Labour and Justice, by Gavan Duffy

Labour and Justice, by Gavan Duffy

Peter Westmore

An important new book on Christian social teaching

by Gavan Duffy
(Gracewing/Freedom Publishing, 2009, 288pp, $45.00. Available from Freedom Publishing)

Cardinal George Pell states in the foreword of Labour and Justice, 'What makes this book stand out is its central claim 'that the social teaching of the Church directly challenges and confronts' that which stands in the way of 'the attaining of a just distribution of the world's goods, the dignity of work and the mutual dependence of capital and labour'.'

This important book fills a unique position at the junction of religious and social writing.

Gavan Duffy has written a book which puts Christian social teaching into both an historical and religious context. He starts with the earliest books of the Old Testament, which give remarkable insights into the relevance of the creative work of God and human labour.

From this, we see how work was consecrated to God in the Jewish faith, and how a just God had a loving and particular concern for the poor, the exploited, the marginalised and the oppressed.

It follows from this that a well- ordered society will help to lift up the poor and marginalised, and prevent people from being exploited or oppressed. The prophets frequently denounced the exploitation of the poor, particularly widows and orphans.

New Testament

In the New Testament the Gospel accounts record that on many different occasions Jesus sanctified work and reached out to the sick, the mentally ill, and the poor. He seems to have had a particularly soft spot for them, as well as for children and widows.

The other New Testament documents reveal that in the early Church, the first welfare system for the poor was organised by the Apostles, with St Paul taking up a large collection from the new churches he had founded, presenting the proceeds to the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem.

Paul also spoke out on the dignity of slaves, stating that like all others they were children of God.

From these beginnings, it is not surprising, as Gavan Duffy points out, that the early Church developed a radically different view from the rest of society, which was largely based on the principle that what mattered was power and wealth.

It was in its conception of a just society, based on divine not human laws, that Christianity put forward the moral principles which ultimately made possible the replacement of the pagan world of ancient Greece and Rome with the new law, based on the teachings of Jesus Christ.

This was amplified by many of the great Christian thinkers, from Pope Clement at the end of the first century AD, to Origen, St John Chrysostom and, later, Saints Ambrose and Augustine.

Gavan Duffy explains that it was in this context that workers' guilds later developed and, under the Church's patronage, the great works of art and architecture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance were produced.

The author argues that the status of work was radically diminished by both the Reformation, which undermined the protective role of the Church and emphasised the individual at the expense of the community, and later, the Industrial Revolution, with the emergence of laissez-faire capitalism.

It was only in the 19th century, some 45 years after Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto, that the Catholic Church addressed these issues again in a comprehensive way, through Pope Leo XIII's encyclical, Rerum Novarum (literally 'of new things').

Leo XIII argued that Christian social teaching represented a 'third way' between unbridled capitalism, on one hand, and Marxist doctrines of class war and dictatorship of the proletariat, on the other.

During the 20th century, the Church's teachings were radically expanded to encompass a whole range of new issues, as the Church and her followers sought to influence the policies and laws of a succession of new nation-states.

The Church's teachings were deeply influenced by the practical experience of Christians in the modern world and in the political parties which emerged at the time.

In turn, Christian social principles exercised a significant influence on the laws and institutional arrangements which were established in many Western countries, notably in Europe and Australia.

Gavan Duffy's book concludes with an important discussion of the emergence of radical free market economic theory from the 1980s onwards, which represents a new challenge to the Christian vision of a free and just society.

Labour and Justice is one of the most important books on Christian social teaching to appear in recent years. It will serve as a reference point and an inspiration to all those who wish to see a better society built on the foundation of Christian principles.

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