisation developed, so it was that the servile state began to return where Catholic civilisation receded.”
We therefore encounter an array of Christian perspectives and assessments of what some now approvingly call modernity.
For instance, we learn of Irish-American Cardinal James Gibbons’s perspective of developments following the decline in England of medieval guilds and the peasantry. Around 1500AD, most Englishmen owned their own homes, but by 1600 “only between two-thirds and three-quarters were still in possession of their land”, and, by 1700, about only half “had the economic buttress of a home behind them”.
Modernity had inherent destructive, undesirable features which came under ongoing review and assessment by many Church councils.
Limited minds, like those of Karl Marx and his disciples, instead of seeking improvements, actually welcomed the worsening condition of the dispossessed workers. Why? Because the worse off they became, the more they would be inclined to hasten a violent revolution against their oppressors and usher in an earthly paradise.
In contrast, the Church’s many fathers and teachers sought implementation of ameliorating measures and programs to reverse resultant distress.
Duffy highlights the works of many – today largely overlooked – social action-minded churchmen, including: Bishop Denis-Auguste Affre (1793-1848) of Paris; Bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler (1811-77) of Mainz; Cardinal Henry Edward Manning (1808-92), former member of the Anglican Oxford Movement (the Tractarians) that stressed ecclesiastical continuity with the early Church; and Cardinal James Gibbons (1824-1921) of the United States, to name but four.
When was the last time any Australian undergraduate or postgraduate had these figures and their endeavours drawn to their attention?
Duffy writes: “Bishop Affre addressed the situation by looking not only at the suffering of the workers but also at the situation which produced it.
“He asked a very pertinent question. Was it always to be that the integral laws of the economic system demanded the constant diminution of the worker, or could in fact certain virtues check this development?”
Bishop von Ketteler saw, well ahead of all others, the bloody threat of revolutionary socialism – an ideology which, in the 20th century, was responsible for mass murder and genocide.
Cardinal Manning championed the cause of the underpaid London dockworkers and was instrumental in settling the London Dock Strike of 1889.
Cardinal Gibbon, in 1888, travelled to Rome to urge Pope Leo XIII to back America’s first trade union, the Knights of Labor, which strongly opposed child and convict labour. This was the predecessor of the American Federation of Labor (now the AFL-CIO), originally founded and led by Samuel Gompers.
Duffy continues: “In 1888, Cardinals Manning and Gibbons had intervened jointly with the Vatican to prevent the placing on the Index of Henry George’s work Progress and Poverty.
“Henry George had stood as a candidate for the mayoralty of New York City, and in the course of his campaign had urged the imposition of a capital gains tax on increases in the value of property as a means of addressing the social problems of the US – a suggestion which roused the ire of the capitalist classes both in the US and Europe.”
Gibbon also “urged the Pope [Leo XIII] to issue an encyclical on the rights and duties of both labour and capital.”
The outcome was the great encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) that addressed the condition of the working classes and spelled out the “rights and duties of capital and labour”. It offered a constructive and humane alternative to revolutionary Marxism. It supported the rights of workers to form unions, rejected both communism and unrestricted capitalism, and affirmed the right to own private property.
This would provide the intellectual basis for social activism by lay Catholics. In Australia, it inspired the emergence of the Campion Society in Melbourne and its famous offshoot, the National Civic Council.
Duffy shows that Rerum Novarum and later encyclicals, despite being so often ignored in the public realm, continue to have influence to this day with no sign of abating.