The Church and the workplace


Cardinal Henry Edward ManningI was recently given a copy of The Dignity and Rights of Labour by Cardinal Henry Edward Manning. It contained a handwritten note:

Sixth Grade
First Place Christian Doctrine
Barry Fitzpatrick

Cardinal Manning (pictured) was a dominant figure in the 19th century English Church, partly because of his support for the poor and his commitment to social justice. His mediation of a successful conclusion to the famous London Dock Strike of 1889 demonstrated his practical touch.

The fact that his book was given to a grade six student reflected a time when the Catholic Church in Australia was a prominent advocate for social justice and, in particular, the rights of workers and their families. It was based on a deep conviction about the dignity and rights of labour.

Cardinal Manning also influenced the drafting of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum, promulgated on 15 May 1891. The Encyclical was the origin of modern Catholic social teaching, articulating clearly the importance of work and of workers' rights.

At the time the Australian colonies were debating key issues about the powers of the proposed Commonwealth. The Encylical influenced, and bolstered the arguments of, Henry Bourne Higgins, a leading proponent of federal power to settle industrial disputes by conciliation and arbitration. Higgins was the judge who later decided the Harvester Case that established the concept of the Living Wage.

The 120th anniversary of Rerum Novarum occurs the day before the hearing of final submissions in Fair Work Australia's Annual Wage Review 2011. It is timely to ask what its principles might mean in a century that could never have been imagined by Leo XIII and Cardinal Manning.

Poor and vulnerable workers are still with us, and in increasing numbers. Wage-setting has failed low income workers and their families. By any accepted measure of poverty, a family with children that is dependent on the National Minimum Wage (now $569.90 per week) is living in poverty. Family payments do not cover the poverty gap.

We also have an underclass of people who are not employed in any substantial work. Irregular casual and part time work is not a way out of poverty. Many are young, often with children, in dysfunctional domestic arrangements. They will never enter the mainstream of society through engagement in work which pays a decent wage and recognises their innate dignity.

The road, if any, to a decent life for the unemployed and workers who have a marginal connection with work will be complex and expensive. Neither side of politics shows any commitment to the task or to the resources necessary to support them in their transition to productive work.

Much is spoken about social inclusion, but little is done if it costs more than the expenses of policy advisors, bureaucrats and publicists. A pre-condition for social inclusion is a decent wage. That should be a major priority of any program concerned with social inclusion.

It is particularly worrying that marginal and vulnerable people are not considered relevant to the economic process or to the economic wellbeing of most Australians. Full employment is now seen as something above four per cent and a significant level of unemployment is seen as a means of macroeconomic management.

This level of institutionalised unemployment necessarily carries huge personal and social costs, which are exacerbated by the fact that entrenched and long term unemployed families are paid poverty benefits. The children are most unlikely to find their way out of poverty.

Catholics in Australia generally lack conviction that Catholic social teaching can add to the debate and provide direction. This is ignorance. Its relevance can be seen in the statement of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, which drew on Catholic social teaching, in opposition to parts of the then Work Choices legislation. The statement declared:

Workers are entitled to a wage that allows them to live a fulfilling life and to meet their family obligations. We are concerned that the legislation does not give sufficient emphasis to the objective of fairness in the setting of wages; the provision of a fair safety net by reference to the living standards generally prevailing in Australia; the needs of employees and their families; and the proper assessment of the impact of taxes and welfare support payments.

In our view, changes should be made to the proposed legislation to take into account these concerns.

The Bishops' statement was vindicated by subsequent events.

Despite the extensive welfare activities by many Catholic organisations, Catholics have made only a modest contribution to public debate about the economic foundations of family life. This is curious because the Australian institution that is most associated in the public mind with 'pro-family' policies is the Catholic Church.

A modern and effective campaign for policies that promote the economic foundations of family life and the dignity and rights of labour requires rigorous advocacy, drawing on aspects of social research, public finance (taxation and transfer payments), macroeconomics, microeconomics and industrial relations. Unfortunately, too little has been done.

The Church's perceived position has changed since Barry Fitzpatrick received Cardinal Manning's book. The social mobility of Catholics may explain some of this change. Many Catholics have lost touch with the realities of life for the poor and vulnerable. Catholics are also more politically diverse.

The Church's social teaching extends well beyond workplace relations and minimum wages. But if there is any basis for common ground among Catholics of diverse political affiliations (and Catholic politicians on both sides of Parliament), it must be on the fundamental principles and values articulated in Rerum Novarum.

If we there is no commitment on these issues from Catholics across the political spectrum, we are most unlikely to see a consensus and action in other areas.



Rerum Novarum still tests church and society 120 years later. Brian LawrenceBrian Lawrence is Chairman of the Australian Catholic Council for Employment Relations.

Topic tags: minimum wage review, workplace relations, work choices, Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, Rerum Novarum



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Existing comments

Rerum Novarum is a powerful stimulus in consideration of issues of justice in the workplace. Pay equality must surely stand towards the top of the list of such issues. However another important emerging issue is workplace bullying.

Over the past five years I have been part of an Australian research team investigating staff bullying in Australian schools ( disturbing finding from an online national survey of bullying in schools conducted in 2007 was that nine out of ten respondents indicated experiencing the following: Your mental or physical health has been affected by the behaviour towards you (88.7%). This result is true of all Australian schools whether Catholic, Independent or State.

So the 120th anniversary of Rerum Novarum might provide a timely reminder that there is still a lot of work to be done out there in vineyards which has now been replaced by the modern workplace.

John Edwards | 18 February 2011  

So Brian, as a key agency of the Church in Australia what is ACCER doing to further promote Catholic social teaching in the workplace? Your own website has not contained a communique of any description since June 2010.

What is ACCER doing to promote a sense of justice and fairness in workplace relations in Catholic organisations, particularly social welfare agencies which have a myriad of people involved in irregular part time and casual work. A work arrangement which in your own words "is not a way out of poverty."

What advice does ACCER have for a young woman sacked by a Catholic welfare agency in Brisbane last year one day short of her six month probabtionary period of employment for an indiscretion which would only have earned her a slap on the wrist a day or two later?

How about less bagging of the inaction on both sides of politics in this area and more decisive action from the Church. How about ACCER just does it - who knows more may follow!

Tom Cranitch | 18 February 2011  

Brian Lawrence points to the fact that Catholic social and political involvement in Australia has, with some exceptions, moved away from active concern for workers and their families over the last sixty years.

It is now history, but one important factor behind this change has been the clever use of fear of communism by the conservative political parties, winning election after election by ‘kicking the communist can’ – with the crucial support of Santamaria’s DLP.

It would have been paradoxical for the majority of Bishops who supported these tactics to have also argued – alongside 'leftist' trade unionists – for better pay and conditions for workers.

So we now see emphasis on euthanasia and sexual morality while greed, epitomized by the enormous wealth of a select few, is largely ignored by Church leaders - as well as the well-being of poorly-paid workers and their families.


Bob Corcoran | 18 February 2011  

If the topic had been say,The Church and Sex, The Church and Refugees, The Church and Aborigines, I bet there would have been a flood of comments.

It seems to me that the poor and vulnerable workers who are still with us are held responsible for their poverty and vulnerability. They are not high in the consciousness of those Catholics who seem more mesmerised by sexual morality and behaviour and the pitiful pictures of refugees and Aborigines that appear on our TV screens almost every night - pricking our consciences as we tuck into our delectable evening meal.
"poor and vulnerable workers" don't rate on the sensational (not sexy enough) or the sympathy scale.
"Political authority has the right and DUTY to regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownerhip for the sake of the common good".

When Barak Obama tried to do this he was called a socialist and became the object of one of the dirtiest political campaigns in recent US history. When the ALP tries it, it is labeled communist, even Stalinist.
John Paul II was a hero when he attacked Communism, he attracted hardly a mention when he attacked the excesses of Capitalism.

Uncle Pat | 18 February 2011  

Refreshing to see the 'underclass' in the spotlight. I am looking at my local newspaper which in its right column reports 'Drugs problems above average', and 'Mayor wants peace in Young Street' (the part of the Frankston shopping centre that has been colonised by drugs and violence), and on the left has a large advertisement for a private school showing well-groomed smiling youth and announcing 'Bright Future for Bright Students'. From my window I see a seemingly entrenched two-tiered society. But I also see ordinary ‘stable’ families, many of whom attend parish churches. Brian appeals to ordinary Catholics to believe again that we can make a difference to our world, which belief will find its way into bishops statements on important macro issues. Seems like small parish groups (eg on the Cardijn ‘see judge act’ model) might contribute to that process. And also make a difference in their local worlds. (On this last point Tony Vinson’s series of reports for Jesuit Social Services and Catholic Social Services find statistical evidence that indicators of ‘community’ relate directly and positively on indicators of ‘disadvantage’. Exposure to stable families, and educated employed neighbours, makes a difference to children and adolescents.)

David Moloney | 18 February 2011  

It is amazing how little known the social encyclicals are these days. The balanced approach and the respect for the dignity and self actualisation through work could provide a good model in a secular context. There is a moral argument for just wages which many market idolators miss. Great article Brian

Mark Perica | 18 February 2011  

Why censor the poor, rather than the rich?

Joyce | 18 February 2011  

This article was emailed to me by a friend who knows that my Masters in Public Health study (LaTrobe Public Health Palliative Care Unit)has concentrated on developing a model- "The Compassionate Workplace" for people with a life-threatening'terminal illness and carers including bereaved carers. Most of my work has been published internationally (peer-reviewed). In Australia, there is a very poor understanding about the impact of caring on work and financial independence (primarliy for women - the majority of whom are carers). For more details visit I've heard so many abuses, discriminatory behaviours,and misinformation both informally and as part of my research, that unless there are some ill people and carers on decision-making bodies there will never be an appropriate cultural and/or social policy change to manage what's ahead FOR US ALL. When 1 hour per week of casual labour is counted by Centrelink in their stats as 'employment' what hope is there for an authentic policy, regulatory & surveillance response to address the marginalisation of death, dying and bereavement as a 'normal part of life'. Employers are likely to have 3 times the number of carers in their employ as ill people; yet look at the emphasis of media on illness rather than carers' needs (e.g. footballers' foundations; Cancer Council etc). Our children and grandchildren need structures and systems that help them maintain & strengthen family and friends' relationships ... the majority of care is still undertaken at home by family, friends & neighbours. Who do you wish to cherish and care for you when you are dying? Mary Tehan MPH (LaTrobe); Grad Cert. Public Policy (Monash); Vice-chair Creative Ministries Network;member of Palliative Care Victoria/NALAG, VECCI, PHAA Health Promotion special interest group, and Compassionate Communities Network (Australia) & other international bodies.

Mary Tehan | 18 February 2011  

A thoughtful and valuable article. I was most interested to see the upward social mobility of Catholics given as a factor in a lessening of concern for Social Justice. One big factor contributing to the indifference of people these days is the dangerous primacy given in political rhetoric, particularly by spokesmen of the Liberal Party, but adopted as a result as a 'safe'and defensive political stance by Labor people, to the concept of 'value for taxpayers' - 'justifiable use of taxpayer dollars'.

This seems to be aimed particularly at upwardly mobile voters and it seems to encourage a narrow selfishness rather than the generous concern for the weakly placed in society that Catholic thinking on Social Justice proposes.

Joe Castley | 18 February 2011  

Dear Brian Lawrence, please forgive me for the entry
above which I accidentally typed into the space below your article. It was meant for Brian Matthews.

Joyce | 18 February 2011  

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