The following article was published in Crisis Magazine, on May 1, 2020. Thanks to Crisis Magazine for publishing my work!
Each year on May 1, the Catholic faithful celebrate the feast day of Saint Joseph the Worker. This feast day, instituted by Pope Pius XII in 1955, was meant to provide downtrodden laborers with a spiritual patron, as well as an alternative to the communist labor agitation that was prevalent at the time. The Catholic faith has a great heritage of honoring and celebrating labor and laborers. Because of that, this feast day offers us an opportunity, and a great responsibility, to build a robust and life-giving culture through laborers and their work. We must continue to take up that clarion call, even in the twenty-first century.
The feast of Saint Joseph the Worker was placed on May 1 specifically as an alternative to May Day, which was established in the 1880s by the International Workers of the World (IWW), a communist labor union. Their purpose was to provide laborers a break from the drudgery of their jobs, and to create space to advocate for fairer working conditions. There were many instances, however, of those rallies creating social strife and turning violent. The IWW agitated laborers with slogans like “Workingmen to Arms!” and “One pound of dynamite is better than a bushel of ballots!” For many years, fist fights, gun shots, and explosions pockmarked American cities each year in early May. These were radical, even deadly responses to contemporary labor conditions. They were not the responses that would lead to true and lasting peace or a healthy culture. Pius XII knew this and presented the example of Saint Joseph as a much better guide for bringing about what exploited laborers needed.
Since the late nineteenth century, the same communist labor unions also spread the “atrocious slander” that the Catholic faith stood “as an ally of capitalism against the laborers” (Pius XII’s address on May 1, 1955). That was the specific context for Pope Leo XIII to write Rerum Novarum (1891), the first great social encyclical. Rerum Novarum presents a distinct contrast to the modern, secular understanding of labor. The human person is more than merely a replaceable cog in an ever-growing, never-stopping machine. Rather, labor is part of the fulfillment of the potential inscribed in a person’s nature, and a person’s labor has great dignity and creative power. The Catholic faith upholds and even celebrates the rights of laborers. Pius XII echoed that understanding by instituting this feast day.