Our work and civic responsibilities are rooted in human dignity and the common good
The 34nd installment of Supreme Chaplain Bishop William E. Lori’s faith formation program addresses questions 503-520 & 531-533 of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The moral ground covered by the Seventh Commandment — "You shall not steal" — includes the right to private property, respect for creation, the Church's social doctrine, the dignity of human work, justice and solidarity among nations, participation in political life, and love for the poor (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 503). Closely related is the Tenth Commandment, which enjoins us from coveting the possessions and attainments of others (531-533). Taken together, these two commandments instruct us to be just and generous stewards of God's blessings. They also help us to see what it means to love our neighbor and to work with others in creating a just and well-ordered society.
We sense a right to own what we have justly acquired, especially those possessions for which we have worked and paid. But we also sense that the right to private property is not boundless (504). Recall the rich man in the Gospel who had no regard for Lazarus, a poor man who lacked basic necessities (Lk 16:19-31). In asserting the right to private ownership, the Church also asks us to be temperate in using the world's goods. Indeed, the right to own private property is an expression of human dignity. The purpose of this right is to meet the basic necessities of life, including one's own needs, the needs of those for whom one is responsible, such as family members, and the needs of others (505).
Respecting what belongs to others brings into play several virtues, notably justice and charity together with temperance and solidarity. Our dealings with others should be marked by a readiness to keep our word and to honor the terms of legitimate contracts we have entered. Abiding by the Seventh Commandment requires that we make amends for injustices we have committed and return what we have stolen. It also demands that we have genuine concern for the needs of others and a desire to use this world's goods in a careful, prudent way, out of respect for creation and out of concern for others (506).
The Compendium points out that there are many ways we can take what does not belong to us, such as paying unjust wages, undertaking risky or dishonest investments that put others at a disadvantage, participating in tax evasion or fraudulent business practices, performing shoddy labor, damaging public property, and creating waste (508). Only a moment's reflection tells us that such dishonest practices harm not only individuals, but also the common good of society. We only have to think of the role that greed and fear played in bringing about the current global recession.
Pope Benedict XVI often reminds us that the Church speaks to social and economic problems to defend human dignity and to guide citizens and their leaders in constructing a just society. Accordingly, the Church teaches that economic and financial systems must be conducted ethically and be at the service of the human person, not the other way around (511). The unbridled quest for profit in the marketplace and the untrammeled exercise of power by totalitarian governments both offend human dignity (512).
DIGNITY AND JUSTICE
It is the duty of the state to oversee social and economic systems in such a way that they respect the right and duty of human persons to secure and honest employment, open to all without unjust discrimination. As such, the state should foster economic growth and provide conditions under which workers are justly compensated (514-15). We are called to be diligent and competent in our daily work, by which we are cooperating with God, the creator of all things. Labor is a very important way of providing for our families and contributing to the common good of society. It is also a path toward holiness (513).
Respect for human work requires the cooperation of both management and labor. In legitimately seeking business opportunities and profits, managers must also compensate workers fairly and provide for decent working conditions. For their part, workers are to be conscientious and diligent in carrying out their tasks. To the extent possible, labor disputes should be resolved by good-faith negotiations on the part of management and those who represent workers. When such negotiations break down, a nonviolent strike that aims at just compensation and work conditions cannot be ruled out; such action, however, must not endanger the common good, including the health and safety of others (516-17).
These days, no economy or financial system stands alone — we are linked in a global economy. As a result, every nation, particularly those that are wealthy and powerful, is obliged to work for economic justice and a decent standard of living throughout the world (518). For this to come about, however, citizens must actively engage in civic affairs as witnesses to authentic Gospel values (519).
To be stewards of God's gifts after the mind and heart of Christ, we must embrace the Beatitudes. This means imitating Christ's own spirit of detachment from this world's goods, together with charity for the poor and needy (520, 532). Indeed, the great desire of our lives must be not for material gain but rather to live in God's presence (533). The principles of our Order — charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism — help us to be those good and loving stewards of God's gifts so that, at the end of our lives, we may hear the Master say to us, "Well done, good and faithful servant" (Mt 25:23).