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Sherrod Brown's Call for the Dignity of Work: A Catholic Principle of Governance

US Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), considering a 2020 presidential bid, launched a “Dignity of Work” tour, visiting early voting states to test what would have been the defining content of his campaign. After announcing he would not run, he challenged Democratic presidential candidates to adopt his dignity of work message. Brown, a progressive, “unapologetic and outspoken champion” of workers, insisted that his message was not a mere slogan, but a governing philosophy. Brown’s call is an attempt to revitalize a flank of the Democratic Party that believes working Americans should be the center of the political debate: “Protecting workers’ rights isn’t a battle that’s behind us—not by a long shot. We have to change that, because if you love this country, you fight like hell for the people who make it work. And I mean all the workers—whether he punches a clock or she works in a diner. Whether they work behind a desk or on a factory floor or in an operating room.”[1] Brown says he was inspired by figures like Dr. Martin Luther King and Pope Francis.[2] Dignity of work is not simply a message about workplace issues, it is much more. It is the foundation of Catholic social philosophy. Dignity of work is a faith-based alternative to a moralless capitalism that too often competes in the deprivation of workers, their families, and their communities. Through the critical lens of Catholic Social Teaching, the primacy of the maximization of shareholder value has deprived workers of their dignity, the value of their labor, their right to form unions, their right to decision-making in the economy, and accordingly, their God-given right to full participation in building a more humane, equitable, and just society. When Sherrod Brown says Democrats should make dignity of work their governing principle, he is invoking a core Catholic principle for the economic reformation of American society. In 1986, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops identified the need for a critical reevaluation of the U.S. economy. Their decades old proposal is prescient today. They called for the creation of “a new American experiment,” a continuation of the experiment our founders began—a “new form of political democracy, […] a new venture to secure economic justice for all (p. 22).”[3] In the American Bishops’ Economic Justice For All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy, they outlined their teaching on economic justice: “Every economic decision and institution must be judged in light of whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person. The pastoral letter begins and ends with the human person. We believe the person is sacred—the clearest reflection of God among us. Human dignity comes from God, not from nationality, race, sex, economic status, or any human accomplishment. We judge any economic system by what it does for and to people and by how it permits all to participate in it. The economy should serve people, not the other way around (p. viii).” Starting in 1891 with Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labor)[4], the church addresses the social and economic challenges of rapid industrialization, the concentration of wealth, and the redistribution of resources. These teachings on the “social question” of the time are also a critical and corrective commentary on the excesses of 19th and 20th century communism and capitalism alike—both the failure of markets and authoritarian governments to preserve the dignity of the human person, the dignity of work, and the common good of society. Workers are at the center of Christian faith. Every worker is a fully formed human being before God. All workers are irreducibly worthy to participate in economic decision-making that shapes their lives whether, as Sherrod Brown describes, “he punches a clock or she works in a diner. Whether they work behind a desk or on a factor floor or in an operating room.” Continuing the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, in 1991, Saint Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the dignity of work as a cornerstone of Catholic Social Teaching. In Centesimus Annus (On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum), he stated that the purpose of dignity of work is the “progress towards the building up of an authentic human community (par. 13).”[5] Pope Francis’ 21st century social encyclical, Envangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) [6], combines two foundational concepts—the dignity of the human person and the dignity of work—and announces the creation of a contemporary commandment: “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills (par. 53).” He makes explicit the social sin of the exclusion, exploitation, and oppression of workers; and he reaffirms the principle of the priority of labor over capital by explaining how all people of good will ought to proceed: (1) No to an economy of exclusion; (2) No to the new idolatry of money; (3) No to a financial system that rules rather than servers; and (4) No to the inequality which spawns violence (par. 52 – 60). When Sherrod Brown calls for governance based on the dignity of work, he is calling for a future-oriented politics of an “economy of inclusion”—an economy where every worker’s dignity is respected as vital to the common good of society. Dignity of work sees everyone performing a socially useful function—from sanitation worker to teacher, from doctor to construction laborer—all workers are equally worthy through their contribution to American life. They deserve not only a living wage, but a thriving wage that provides the ability to “build up an authentic human community.”

[1] https://www.sherrodbrown.com/blog/2018/there-is-dignity-in-work/

[2] https://www.newyorker.com/news/the-political-scene/sherrod-brown-wants-to-bring-a-working-class-ethosback-to-the-democratic-party

[3] http://www.usccb.org/upload/economic_justice_for_all.pdf

[4] http://w2.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum.html

[5] http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_01051991_centesimus-annus.html

[6] http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html

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