[Editor’s Note: Recently the Italian newspaper Toscana Oggi received the following letter from a reader:
“Excuse the outburst, but I’m a grandmother and I see my grandchildren doing everything they can to find work, but what’s offered involves inhuman conditions: no security, they have to work every day including Sunday, and the hours and salaries make it difficult to think about creating a family. What does the Church say about this? Among the many declarations of the pope and the bishops on so many topics, couldn’t they emphasize a little more the necessity of giving young people a better future?”
The newspaper asked Father Leonardo Salutati, who had a professional background in banking before he entered the priesthood, and who today teaches social pastoral thought at the Theology Faculty of Central Italy, to respond. The following Crux translation appears courtesy of Toscana Oggi.]
Beginning with the encyclical Rerum Novarum, whose 125th anniversary falls on May 15, the Church has offered society countless teachings and suggestions about work, expressly recalling the rights and duties of people, and many times taking up the defense of workers who are unjustly exploited or not adequately put at the heart of the economy.
In particular, St. John Paul II in 1981, on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, dedicated an entire encyclical to the theme of work, Laborem exercens. That document denounced the condition of the human person immersed in the questions and social conflicts of the time, connected above all to the problem of work, which, unfortunately, continues to be present today, although in different ways.
Tracing an opposition between the working class and employers which, beginning in the epoch of early industrialization, has become ever more pronounced, the pope said this opposition is not found in the nature of things.
Recalling the “principle always taught by the Church … of the priority of ‘labor’ over ‘capital,’ which directly regards the process of production,” the pope termed that principle “an evident truth that results from the entire historical experience of man,” and said that workers and employers must “be associated in new forms of participation and shared interests,” serving the good of all and of everyone.
That result can be achieved with the constant commitment for a wise economic organization, respectful of the dignity and the liberty of the human person.
That’s an undoubtedly lofty objective, complex and difficult, for which the pope recalled to all the parties involved the necessity of referring to the Easter mystery of Christ, crucified and risen, in order to draw the inspiration and strength necessary to realize it. (LE 27)
John Paul II further specified his thinking, developing the idea of “indirect employers” who have the obligation to form an adequate economic system.
With the expression “indirect employers,” he meant “both persons and institutions of various types, and also collective contracts for work and principles of behavior established by these persons and institutions, which determine the entire social-economic system,” and which condition “the behavior of direct employers, who concretely determine the contract and the work relationship.” (LE 17)
To these “indirect employers,” the pope attributed the moral responsibility of “fighting unemployment, which in every case is an evil … and a true social calamity.”
“It becomes an especially painful problem,” the pope wrote, “when the young, after preparing themselves with an appropriate cultural, technical and professional formation, can’t find a job and see their sincere will to work frustrated, as well as their willingness to take up their responsibility for the economic and social development of the community.” (LE 18)
These are words and concepts that have been taken up many times, and on many occasions, by his successors, but also by many other Christians and men and women of good will, engaged at various levels in the realization of an equal society for all.
The current pontiff, Pope Francis, several times has confirmed that, “Work is not a gift kindly conceded to a recommended few: It’s a right of all … and in particular, the young must be able to cultivate the promise of their efforts and their enthusiasm, so that the investment of their energies and their resources will not be useless.” (Dec. 2015)
Aware of the complexity of the questions, Pope Francis has invited everyone to pray that the Lord will illuminate those in charge, assuring young people of his prayers because the young “are … our flesh, our flesh of Christ,” redeemed by Christ with his sacrifice and his blood.
The Church thus has said, and keeps on saying, a great deal about work and its dignity, and takes upon itself the worries, the dreams and the hopes of the young who, along with the question of work, are always at the center of its attention.