Academic journal article Theological Studies

U.S. Catholic Social Thought, Gender, and Economic Livelihood

Academic journal article Theological Studies

U.S. Catholic Social Thought, Gender, and Economic Livelihood

Article excerpt

RECENT STUDIES OF LABOR in the United States from the late-19th through the early-20th centuries have shown that the living-wage agenda that flowered during this period did not have to do simply with remuneration for labor, but incorporated influential beliefs about the meanings of work, gender, family, and the social order. (1) Reverberating in the declaration of the workingman's right to a living wage was a complicated set of judgments about what constitutes a good life and how it is to be attained. Popularly understood as pay for honest work, performed in decent conditions, sufficient for a household head to support his homemaking wife and children, the notion of a living wage crystallized a vision of a "good living" adapted to the particular requirements of industrialized market economy. Resisting contemporaneous trends toward amoral economics, the 19th and 20th-century living-wage agenda retained a traditional, normative understanding of economy's purpose: to ensure access to a material livelihood for all its members. But the living-wage norm recast significantly both the meaning of economic livelihood and the means to it, by incorporating three key elements of modern market culture: its realignment of domestic and public economies, its altered paradigm of men's and women's economic roles, and, especially in the 20th century, its new, consumerist ideal of economic well-being centered on an ever-increasing standard of living.

From the late-19th through the mid-20th centuries, U.S. Catholics found considerable common ground between papal teaching, articulated in the social encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI, and movements for worker justice that focused on the right to a family living wage. What appeared to be a clear overlap between their religious and American loyalties helped propel U.S. scholars such as Msgr. John A. Ryan (1869-1945), Catholic leaders in the union movement, and large numbers of working-class Catholics toward energetic advocacy for wage justice. In truth, the convergence between Catholic economic teaching and the vision of economic livelihood nurtured by U.S. market culture was far from complete, a fact that became increasingly clear during the latter part of the 20th century. In the United States, the decades following 1945 witnessed a brief apogee and then swift decline of the older living-wage agenda, accompanied by severe challenges to the cultural ideology that had supported it. Today, amid a burgeoning global marketplace, renovated movements advocating a living wage are gaining momentum. (2) U.S. Catholics must again negotiate the commonalities and tensions between their ecclesial teaching and societal struggles for worker justice.

My article aims to contribute to that task by considering U.S. Catholic perspectives on the living wage at selected historical moments over the past century. Consonant with its original, 19th-century impetus, I examine the living-wage agenda in the context of its larger aim, to secure workers and their families a good living in modern market economies. Consonant with insights concerning ideology and power bequeathed by the later-20th century, I approach the question of worker justice attentive to the complex ways that social constructions of race, class, and sex intertwine with economic thought and practice. Our analytic lens will be focused especially on the subject of gender.

In both its secular and Catholic renderings, the traditional living-wage norm (that is, the living-wage agenda from its 19th-century origins through the mid-20th century) was suffused with gendered perceptions of economy and men's and women's roles within it. Economic and cultural dynamics in the later-20th century have placed major strains on both the living wage's goal of universal economic livelihood, and its gendered means of attaining it, through a division of labor grounded in notions of male-female complementarity. In the face of these currents, Roman Catholic teaching has been stalwart in its defense of economy's obligation to deliver livelihood for all its members. …

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