Addressing the economic issues of our time

During my walk to work this past Tuesday I was reflecting on what I was going to write about for this week’s Bishop’s Perspective column. As I was going through the mail that same day I came upon a letter from a person in the Juneau area who wrote, “Bishop Burns: I have read your articles in the Juneau Empire and admire your willingness to write articles that you know will be appreciated and respected by many, but also criticized and attacked by others...” In the letter, the writer was very gracious and asked if I would consider a column on the economic issues of our day in light of two great papal encyclicals, Rerum Novarum and Quadrigesimo Anno.


The letter and the request came at a perfect time. Just recently I was in Atlanta with all the bishops of the United States (June 12-15, 2012) discussing some very important issues impacting life within our Church and life in our Country. In addition to our agenda being intense – addressing our “Fortnight For Freedom” and the issues of religious liberties, the promotion of the sanctity of marriage, the 10th anniversary of our Dallas charter establishing a safe environment for children, addressing the concerns of the Church in Iraq, and other important issues – Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, California, chair of the bishops’ committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, made a motion before the body of bishops to approve a proposal to draft a special message from the Bishops’ Conference entitled, Catholic Reflections on Work, Poverty and a Broken Economy.

The two encyclicals that the Juneau Empire reader referred to, Rerum Novarum (issued by Pope Leo XIII on May 15, 1891, the title is Latin for “On the New Things”) and Quadrigesimo Anno (issued by Pope Pius XI on May 15, 1931 – the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum – hence, the title is Latin for “In the Fortieth Year”) deal with the condition of workers as well as the moral and ethical concerns regarding the economy. While the Church has always been concerned about social matters, these teachings focused on the issues arising from the industrial revolution and the need to apply the principles of human dignity to the topic of workers and the impact of industry upon society.

In a Rerum Novarum, the Church speaks of the new path that is necessary for society to take in light of the serious problems surfacing due to inhumane conditions within the labor force as a result of growing industrial opportunities. The church’s teaching on work involves “… the right to property, the principle of collaboration instead of class struggle as the fundamental means for social change, the rights of the weak, the dignity of the poor and the obligations of the rich, the perfecting of justice and charity, and the right to form professional associations.”

In Quadrigesimo Anno, Pope Pius XI spoke specifically about the social order and how society needed to reflect upon the moral and ethical treatment of capital and labor. This document addresses the topic of a just wage and how it relates to a person’s needs in view of the various elements of society’s economic condition. Quadrigesimo Anno speaks of the call for solidarity between the employer and employees. In this document and from a global perspective, the church speaks about the social order with the view of promoting the common good.

One of the seven themes of Catholic social teaching is entitled, “The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers.” A brief description of this teaching is, “The economy must serve people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected — the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative.”

When Bishop Blaire requested the drafting of a new document on work and the economy — the bishops of the country agreed. This new document will attend to the moral and human dimensions of economic life in light of our Catholic tradition and address the concern of people hurt by the economy, especially those who are unemployed. Catholic Reflections on Work, Poverty and a Broken Economy will include the insights of two more recent encyclicals by Pope Benedict XVI — Deus Caritas Est (2005) and Caritas in Veritate (2009).

In the letter I received on Tuesday, the individual said, “Thank you for reading this. There is no need to reply. It is just a suggestion…” Well, with this column I want to express my appreciation for your writing and I am grateful for your suggestion.

• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.


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