In support of Question 4

The Catholic bishops of Massachusetts last week, acting together as the Massachusetts Catholic Conference (MCC), called upon voters to vote “yes” on Question 4 on the November ballot. This is the referendum mandating paid sick time for employees. This is the second intervention of the MCC during this election cycle (the first one was a statement urging us to vote “yes” on Question 3, which would bar casino gambling in Massachusetts).

The bishops began their effort of convincing voters to support Question 4 by noting that “in 2013, Pope Francis stated in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium that ‘it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labor that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives.’ The social teaching of the Catholic Church has long been clear on the essential nature of work for the maintenance of the dignity of the human person. It is this teaching that informs our opinion and endorsement of Question 4 today. In March of this year we endorsed the right of the worker to a fair wage, and we wish to continue to reaffirm Catholic teaching regarding the importance of work, family, and the fundamental dignity of all persons.”

After that paragraph of putting their efforts into an ecclesial context, the bishops made mention of the concrete difficult situations which many workers face. “Today, those without sick time are oftentimes forced to choose between going to work sick or losing a day’s pay, in many cases threatening the loss of their job. Tragically, many are forced to send a sick child to school to save their income or their job. These are the same individuals who earn the least amount and struggle to provide the basic needs for themselves and their families. By endorsing a ‘yes’ vote on Question 4, workers in Massachusetts would be able to earn up to 40 hours of earned sick time per year to take care of their own health or the health of a family member. Employers with 11 or more employees would be required to provide paid sick leave to their employees. Employers with less than 11 employees would be required to provide unpaid sick leave.”

It is in the Church’s tradition that she has the right to remind the state and private employers of their moral obligations towards workers. St. John XXIII in his encyclical Mater et Magistra No. 21 wrote, “It is furthermore the duty of the state to ensure that terms of employment are regulated in accordance with justice and equity, and to safeguard the human dignity of workers by making sure that they are not required to work in an environment which may prove harmful to their material and Spiritual interests.” In advocating for Question 4, our bishops are looking out for the material (and ultimately Spiritual) interests of workers (those who are too ill to go to work and those who are at work and would prefer not to be infected by a coworker).

Back in 1937 Pope Pius XI wrote an encyclical on Atheistic Communism entitled Divine Redemptoris. While communism was the focus of his document, he also reminded capitalist countries of their duty to promote social justice. At No. 52 of that document he wrote, “Social justice cannot be said to have been satisfied as long as workingmen are denied a salary that will enable them to secure proper sustenance for themselves and for their families; as long as they are denied the opportunity of acquiring a modest fortune and forestalling the plague of universal pauperism; as long as they cannot make suitable provision through public or private insurance for old age, for periods of illness and unemployment.”

Pope Benedict XVI in February 2008 gave a speech to participants of a congress organized by the Pontifical Academy of Life. He spoke of the care that we must give to the sick and to their relatives who take care of them. “It will always be necessary to assure the necessary and due care for each person as well as the support of families most harshly tried by the illness of one of their members, especially if it is serious and prolonged. Also with regard to employment procedures, it is usual to recognize the specific rights of relatives at the moment of a birth; likewise, and especially in certain circumstances, close relatives must be recognized as having similar rights at the moment of the terminal illness of one of their family members. A supportive and humanitarian society cannot fail to take into account the difficult conditions of families who, sometimes for long periods, must bear the burden of caring at home for seriously-ill people who are not self-sufficient.” He was speaking about the “time-off” that should be given for maternity (and paternity) leave and to take care of an ill relative. It is not hard to see that sick time for the ill employees themselves would be part of this solidarity for which the pope was advocating.

St. John Paul II, in his message for the World Day of Peace on New Year’s Day 1999, spoke about “the right to work” as a “fundamental right. Otherwise how can people obtain food, clothing, a home, health care and the many other necessities of life? The lack of work, however, is a serious problem today: countless people in many parts of the world find themselves caught up in the devastating reality of unemployment. It is urgently necessary on the part of everyone, and particularly on the part of those who exercise political or economic power, that everything possible be done to resolve this difficult situation. Emergency interventions, necessary as they are, are not enough in cases of unemployment, illness or similar circumstances which are beyond the control of the individual, but efforts must also be made to enable the poor to take responsibility for their own livelihood and to be freed from a system of demeaning assistance programs.” 

Among other things, the pope reminded people that sickness is normally beyond the control of employees and he would have been extremely reluctant to dismiss someone from a job due to it (since unemployment can be so jarring, as the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” says at No. 2436, “Unemployment almost always wounds its victim’s dignity and threatens the equilibrium of his life. Besides the harm done to him personally, it entails many risks for his family.”).

Keeping all these elements of social justice and solidarity in mind, we urge you to vote “yes” on Question 4.

© 2018 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing   †   Fall River, Massachusetts