Changes to the law have made it harder than ever for ordinary Catholics to honour Sunday's day of rest. But there is hope

For the past year, the Castel Romano Designer Outlet 12 miles south of Rome has been the site of a battle over the Sabbath. Its owner, the McArthur Glen Group, operates outlet malls in nine nations and prides itself on its “long-established heritage of drawing inspiration from regional architecture, building materials and traditions” – which explains why the mall looks like a pasteboard Italian village. There is a grandiose cheapness to the place, as if Italy itself were being sold at 70 per cent off an inflated price.

Valeria Ferrara had asked her boss at the Calvin Klein outlet for an occasional Sunday off to spend with her husband and two-year-old son. Rather than grant her request, the company transferred her to a location 30 miles away. Ferrara protested against the decision by chaining herself outside the store. Earlier this month, faced with negative publicity and pressure from a local union, Calvin Klein abandoned its plan to tear mother from son.

We should be cheered by Valeria’s triumph and sobered by how rare it is. Once conceived as a universal right, Sabbath rest is increasingly the privilege of the wealthy few. According to the European Observatory of Working Life, labour on Sunday is becoming more common, with 30 per cent of Europeans working at least one Sunday a month. People in the poorer nations of the European periphery (Greece, Italy, etc) are much likelier to work several Sundays a month than those in wealthier countries. Germans work fewer Sundays than anyone else – even as their political and financial leaders press Sunday labour on other nations.

Ferrara’s case only occurred because Italy liberalised Sunday labour in 2011 at the urging of Prime Minister Mario Monti, a technocrat installed to please German bankers. Monti’s premiership showed how thoroughly the European Union now embodies that principle attributed to Emperor Joseph II of Austria: “Everything for the people, nothing by the people.” One of the things instituted for but not by the Italian people was a provision that compelled 4.7 million of them to work on Sunday.

Populist movements across Europe have begun to push back. Earlier this year, Poland restricted almost all Sunday shopping with a law backed by the Catholic Church and the Solidarity trade union. Hungary banned Sunday shopping in 2015 but repealed the measure a year later, while retaining 12 public holidays and the right of workers to take Sundays off.

The Five Star Movement and the League, which have just formed a joint government in Italy, both campaigned against Monti’s reform. As Alessandra Bocchi has reported, in 2013 Five Star introduced a law that would bring back Sunday closing. “Let’s once again put the person at the centre of public policy, not these unsuccessful market theories,” said Luigi di Maio, Five Star’s leader. His party’s proposal was denounced by the Council of Europe.

Campaigning against Sunday shopping allows populists to combine an economic message with a cultural one, standing in defence simultaneously of workers’ rights and a Christian command. It is no coincidence that the two are connected. Only by recognising the authority of God can we be freed from the worldly powers that enslave and oppress us – including those found in the market.

In the case of sabbath laws, refusal to acknowledge Christ’s reign has directly led to the economisation of everyday life. The EU’s 1993 Working Time Directive stated that the minimum weekly rest period “shall, in principle, include Sunday.”

But in 1996, the European Court of Justice annulled this rule, saying that “the Council has failed to explain why Sunday, as a weekly rest day, is more closely connected with the health and safety of workers than any other day of the week.” In the name of a shallow secularism, the Court opened the door to the exploitation of millions of Valeria Ferraras.

Only those who recognise that the common good concerns a man’s soul can explain why we should legislate rest on Sunday: to honour the God who on that day rose. This is why we call Sunday the Lord’s Day – domenica, domingo, dimanche.

We first hear the term in the Book of Revelation, where John reports that it was “on the Lord’s Day” that he had his great vision. Ever since it has been the day on which we glimpse paradise, enjoying freedom in communion with God. As Benedict XVI put it, “On the Sabbath there are no masters and no servants; there is only the freedom of all the children of God … For this reason the Sabbath is the heart of all social legislation.”

Christians down the centuries have defended the day we now neglect. When the 4th-century Martyrs of Abitinae were asked why they had defied Diocletian’s decree forbidding Sunday worship, they said, “Sine dominico non possumus”, which means “We cannot live without Sunday. We cannot give up this thing of the Lord.”

It is striking how many Catholics have given up this thing of the Lord. Even those who can afford Sunday rest do nothing to guarantee it for others. As Benedict XVI saw, Christian politics begins with the Sabbath. Our task is to secure it in law – not as a privilege for the powerful, but as a right enjoyed by all.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things

This article first appeared in the May 25 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here