Why do Americans Celebrate Labor Day in September and Not May?

This post is part of a series on personhood.

When I first found out that Americans celebrated Labor in September while most of the rest of the world celebrated International Workers’ Day on May 1, I wondered: this just another case of the U.S. try to be different, even exceptional?

The simple answer is that the U.S. chooses not to celebrate Labor Day on May 1 because that is considered a socialist holiday, associated with strikes, rebellion, and in some minds, even Marxist revolution. That is not to say that people who celebrate labor in May are Marxist socialists and Americans who celebrate labor in September are not. Having spent many Mays and Septembers in different countries, the character of how labor is celebrated (at least now) seems remarkably similar–it’s another day off, a secular holiday, a time for vacation with family and friends. Here on BW&G, Amy Reynolds has written about the need to celebrate work and protect workers’ rights here in the US.

ref=dp_image_0.jpgI now understand that celebrating labor on different days is part of a long-standing debate about the meaning of human work and the rights of workers. As part of my renewed interest in the philosophy of personalism, which I have written about here at BW&G, I recently picked up a copy of a book written by Samuel Gregg, Director of Research for the Acton Institute, entitled Challenging the Modern World: Karol Wojytla/John Paul II and the Development of Catholic Social Teaching. When I picked up Gregg’s book, I was relieved to find that he condenses and synthesizes philosophy, anthropology and history into a very readable analysis of how Karol Wojytla and personalism have influenced the development of Catholic social doctrine.

Perhaps because I read the introduction to Gregg’s book on Labor Day 2012, Gregg’s argument that Wojytla’s personalist philosophy led him to draft the 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work) really caught my attention. Another Patheos writer, Kathy Schiffer, also dedicated her Labor Day post to reflecting on how the first social encyclical, Pope Leo XII’s Rerum Novarum (published in 1891), still holds important lessons for the U.S. today.

When people think of Catholic social teaching the first thing that comes to their mind may be the call to charity or solidarity with the poor, as exemplified by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. However, Gregg contends that for Wojytla/John Paul II, a proper understanding of human work is central to all Catholic social teaching.


So what does John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens say about human work? I walked over to my bookshelf and picked up a pile of encyclicals that my mother gave me more than a decade ago which had belonged to her father. My grandfather, Manuel Suarez Carreno, was an avid reader of Catholic social teaching and tried to put them into practice in his homeland of Cuba by promoting agrarian reform to help small farmers, among other things.

As I flipped through the pile of encyclicals with my grandfather’s signature on them and lines filled with his underlining, I got teary-eyed. For my grandfather, debates about the meaning of human work were not just abstract philosophical discussions. Debates about work and the organization of the economy tore about Cuba in the early 1960s, leading my grandfather and millions of other Cubans into exile. For the leaders of the Cuban Revolution, the socialist organization of the economy was the only way forward. Private property was abolished, and all work was organized under the central Communist party.

Wojytla/John Paul II certainly understood the socialist organization of labor, as he lived in Communist Poland.  One critique of work under socialism, perhaps most eloquently laid out by Friedrich Hayek in The Road to Serfdom, is that workers under socialism have little choice in what work they do. In Laborem Exercens, hence, John Paul II insists that a worker “is a person, a conscious and free subject, that is to say, a subject that decides about himself.”

Why is that assertion significant? For many, what is real about work is its objective dimension. Recall that for Karl Marx, the ultimate reality of the world is material. Through work, according to Marx, man produces himself because he produces something, an object. But for Wojytla/John Paul II, work doesn’t only produce something, or an object. Rather, in a very real way, work produces somebody, work produces the person himself or herself. 

How so? “As a person works, he performs various actions belonging to the work process; independently of their objective content, these actions must all serve to realize his humanity, to fulfill a calling to be a person that is his by reason of his very humanity.” (John Paul II, Laborem Exercens) For Wojytla/John Paul II, the value of work is not in the market value of what is produced, rather, “the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person. The sources of the dignity of work are to be sought primarily in the subjective dimension, not the objective one.”

However, Wojytla/John Paul II is not a pure idealist who thinks that the only reality is consciousness or spiritual. In other words, Wojytla/John Paul II is not saying that work has no objective value; he is saying that work has both an objective and a subjective value.

To further explain, Gregg writes, “John Paul’s development of Catholic social teaching is characterized by a deepening of its moral-anthropological dimension. The result is an increased focus upon man as a free and creative subject capable of self-realization as that which he ought to be”  (Gregg, Challenging the Modern World, p. 7).

Does all of this sound too abstract to apply to your life? One way reading Catholic social teaching has influenced me is by reminding me that I should think of the subject, the human person, I am interacting with at all times. In the US economy, much work is done in the service sector. Are those client-service interactions impersonal and dehumanizing? Sometimes, but they don’t have to be. If you recall that the the person working for you is a person, perhaps you can find a way to engage them in conversation. Yesterday, after a long conversation with a very helpful salesperson at Best Buy, I asked him “Are you Cuban from Miami?” I don’t know how intuition works, but in this case, I was right on. He replied, “Yes, I am! How did you know? You just made my day!” I told him that something about him reminded me of all my Cuban relatives and friends in Miami.

In this instance, as in many others, we can do our work, or be the recipients of someone else’s work, in a way that is human–by both engaging in the objective problem and by engaging the subjectivity of the person in front of us. Of course Labor Day or May Day exists to remind us that we also need to think about macro-economic policies affecting work, but let’s not forget the subjective value of work and the subjective value of every worker.  Try engaging the acting person at work; you might make someone’s day.


The Acting Person is both Free and Social

Part 3 in a Series on Personhood

My previous posts examined the concept of the person as distinct from the individual, and the philosophical field known as personalism. This post takes up more directly the question: What difference does our understanding of the person make for social science research?


Although numerous authors have contributed to the personalist tradition, here I focus on writings by the Polish phenomenologist Karol Wojytla, and his concept of human action as participation. Who was Karol Wojtyla? He was an actor, a playwright, a Catholic priest, political dissident, bishop of Krakow and Cardinal. Clearly, he is most known for being Pope John Paul II who led the Catholic Church from 1978 until his passing in 2005.

I have vague memories of when Wojtyla was elected to the papacy in my young childhood, and much more vivid memories of when he was shot in 1981. However, I only started paying attention to his writings nearly twenty years into his papacy, in 1998, when he visited my mother’s homeland of Cuba. His speeches and homilies during that trip intrigued me because, as a graduate student in sociology at the time, they drew on the personalist tradition to critique both Cuban-style Marxist collectivism and unrestrained liberal capitalism.


My journey in getting to know the life and work of John Paul II lead me to read two biographies of him, many of his encyclicals, and several of his books, namely Love and Responsibility and The Theology of the Body. In 2002, I saw Pope John Paul II from a crowd of literally millions of people who gathered in Toronto for World Youth Day 2002. I’ll never forget the tone and emphasis he gave to one emphatic statement, “Do not be afraid!” Living under communism in Poland, Pope John Paul II knew fear in himself and others, and he knew that the living the truth requires courage, especially in the face of the moral relativism of the West and the totalitarian collectivitism of the East.

In 2004, I saw Pope John Paul II much closer when I visited Rome. As he rode around St. Peter’s square in his Popemobile, I inched up toward the fence and his eyes fell directly on mine. His gaze is hard to describe—it was like he penetrated right into my heart, right into my being, in a very brief and silent but nonetheless moving encounter.

During that same trip to Rome in 2004, just as I snapped a photograph of John Paul II riding towards me on the Popemobile, the wind blew off his white zucchetto (skull cap).  My photograph shows John Paul II’s hand on his head, his zucchetto floating in the air, and a bright light like a halo shining on his head.  Amused by the picture, I mailed a copy of it to the pope along with a personal note. To my amazement, I received a reply in the mail less than three weeks later. John Paul II’s personal secretary, Cardinal Dziwisz, specifically responded to the one prayer request I mentioned and signed the card by hand. Although the Pope’s signature on the card was computer printed, I still think he saw the picture I sent, read my note and saw my name, giving a personal touch to our encounters.

Recently, I have begun to read John Paul II’s work The Acting Person. Through his work as an actor, a professor of ethics, and a pastor of local churches and finally the universal Catholic Church, John Paul II grappled with a fundamental tension of modernity: how can the autonomous, rational individual so celebrated by the Enlightenment be reconciled with the social nature of the person? Is social action nothing other than role playing (a la Erving Goffman)? Are social relations only good to the extent that they serve an individual’s needs? Must individuals deny their own good in the name of social solidarity?

Early sociological theorists grappled with similar questions. How can social life be integrative and not anomic, Emile Durkheim asked? How do political and religious figures establish legitimate forms of authority without which social life would become chaotic, Max Weber pondered?

More generally, contemporary social theory has struggled to reconcile ideological commitments to individual autonomy, choice and agency with the reality that, as sociologists, the vocation proper to our discipline is to show how our choices and our even our consciousness are shaped by communities—and not just those we communities we choose but also those to which we belong by birth (like sex and class) or ascription (like race).

In The Acting Person, Wojtyla argues that  personal freedom and the social nature of the person can be reconciled through personalistic actions which he terms participation. Participation consists of actions that correspond to both individual freedom and the social nature of the person. The chart below describes personalistic action, or participation, by contrasting it with actions Wojtyla says would not be participation.

Characteristics of ParticipationCharacteristics of Actions that are Not Participation
Participation presumes a relational ontology: humans are social by nature. By acting together with others we exercise our capacity for personhood.An individualist ontology presumes that individuals interact with others solely to fulfill one’s individual desires or good.
Participation is oriented toward both one’s own good and the common good, not competition between the two, and thus fulfills the human person.Actions done with others that constitute moral evil are not participation because they do not fulfill the person.
Participation consists of freely chosen actions with others. Participation may be influenced by group belonging or even by the desire for group belonging, but such social influences and social belongings per se do not deny personal freedom and personal choice. Even if one’s choice is affected by others, actions are participation when they integrate oneself with others.Performing an act with others is not automatically the same as fulfilling oneself in an action. Coerced actions, such as many actions required in totalitarian states, are not participation because they are not freely chosen.
Participation is inter-subjective, participating in the humanity of the other, and not only objective.Group membership is not participation if group interactions remain only at the objective level.


Wojtyla leaves us with a key question: what types of external situations and internal dispositions lead to this participation or personalistic action? Studying the interplay between social context and individuals is a central goal of sociology, and in future posts, I will write about my work on liturgical practices as a constitutive-ends practice, that is, an expression of the relational nature of persons, not just a group activity that increases individual happiness or one’s social standing.


What does Lent tell us about Markets and Morals?

What does Lent, which starts today, have to do with a topic I’m very interested in: markets and morals? Last week I wrote that in order to reform a system, it’s good to have concrete alternatives, often tied to concrete traditions of thought. Through my classes in economic sociology and in social theory, I introduce students to scholars they may not encounter elsewhere in college, such as Friedrich Hayek or Amartya Sen. I use those readings, and this series of video interviews with scholars about markets and morals created by the Templeton Foundation, to teach students that markets are good but they also need to be regulated by morals.

Although I don’t directly teach Catholic social teaching, my reading of papal encyclicals on development and charity undoubtedly influence why I generally support free markets but am also concerned about economic inequalities. As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church points out, Catholic Church’s social teaching grows out of its moral teachings and its understanding of the human person. Lent is a time when Christians engage in particular practices to remind ourselves of our nature as persons and our duties towards others.

For example, during Lent, Catholics and other Christians are reminded to practice almsgiving. For Christians, charity is a duty, not a choice. As Pope Benedict XVI’s 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is love) reminded us, giving alms must be accompanied by compassionate love for the other, or else it is not Christian charity.

During Lent, the Catholic Church calls its faithful to conversion. [Read more…]