On Thursday government workers and contractors, in cooperation with government employee unions and the AFL-CIO, gathered near the White House to protest the ongoing government shutdown. Many of the workers are on furlough, meaning they are temporarily on leave from work without pay, while others are required to work without pay. The protestors carried signs saying “Congress: Do your job so we can do ours” and chanted “We want to work!” The protestors’ words reflect an important tenet of Catholic social teaching that cuts against a common American mindset but that deserves greater appreciation: government employment is a form of work that has the same dignity as any other form of work, and indeed that makes a special contribution to the common good.
The government shutdown has resulted from President Donald Trump’s demand for funding for a border wall that is unpopular with the majority of Americans and that lacks majority support in either the Democrat-controlled House or the Republican-controlled Senate. Perhaps the worst tragedy of the shutdown, though, is that those who are most affected by it have very little to do with the political gridlock at its source. As media outlets have admirably shown, federal government employees, private contractors who do business with the government, and their families must face the reality of not being able to pay their rent, mortgages, and bills as the shutdown continues. Today was the first time that government workers failed to receive their paychecks. The shutdown has also already led to significant disruptions in government services that affect the broader public.
In his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II defines work as “any activity by man [sic], whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances,” or more specifically, “all the many activities of which man is capable and to which he is predisposed by his very nature, by virtue of humanity itself,” which he links with God’s call to humankind to “subdue the earth” (Intro). In his commentary on the encyclical, The Priority of Labor, the theologian Gregory Baum points out that for John Paul, the human vocation to “subdue the earth” does not simply refer to the development of technology and the production of things by drawing on the natural resources of creation, but also to the creation of the social world that nurtures us and promotes human flourishing, that is, cultural, social, and political institutions. If that is the case, then government employment is a legitimate expression of the vocation to work rooted in our human nature.
The financial burdens placed on government workers and their families by the government shutdown are perhaps the most palpable, but the lack of work also has psychological and even spiritual effects. As the US Catholic bishops stated in their 1986 pastoral letter Economic Justice for All, work not only fulfills people’s material needs, but “is crucial to self-realization” (137). They go on to say that people who lack work for an extend period “often come to feel they are worthless and without a productive role in society” (141). Similarly, in Laborem Exercens John Paul refers to what he calls the “subjective dimension” of work, the idea that the different aspects of work “serve to realize [the worker’s] humanity, to fulfil the calling to be a person that is his by reason of his very humanity” (6). Work not only allows a person to develop technical skills, but also the possibility of growing in virtue and developing a sense of solidarity with his or her fellow workers. Government workers are no exception to this principle. Like other workers they often skillfully apply specialized knowledge to their work and develop new skills, but also potentially develop virtues such as diligence, prudence, and justice. Government employees work as part of a team and develop a sense of solidarity and friendship. And perhaps uniquely among workers, their work directly contributes to the common good.
It is this last aspect of government work, in particular, that often gets neglected or even challenged in American culture. For example, during this and previous government shutdowns one often hears the joke, if so many government workers are considered “non-essential” (and thus not required to go to work during the shutdown), why do we need them at all? This joke misunderstands that in this case “non-essential” is only relative to the short period of time of the shutdown, but more importantly it reflects a common but misguided hostility to the government and government workers. For many Americans, the government is seen primarily as a burden, costing people their hard-earned tax dollars; a source of corruption; or an inefficient bureaucracy.
For those who are attentive, the government shutdown is beginning to reveal how mistaken these views are. The government provides vital services that in many cases could not be provided by the private sector, and their disruption during the shutdown could have serious consequences for the public good. For example, the Food and Drug Administration has curtailed domestic food inspections during the shutdown, putting the nation’s food supply at risk. TSA agents are refusing to come to work, putting airport security at risk, and air traffic controllers are also being forced to work without pay, a situation that could cause significant problems for air traffic in the United States. The FBI and other law enforcement agencies are hindered in their work because staff are on furlough and operational funds are limited. Many low-income renters face the risk of being evicted since the Department of Housing and Urban Development cannot provide payments to their landlords. Anti-government sentiment thrives because the government mostly operates efficiently but invisibly in the background of our lives, so many of us do not notice the ways it contributes to the public good. If the shutdown continues into the future, the disruption or absences of these services may encourage a greater appreciation for the positive goods the government provides, a harsh lesson.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states that the purpose of government, acting on behalf of the political community, is to promote the common good through defending and promoting human rights and by fostering what it calls “civil friendship,” or a sense of solidarity and selflessness among members of society (384-92). Government workers of all kinds share in this mission, and an extended government shutdown that keeps these workers from making their contribution to the common good is contrary to the purposes of government.
There is certainly room for debate about the appropriate size and scope of government, and by implication the number of workers who ought to be employed by different government agencies. But this debate needs to be informed by a proper sense for how government provides a unique and vital role in contributing to the common good while also recognizing its limitations and the need for private initiative and a healthy civil society. Likewise, it is possible that some forms of government employment potentially involve unethical demands that do not contribute to the common good. For example, at a meeting of the US bishops’ conference in June, Bishop Edward Weisenburger of Tucson raised the possibility of some form of canonical penalty for Catholics who work for Customs and Border Protection or other government agencies and who participated in the Trump administration’s family separation policy for asylum seekers. But the vast majority of government employees are making important contributions to the common good through their work and in many cases make a real difference in people’s lives. The ongoing government shutdown is a reminder of this important truth, although a reminder that comes with a great deal of personal suffering and damage to the public good