"The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Celebrating the Victory of Republic Windows and Doors

As Catholics, our hearts swell in solidarity with the triumph of the Republic Windows and Doors workers. Thus the pregnant principle of John Paul II has come to fulfillment: “…the principle of the substantial and real priority of labor, of the subjectivity of human labor and its effective participation in the whole production process...” Laborem Exercens, 13.

In this encyclical, the moral opposition between being and having is established as the guiding principle between labor and capital. Labor becomes the value of “being-in-solidarity”, while capital embodies the anti-value of “having more” as the absolute value of human life. As the Catechism puts it, “The principle of solidarity … is a direct demand of human and Christian brotherhood.”, Catechism, 1939. It is in this encyclical, which should be studied in parishes to help guide our understanding and action as we are engulfed by economic crisis, that the priority of labor is definitively established.

The Christian principle of the priority of the human over the demands of capital can only be fulfilled by socializing the means of production, “We can speak of socializing only when the subject character of society is ensured, that is to say, when on the basis of his work each person is fully entitled to consider himself a part-owner of the great workbench at which he is working with everyone else. A way towards that goal could be found by associating labour with the ownership of capital, as far as possible, and by producing a wide range of intermediate bodies with economic, social and cultural purposes; they would be bodies enjoying real autonomy with regard to the public powers, pursuing their specific aims in honest collaboration with each other and in subordination to the demands of the common good, and they would be living communities both in form and in substance, in the sense that the members of each body would be looked upon and treated as persons and encouraged to take an active part in the life of the body.” Laborem Exercens, 14.

Each worker receives his Christian dignity at the great workbench of the kingdom of God where his place is assured because the human always takes priority over the “efficiency” of capital and the anti-value of endless accumulation. Capital represents the priority of having over the being embodied in labor. In the Pope’s vision, capital receives moral value only when it is held for the benefit of labor, thus establishing right relation in the hierarchy of values. The sole title that capital has to the possession of the means of production is for the service of labor, not the other way around, which is condemned by the priority of the person over the object.

St. Thomas Aquinas, quoted by John Paul II in this encyclical, illustrates the necessary distinctions in Summa Theologica II-II, q. 65, art. 2. Here he describes the relation between the practical value of possession and the social value of using property, which should be guided by the universal destination of goods. First, he brings out the fundamental principle of natural law that must guide Christians, “Objection 1. It would seem unlawful for a man to possess a thing as his own. For whatever is contrary to the natural law is unlawful. Now according to the natural law all things are common property: and the possession of property is contrary to this community of goods. Therefore it is unlawful for any man to appropriate any external thing to himself.” Though utterly forgotten by most modern Catholics, the principle he is referring to still stands at the forefront of Catholic teaching on the seventh commandment – the universal destination of goods, the idea that the goods of this earth are the property of all humanity in common, the truth lived openly in the Acts of the Apostles.

Next, he describes why property is necessary, “Two things are competent to man in respect of exterior things. One is the power to procure and dispense them, and in this regard it is lawful for man to possess property. Moreover this is necessary to human life for three reasons. First because every man is more careful to procure what is for himself alone than that which is common to many or to all: since each one would shirk the labor and leave to another that which concerns the community, as happens where there is a great number of servants. Secondly, because human affairs are conducted in more orderly fashion if each man is charged with taking care of some particular thing himself, whereas there would be confusion if everyone had to look after any one thing indeterminately. Thirdly, because a more peaceful state is ensured to man if each one is contented with his own. Hence it is to be observed that quarrels arise more frequently where there is no division of the things possessed. The second thing that is competent to man with regard to external things is their use. On this respect man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need. Hence the Apostle says (1 Timothy 6:17-18): "Charge the rich of this world . . . to give easily, to communicate to others," etc.” St. Thomas Aquinas, II-II, q. 65, a.2.

In the first part, St. Thomas is arguing for the need to institutionalize property, not establishing private property as an absolute value, as much so-called Catholic social teaching strives to propose. A careful reading demonstrates that St. Thomas is presenting the pragmatic value of a system of allocating property, not establishing the priority of private property. Clearly, Christian tradition has long established the universal destination of goods as the guiding principle for all decisions regarding economics. Note carefully the values which he promotes in this passage. First of all, care for the things of this world. We are more careful when we have responsibility for a particular object of value to the community than if the care is assigned to no one in particular. When no one is given charge over an item, that item is treated as of little value. Efficiency in the use of material things is next emphasized. These material values can be more efficiently protected if each one has his or her assigned tasks. The final value is the peace of the community. An effective division in the allocation of duties toward the material objects of community ownership leads to less struggle over possession. Thus, a system of property attains moral validity by mitigating greed and promoting the caring use of the natural world.

The basic attitude that St. Thomas advocates is care, evoked beautifully by Leonardo Boff in his recent book, Essential Care, An Ethics of Human Nature, “Through care, the relation is not subject-object, but subject-subject. We experience entities as subjects, as values, as symbols that bear a relationship to a foundational Reality… To take care of things implies having intimacy, feeling these things inside, welcoming and sheltering them, and giving these things rest and peace. To take care is to enter into synchronicity with them; it is to listen to their rhythm and to tune oneself into this rhythm. Analytic-instrumental reasoning gives way to cordial reasoning, to the esprit de finesse, the spirit of kindness.” Leonardo Boff, Essential Care, An Ethics of Human Nature, p. 63.

These are truly the values of labor, of workmanship, of creation, in opposition to the impersonal dominating, having mentality of the capitalist. After St. Thomas discusses the value of possession, he states that “The second thing that is competent to man with regard to external things is their use. On this respect man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need. Hence the Apostle says (1 Timothy 6:17-18): ‘Charge the rich of this world . . . to give easily, to communicate to others,’ etc.” In other words things must be used in such a way as to communicate with others in their need. While we possess, or more correctly, are allowed by the community to care for a specific set of the things of this world, that possession is only justified by service to common needs. Notice how clear St. Thomas is regarding what takes priority. While property is justified on pragmatic grounds, the use of material goods is always subject to the universal destination of goods. A system of property can only be justified if it can guarantee to all their right to the use of the goods of the earth.

The workers at Republic Windows and Doors have lived this principle by standing up for human dignity, asserting the rights of human beings, of workers, over the rights of capital. While taxpayers were forced to give Bank of America 25 billion that could have been used for desperately needed health care, the bank tried to withhold from the workers the money owed them by the company until they were forced into it by direct action and publicity. The dignity of the worker and the primacy of being over having is a glorious present to celebrate this Christmas.

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