Opportunities for meaningful work that enables us to support ourselves and our families are necessary in order to actualize the dignity that is at the core of who we are. These opportunities are very few, of course, given the unemployment crisis and the apparent lack of willingness among political decision-makers to address the problem in any comprehensive way.
We are facing therefore not simply an economic crisis, but a spiritual one, too. As Pope Benedict XVI reminds us in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, unemployment “undermines the freedom and creativity of the person and his family and social relationships, causing great psychological and spiritual suffering” (Section 25). The crisis we face is not simply one of political and economic abstractions; it affects us personally and spiritually in a radical way. Many of our sisters and brothers feel alone and overcome with apprehensiveness about the future; many feel as though they have personally failed in some way. This kind of unwarranted self-reproach is perhaps the most spiritually detrimental aspect of the problem. The crisis we now endure is a function not of individual failure, but that of political and financial institutions.
How then shall we respond to this crisis, which affects so deeply us — our friends and neighbors, our communities, and our country? How shall we lend expression to the good news of God’s prior option for those marginalized by unemployment?
Communities of faith respond
The problem must be addressed at every level. We can begin very simply and very powerfully with fellowship: we have an opportunity to build communities of mutual support that will let unemployed workers know that they are not alone. Parishes — and congregations and synagogues and mosques — can serve as gathering spaces for unemployed members of the community to meet and share their stories and express support for one another. Interfaith Worker Justice has initiated a program called Faith Advocates for Jobs, which seeks to foster the creation of just these kinds of groups in faith communities across the country. They serve as a forum for everything from spiritual and emotional support to networking and even job training and education. Members assist one another with applications for unemployment compensation and other state and federal programs; they can educate one another about opportunities for occupational training and personal counseling.
These groups also serve as a space for education about the rights of working people — whether they are presently employed or not — and how they might go about engaging politicians, civic and business leaders to develop initiatives that can help alleviate the crisis. This kind of activity is empowering. It helps to recall our humanity and our sense of self-determination and personhood. It is the power of community, of people committed to one another’s dignity and well-being.
And such communities are politically influential. There has been discussion recently about the possibility of a great gathering of unemployed workers to take place in Washington, D.C., — a national march in our nation’s capital that will impress on our national leadership the desperate urgency of the crisis and demand that they immediately take effective steps to create jobs. Faith communities could help mobilize such a gathering.
The great tradition of Catholic Social Teaching has consistently maintained that the dignity of work and working people must be a touchstone for measuring the usefulness of social and economic policy. During his recent trip to Madrid, Spain, to celebrate World Youth Day, Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that the proper role of political organization and economy is one that serves to promote and secure the common good. Matters of economic policy, in other words, are not morally neutral. Rather, these policies serve as vehicles for our moral commitments, and they are sure reflections of our level of commitment to those among our sisters and brothers who suffer the most. A prior concern for the most vulnerable members of our communities must serve as the basis for political policy and economic activity. The present crisis demonstrates all too clearly that we have neglected this obligation. It is incumbent on each of us as people of faith and good conscience to communicate to our leadership that we all have a moral responsibility to act swiftly and effectively to help alleviate the suffering that this neglect has caused.
As we gather with our families and friends and neighbors on Labor Day, let us remember those among us who are frightened and struggling to find work. Let us remind them that they remain dignified human persons in whom God’s sacred signature is written. And let us all bear together in faith and hope and love as we endeavor toward a future where everyone has the opportunity to work.