(SEPTEMBER 14, 1981)
VATICAN CITY, DEC 4, 1997 (VIS) – John Paul II wrote the Encyclical “Laborem Exercens” in 1981, on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of Leo XIII’s Encyclical “Rerum Novarum” on the question of labor. It was signed on September 14, feast of the Holy Cross.
In it he develops the concept of man’s dignity in work, structuring it in four points: the subordination of work to man; the primacy of the worker over the whole of instruments and conditioning that historically constitute the world of labor; the rights of the human person as the determining factor of all socio-economic, technological and productive processes, that must be recognized; and some elements that can help all men identify with Christ through their own work.
The Encyclical has an introduction and four chapters: “Work and Man,” “Conflict Between Labor and Capital in the Present Phase of History,” “Rights of Workers,” and “Elements for a Spirituality of Work.”
“I wish to devote this document,” writes the Pope, “to human work and, even more, to man in the vast context of the reality of work. … Work is one of these aspects, a perennial and fundamental one, one that is always relevant and constantly demands renewed attention and decisive witness.”
It is not for the Church to analyze the repercussions that changes in the world of labor may have on human coexistence. “But the Church considers it her task always to call attention to the dignity and rights of those who work, to condemn situations in which that dignity and those rights are violated, and to help to guide the above-mentioned changes so as to ensure authentic progress by man and society.”
“Human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question, if we try to see that question really from the point of view of man’s good. And if the solution – or rather the gradual solution – of the social question, which keeps coming up and becomes ever more complex, must be sought in the direction of ‘making life more human’, then the key, namely human work, acquires fundamental and decisive importance.”
II. WORK AND MAN.
John Paul II underlines the Church’s conviction that “work is a fundamental dimension of man’s existence on earth.” This conviction is found in the first pages of Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.”
“Man’s dominion over the earth is achieved in and by means of work. … The proper subject of work continues to be man,” and the finality of work “is always man himself.” It is a question of the objective and subjective meaning of work: although both are important, the second takes precedence; “there is no doubt that 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.”
Although technology fosters an increase in the things produced by work, sometimes it “can cease to be man’s ally and become almost his enemy, as when the mechanization of work ‘supplants’ him, taking away all personal satisfaction and the incentive to creativity and responsibility, when it deprives many workers of their previous employment, or when, through exalting the machine, it reduces man to the status of its slave.”
The Holy Father recalls that “in order to achieve social justice in the various parts of the world, in the various countries, and in the relationships between them, there is a need for ever new movements of solidarity of the workers and with the workers.”
“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’.”
III. CONFLICT BETWEEN LABOR AND CAPITAL IN THE PRESENT PHASE OF HISTORY.
The Pope observes that during the period which has passed since the publication of “Rerum Novarum” (1891), “which is by no means yet over, the issue of work has of course been posed on the basis of the great conflict that in the age of, and together with, industrial development emerged between ‘capital’ and ‘labor’.”
This antagonism “found expression in the ideological conflict between liberalism, understood as the ideology of capitalism, and Marxism, understood as the ideology of scientific socialism and communism, which professes to act as the spokesman for the working class and the world-wide proletariat.”
Later, he recalls the principle of “the priority of labor over capital.” The first “is always a primary efficient cause, while capital, the whole collection of means of production, remains a mere instrument or instrumental cause.” Thus appears the error of economism, “that of considering human labor solely according to its economic purpose.”
John Paul II then refers to the right to private property, emphasizing that the Church’s teaching regarding this principle “diverges radically from the program of collectivism as proclaimed by Marxism,” and “the program of capitalism practiced by liberalism and by the political systems inspired by it.”
“The position of ‘rigid’ capitalism continues to remain unacceptable, namely the position that defends the exclusive right to private ownership of the means of production as an untouchable ‘dogma’ of economic life. The principle of respect for work demands that this right should undergo a constructive revision, both in theory and in practice.” For this reason, regardless of the type of system of production, it is necessary for each worker to be aware that “he is working ‘for himself’.”
IV. RIGHTS OF WORKERS.
The Holy Father highlights that the human rights that are derived from work are a part of the fundamental rights of the person.
He discusses the need to take action against unemployment, which is a true social calamity and a problem of a moral as well as an economic nature.
Starting with the concept of the “indirect employer,” in other words, “all the agents at the national and international level that are responsible for the whole orientation of labor policy,” he notes that in order to solve the problem of unemployment, these agents “must make provision for overall planning.” This “cannot mean one-sided centralization by the public authorities. Instead, what is in question is a just and rational coordination, within the framework of which the initiative of individuals … must be safeguarded.”
Speaking of the rights of workers, he recalls the dignity of agricultural work and the need to offer jobs to disabled people. As for the matter of salaries, he writes that “the key problem of social ethics in this case is that of just remuneration for work done.”
In addition, “there must be a social re-evaluation of the mother’s role.” Specifically, “the whole labor process must be organized and adapted in such a way as to respect the requirements of the person and his or her forms of life, above all life in the home, taking into account the individual’s age and sex.”
It is fitting that women “should be able to fulfill their tasks in accordance with their own nature, without being discriminated against and without being excluded from jobs for which they are capable, but also without lack of respect for their family aspirations and for their specific role in contributing, together with men, to the good of society.”
Besides wages, there are other social benefits whose objective is “to ensure the life and health of workers and their families.” In this regard, he notes the right to leisure time, which should include weekly rest and yearly vacations.
The Pope then considers the importance of unions, which he calls “an indispensable element of social life.” “One method used by unions in pursuing the just rights of their members is the strike or work stoppage. This method is recognized by Catholic social teaching as legitimate in the proper conditions and within just limits,” but must not be abused.
As for the question of emigration for work reasons, he affirms that man has the right to leave his country to seek better living conditions in another. “The most important thing is that the person working away from his native land, whether as a permanent emigrant or as a seasonal worker, should not be placed at a disadvantage in comparison with the other workers in that society in the matter of working rights.”
V. ELEMENTS FOR A SPIRITUALITY OF WORK.
In this last chapter, he underlines the elements that help give labor the meaning that it has in God’s eyes. Thus, “the knowledge that by means of work man shares in the work of creation constitutes the most profound motive for undertaking it in various sectors.”
Labor is participation in the work of the Creator and the Redeemer. Jesus Christ looks upon work with love because he himself was a laborer. This is a doctrine, and at the same time a program, that is rooted in the “Gospel of work” proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth.
“By enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, man in a way collaborates with the Son of God for the redemption of humanity. He shows himself a true disciple of Christ by carrying the cross in his turn every day in the activity that he is called upon to perform.”
At the very end, the Holy Father notes that he prepared this document for publication on May 15, the date of the 90th anniversary of “Rerum Novarum,” but that due to his hospital stay after the attempt on his life on May 13, he was not able to complete the definitive revision on time.
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