by Fr. Fred Kammer, SJ
Why does the Catholic Church continue to support increases in the minimum wage? Because, as Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of the Diocese of Stockton told the U.S. Senate last month, “A just wage is a moral issue…” As Chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Blaire noted that, “Every time Congress or an Administration has suggested raising the minimum wage, the bishops have been supportive simply because it is consistent with our teaching and we see the effects firsthand in the families of our parishioners and our own communities.” 
To put it succinctly, raising the minimum wage is about dignity and it is about justice. It is clear from more than a century of Catholic teaching that work is at the heart of the social question, at the heart of human dignity. Bishop Blaire quoted Pope Francis:
Work, to use a metaphor, “anoints” us with dignity, fills us with dignity, makes us similar to God, who has worked and still works, who always acts; it gives one the ability to maintain oneself, one’s family, to contribute to the growth of one’s own nation.
Hence, as Bishop Blaire explained, wages are then much more than a mere product of economic bargaining. Rather, wages that do not allow workers to support themselves, their families, or the common good demean human dignity.
The current minimum wage today yields an annual salary of about $15,080—which is below the poverty level for any size family that includes even one child, the bishop observed. “When the minimum wage does not even permit a family to raise a child, it has failed to guarantee a worker ‘the opportunity to provide a dignified livelihood for himself and his family.’ This is unacceptable.” Bishop Blaire noted that in 2011 there were 10.4 million low-income working families, including 23.5 million children. “It is a scandal,” he added, “that the richest country in the world has allowed over 23 million children in working poor families to become the norm.”
Some will argue that the marketplace determines the level of wages and that the market should be allowed to function freely and without interference. Catholic teaching disagrees on two counts: the duty in justice of employers and the responsibilities in justice of government. The moral duties of employers, Bishop Blaire explained, is a vital piece of the conversation that often is ignored. The Catechism of the Catholic Church spells it out this way:
A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice. In determining fair pay both the needs and the contributions of each person must be taken into account. “Remuneration for work should guarantee man the opportunity to provide a dignified livelihood for himself and his family on the material, social, cultural, and spiritual level, taking into account the role and the productivity of each, the state of the business, and the common good.” Agreement between the parties is not sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages.
In addition to the moral duty of employers, government has a further responsibility for the common good which includes protection of human rights and the rights of workers.
Catholic teaching has always endorsed the potential benefits and freedoms of a market economy; but, as Bishop Blaire stressed, markets must be oriented “toward protecting human life and dignity, and advancing the common good.” Here is where government’s responsibility comes into play, as Pope John XXIII explained:
As for the State, its whole raison d'etre is the realization of the common good in the temporal order. It cannot, therefore, hold aloof from economic matters. On the contrary, it must do all in its power to promote the production of a sufficient supply of material goods, “the use of which is necessary for the practice of virtue.” It has also the duty to protect the rights of all its people, and particularly of its weaker members, the workers, women and children. It can never be right for the State to shirk its obligation of working actively for the betterment of the condition of the workingman.
Setting a minimum wage, the bishop concluded, is just one way in which government has acted historically to protect worker dignity, encourage family formation, and ensure the basic needs of children. Moreover, “Increasing the minimum wage to a level that reflects the real economic reality faced by families today would go far in building an economy worthy of the humans that operate it.”
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