Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

A fair wage for fur trappers

Saturday, August 23, 2014

In 1996, when I was archbishop of Portland in Oregon, I read about the life and work of my first predecessor as archbishop there, Francis Norbert Blanchet. He was a French Canadian who came as a priest to the Pacific Northwest in 1836 and was named archbishop of the Oregon Territory in 1845. Only Baltimore, Md., was an archdiocese in this country at that time, and the Holy See decided there should be another archdiocese in the quickly developing western part of the newly expanded country. (Illinois had become a diocese, headquartered in Chicago, around the same time, in 1843.)

While Archbishop Blanchet was establishing a new archdiocese, he was also taking the measure of the conditions of life and work of his people. The Hudson Bay Company controlled the working conditions of the fur trappers who, with fishermen, created the economic basis for the area. Fur trappers were individualists in their work and their lives, and Archbishop Blanchet was instrumental in helping them come together in order to get better prices for their pelts from the Hudson Bay Company, which was the dominant economic force in the Oregon of that day.

The rights of workers to have a say in the economic development of society soon became embedded in Catholic social doctrine. The concern began with pastors who knew how their people lived and worked. Chicago’s Msgr. George Higgins was a prominent spokesman for this concern until his death a few years ago. The concern was developed in official teaching, especially in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. The concern is reflected once again in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Labor Day statement this year (see to read the full text).

Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, as chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, has released a document that criticizes an “economy of exclusion.” It seeks to draw attention especially to the millions of unemployed young adults in the United States. The beginnings of the slow recovery from recession have not yet altered the lives of many workers and their families.

A few statistics bear this out. In recent years, the average real income of the poorest one-fifth of American families has continued to decline, now reaching below the level it was when the War on Poverty was declared in 1968. The average income of working-class Americans has fallen 6.5 percent in the last 13 years. The decline of middle class incomes is similar, as are the incomes for women and for African-American and Hispanic households.

Catholic social doctrine contains no formula for economic success. The economy is in the hands of workers and business people, and the degree of government regulation that might be needed is a political issue that the voters themselves must decide. Catholic social teaching does insist, however, that a good society is one that offers opportunity for all who can work to do so and that offers a safety net sufficiently strong to sustain in dignity those unable to work. Security and stability for families remains the goal in the light of which every economic policy must be judged. This goal follows directly from the biblical revelation that each of us is made in God’s image and likeness and that we need one another to protect our neighbor’s dignity.

Dignity does not necessarily equate to great wealth, which brings its own obligations. Private property always carries a social mortgage. But the dignity, even of the poorest, does require all of us to create a society where the “wealth” of talent and ability carried by each human being has the chance to contribute to the common good of all. Human dignity continues to be undermined by unemployment and underemployment. That remains the great challenge on Labor Day 2014, as it was a challenge in the Oregon Territory in 1845.

May God bless each of you and your families as we honor again this year those who work. May we all continue to work together for a society more adequate to the dignity of all those whom God has made in his image and likeness.