By Bishop Edward J. Burns
“A Bishop’s Perspective” in the Juneau Empire – August 31, 2014

On a recent conference call with all the priests of the Diocese of Juneau, we were discussing the need to readjust the salaries of the priests depending on where in Southeast Alaska they are assigned due to the difference of food prices. The cost of food on Prince of Wales Island is different than here in Juneau. In order to provide what is proper, we have to look at people’s needs and offer what is right and just. In regards to those who work, this means providing a just wage.

We are in the midst of celebrating a long weekend as we commemorate Labor Day tomorrow. For many it marks the end of summer, the return to school and the start of football season. The holiday, established by the federal government in 1894, celebrates the ingenuity of our American workers and the contributions they have made to the strength and prosperity of our country over the years.

Here in Alaska, we have been blessed with a fairly strong economy, yet almost 10 percent of our brothers and sisters statewide live below the poverty line. This number of course is higher in some regions of the state and lower in others. Ultimately it means a family of four is living on less than $29,820 annually. Parents many times have to work countless hours a week to make ends meet. This leads to parents being absent from their children which then has other consequences.

Although our state minimum wage is slightly more than the federal minimum wage, a full-time minimum-wage worker can still live in poverty. Our Catholic social teaching asks us to be vigilant and support the common good. Work is more than just a job; it is a reflection on our human dignity and a way to contribute to the common good. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical titled Rerum Novarum (On Capitol and Labor). The teaching called for the right of all workers to receive wages sufficient to provide for their families. Subsequent popes have reaffirmed this teaching over the years. The Church must continue to be a strong voice for the poor.

Minimum wage earners are people who work, yet many times find it difficult to afford rent, food or leisure time. Many of these workers need two or three jobs to maintain their families. No one who works full time should be poor. Imagine working every day and still needing food stamps. Even with government assistance, too many families still seek help at community pantries and food banks. I believe that we should reflect on the minimum wage in order to assess if it is sufficient for our families.

Our Christian tradition sees the need for time away from work to build strong family relationships and enhance civic engagement, as well as time to pray and worship. Work should not consume all of our waking hours — denying us the enjoyment of God’s creation. We recall even God took time to rest (Gen 2:1-4). We need full time jobs to pay a wage so that every family can have time to play, pray and enjoy life.

Our Church has always supported a fair and just minimum wage. In the Catholic Catechism we find:

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. (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2434)

Pope Francis reminds us that “work is fundamental to the dignity of a person. Work, to use an image, ‘anoints’ us with dignity, fills us with dignity, makes us similar to God, who has worked and still works, who always acts…” The gospel we preach has social consequences. It urges us to act.

Within the Catholic tradition, we turn to St. Joseph as the patron saint of workers. He is referred to as St. Joseph the Worker. He taught Jesus the skill of carpentry. Jesus spent his time with fishermen. Jesus knew the fulfillment of one’s livelihood coming from the “sweat of the brow.” On this Labor Day weekend I seek St. Joseph’s intercession as I ask God’s blessing on all those who are unemployed as well as those who are overworked.

It is my hope that as a community we will favor policies and programs to help those families who work hard and yet find themselves frequently wanting.