Catholic Social Teaching on Labor and Society


The business community is an important part of any society. Any just society, any just social order, requires a healthy and vibrant business community. Think of what is happening today in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Lithuania, where the business community has been frustrated for years. The aspect under which I am considering the business community is the importance of human labor.

On the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, Pope John Paul 11 wrote his social encyclical Laborem exercens (On Human Labor, 198l). His focus was on homo faber, on man the worker. He considers work to be so important, he calls it the "key to the social question." Man is created to be, in the visible universe, an image and likeness of God himself (Gen 1: 26). He is placed in it in order to subdue the earth (Gen 1: 29). From the beginning therefore he is called to work. Work means "any activity by man, whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances; it means any human activity that can and must be recognized as work, in the midst of all the many activities of which man is capable"(Salutation). Work is one of the characteristics that distinguishes man from the rest of the animal kingdom. Only man is capable of work, and only man occupies his existence an earth by work. "Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons" (ibid.).

Through work man must earn his daily bread (Gen 3:17-19; cf. additional scriptural references in ft.1). Through work man must contribute to the continual advance of science and technology and, above all, to elevating unceasingly the cultural and moral level of the society within which he lives in community (ibid.). Man's life is built up every day from work; from work it derives its specific dignity. At the same time work contains the unceasing measure of human toil and suffering. Work involves personal effort and toil, many tensions, conflicts and crises, which in relationship with the reality of work disturb the life of individual societies and also of all humanity (LE 1:2).

Work is a Fundamental Dimension of Man's Existence on Earth

The Church is convinced that work is a fundamental dimension of man's existence on earth. Human work is a constant factor both of social life and of the Church's social teaching. From the beginning it was part of the Church's teaching, of her concept of man and life in society, and especially of the social morality which she worked out according to the needs of the different ages (LE 3:1). The study of the question of work has continually been brought up to date, while maintaining that Christian basis of truth which can be called ageless.

The Church finds in the very first pages of Genesis the source of her conviction that work is a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth. Man, created "in the image of God... male and female" (Gen 1:27) hears the words: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen 1:2E3). These words indicate indirectly, beyond any doubt, that work is an activity for man to carry out in the world. Man is the image of God partly through the mandate received from his Creator to subdue, to dominate, the earth. In carrying out this mandate, man, every human being, reflects the very action of the Creator of the universe (LE 4:2).

Work is a Transitive Activity

Work is a transitive activity, an activity beginning in the human subject and then is directed toward an external object. It presupposes a specific dominion by man over the earth. Simultaneously, it confirms and develops this dominion. "The earth" means that fragment of the visible universe that man inhabits. By extension, however, it means the whole of the visible world insofar as it comes within the range of man's influence and of his striving to satisfy his needs. The expression "subdue the earth" means all the resources that the earth (and indirectly the visible universe) contains and which, through the conscious activity of man, can be discovered and used for his ends. These words embrace equally the past ages of civilization and economy, the whole of modern reality, and future phases of development which are still hidden from man (LE 4:3).

God's Original Ordering

There have been periods of acceleration in the economic life and civilization of humanity or of individual nations. None of the periods of acceleration, however, exceeds the essential content of what was said in that most ancient of biblical texts. "As man, through his work, becomes more and more the master of the earth, and as he confirms his dominion over the visible world, again through his work, he nevertheless remains in every case and at every phase of his process within the Creator's original ordering" (LE 4: 4). The tools which man invents, the technology he uses, are to be employed in such a manner as conforms with the moral order, with God's original plan for his creation.

This original ordering remains necessarily and indissolubly linked with the fact that man was created, as male and female, "in the image ofGod." The Creator's ordering is universal: it embraces all human beings, every generation, every phase of economic and cultural development. At the same time it is aprocess that takes place within each human being, in each conscious human subject. Each and every individual takes part in the giant process whereby man "subdues the earth" through his work.

Work in Its Objective Sense

In its objective sense, work refers to what is accomplished by our work: agriculture, industry, services, research, and the results of human ingenuity which are machines and technology. Technology refers to the whole set of instruments which man uses in his work. It facilitates his work, perfects, accelerates and augments it. It leads to an increase in the quantity of things produced, and in many cases improves their quality (LE 5:4). If the biblical words "subdue the earth" are understood in the context of the whole modern age, industrial and post-industrial, then they undoubtedly include also a relationship with technology, "with the world of machinery which is the fruit of the work of the human intellect and a historical confirmation of man's dominion over nature" (LE 5:5).

Work in Its Subjective Sense

In its subjective sense, work refers to man as the subjectof work. "Man has to subdue the earth and dominate it, because as the ' image of God' he is a person, that is to say, a subjective being capable of acting in a planned and rational way, capable of deciding about himself and with a tendency to self-realization" (LE 6: 2). Independently of its objective content, man's work must serve to realize his humanity, to fulfill the calling to be a person that is his by reason of his very humanity. Throughout the process of work,.man manifests himself and confirms himself as the one who "dominates." "Human work has an ethical value of its own, which clearly and directly remains linked to the fact that the one who carries it out is a person, a conscious and free subject, that is to say, a subject that decides about himself ." (LE 6:3).

The basis for determining 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 in the objective one. The primary basis of the value of work is man himself, who is its subject. However true it may be that man is destined for work and called to it, in the first place work is "for man" and not man "for work. The purpose of any given work does not possess a definitive meaning in itself. In the final analysis it is always man who is the purpose of work. Work has no independent purpose of its own. Our work either enriches us as persons who are to "subdue the earth, " or it dehumanizes us.

"Although the subject of work is always the same, that is to say man, nevertheless wide-ranging changes take place in the subjective aspect" (LE 8: I ). By reason of its subject, work is one single thing, one and unrepeatable every time. Yet when one takes into consideration its objective directions, one is forced to admit that there exist many works, many different sorts of work. The development of human civilization brings continual enrichment in this field. In the process of this development not only do new forms of work appear, but also others disappear. Although this is a normal phenomenon, an evaluation must be made as to whether certain ethically and socially dangerous irregularities creep in and to what extent. In the time of Leo XIII, for example, there was a reaction against the degradation of man as the subject of work, and against the exploitation in the field of wages, working conditions and social security for the worker. The liberal socio-political system did not pay sufficient attention to the rights of the workers (LE 8:3).

From the beginning of the industrial age, the Christian truth about work had to oppose the various trends of materialistic and economistic thought. For certain supporters of such ideas, work was understood and treated as a sort of "merchandise" that the worker sells to the employer, who at the same time is the possessor of the capital, of all the working tools and means that make production possible. The interaction between the worker and the tools and means of production has given rise to the development of various forms of capitalism, together with various forms of collectivism. The danger of treating work as a specia1 kind of "merchandise" or as an impersonal "force" needed for production always exists. A one-sidedly materialistic civilization gives prime importance to the objective dimension of work, while the subjective dimension--everything in direct or indirect relationship with the subject of work--remains an a secondary level. Man is treated as an instrument of production, whereas he, independent of the work he does, ought to be treated as the effective subject of work and its true maker and creator. In reality, man is the subject and maker of work, and thus the true purpose of the whole process of production. Man has dominion over the earth through his work; he is not to be dominated by false theories of work.

Work is Toil

Work is good for man even though it involves toil (LE 9:3). In the terminology of St. Thomas, it is a bonum arduum. It is a good not only in the sense of being useful or something to enjoy, it is also something that corresponds to man's dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it. "Work is a good thing for man--a good thing for his humanity--because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed in a sense becomes 'more a human being' " (ibid..). The virtue of industriousness is a virtue precisely in that, as a moral habit, it is something whereby man becomes good as man (1-2 40 1; 1-2 34 2 ad 1)

Priority of Labor over Capital

Pope John Paul insists upon the principle of the priority of labor over , a principle that has always been taught by the Church (LE 12:1). This principle directly concerns the process of production. In this process labor is always a primary efficient cause. Capital, the whole collection of means of production, remains a mere instrument or instrumental cause. "This principle is an evident truth that emerges from the whole of man's historical experience" (ibid.). Every human being sharing in the production process, even if he or she is only doing the kind of work for which no special training or qualifications are required, is the real efficient subject in this production process. The whole collection of instruments, no matter how perfect they may be in themselves, are only a mere instrument subordinate to human labor (LE 12:5). This truth, which is part of the abiding heritage of the Church's teaching, must always be emphasized. "We must emphasize and give prominence to the primacy of man in the production process, the primacy of- man over things" (LE 12:6). Everything contained in the concept of capital in the strict sense is only a collection of things. As the subject of work and independent of the work he does, man alone is a person. This truth has important and decisive consequences.

Ownership is Meant for Work

The principle of the priority of labor over capital is a postulate of the order of social morality (LE 15:1). It has key importance both in the system built on the principle of private ownership of the means of Production and also in the systems in which private ownership of these means has been limited even in a radical way. The only way man can cause the resources hidden in nature to serve him and others is through his work. To facilitate his taking dominion over the earth's natural resources through human labor) man assumes ownership of small parts of the various riches of nature. "He takes them over through work and for work" (LE l2:2). Ownership of natural resources, i.e., private property in its original sense, means to make them part of one's workbench where man the worker renders the earth fruitful for man's use.

Labor Is Inseparable From Capital

Labor is inseparable from capital. In no way does it accept the separation and opposition with regard to the means of production that has weighed upon human life in recent centuries as a result of merely economic premises. "When man works, using all the means of production, he also wishes the fruit of his work to be used by himself and others, and he wishes to be able to take part in the very work process as a sharer in responsibility and creativity at the workbench to which he applies himself" (ibid.). "The Church's teaching has always expressed the strong and deep conviction that man's work concerns not only the economy but also, and especially, personal values" (LE 15:2).

Source of Rights

Because work is an obligation and duty, it is also a source of rights on the part of the worker (LE 16:1). These rights must be examined in the broad context of human rights as a whole, which are connatural with man. The human rights that flow from work are part of the broader context of those fundamental rights of the person. Man must work both because the Creator has commanded it and because of his own humanity, which requires work in order to be maintained and developed.

Three Spheres of the Subjective Dimension of Human Work

Pope John Paul indicates three spheres of the subjective dimension of human work whereby man is to gain a "dominion" over the world of nature (LE 10:4). The first of these spheres is the personal dimension of human work, which regards man as the subject of work and its true maker and creator. The second sphere pertains to the forming of family life. Work is a condition for making it possible to found a family, since the family requires the means of subsistence which man normally gains through work.

The third sphere concerns the great society to which man belongs on the basis of particular cultural and historical links. Man must work out of regard for the society he belongs to, the country of which he is a child, and for the whole human family of which he is a member, since he is the heir to the work of previous generations and at the same time a sharer in the building the future of those who will come after him in the succession of history. All this constitutes the moral obligation of work, understood in its wide sense. When we have to consider the moral rights corresponding to this obligation of every person with regard to work, we must always keep before our eyes the whole vast range of points of reference in which the labor of every working subject is manifested (LE 16:2).

Work Unites People

It is characteristic of work that it First and foremost unites people (LE 20:3). Catholic social teaching rejects the idea that unions are a reflection of the "class structure of society" and that they are a mouthpiece for a class struggle which inevitably governs social life. They are indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people in accordance with their individual professions. This struggle is a normal endeavor for the just good, for the good which corresponds to the needs and merits of working people associated by profession. It is not a struggle against others. Even in the event of controversial questions, where there is real opposition, the struggle aims at the good of social justice, not in order to eliminate the opponent. Work unites people. It has a social power: the power to build community. Both those who work and those who manage the means of production or who own them must in some way be united in this community. Labor and capital are indispensable components of the process of production in any social system. Their union remains a constructive factor of social order and solidarity, and it is impossible to ignore it.

Spirituality of Work

Finally, work is part of our spirituality. Through our work, we are to come closer to God, the Creator and Redeemer. Through the toil of work we participate in God's salvific plan for man and the world. We share in the work of our redemption. Through our work we deepen our friendship with Christ by accepting, through faith, a living participation in His threefold mission as priest, prophet and king (LE 24:4).


Pope John Paul II, Laborem exercens (On Human Work, 1981 (Daughters of St. Paul, Boston: 1991).