Theology of Work

Theology of Work

The late Holy Father John Paul II teaches that work must test and engage the whole person, not just the physical aspect.

by Robert J. Batule |

Much has changed in the world of work over the last thirty years. We have only to consider the sweeping changes in technology, the composition of the work force, especially the presence of women today and the higher standard of living now, especially in Western democratic nations.

Changes in the world of work have forced us to look more carefully at their implications in our lives. Not all of these changes, we must admit, have had a salutary effect.

Ever since Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), the Catholic Church has been officially on record as showing a concern for the person and work. Leo XIII´s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) was published precisely for the purpose of addressing the many issues surrounding the person and work. Successive popes have sought to build on the pioneering work of Leo XIII by publishing their own encyclicals, all important contributions to the developing body of the Church´s understanding of work.

Much in these encyclicals has centered on the rights of workers and the Church´s defense of these rights. These last thirty years have witnessed a continuation of the Church´s defense of the rights of workers. But these last thirty years have also witnessed a deepening concern for other dimensions of what has been called the labor question.

Thirty years ago, the Second Vatican Council came to a close. One of the most important documents to emerge from the Church´s twenty-first ecumenical council was the pastoral constitution entitled The Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). This document grew out of an idea proposed on the floor of the council, and it turned out to be the last of the sixteen documents approved by the Council Fathers. The pastoral constitution on the Church in the Modern World was intended to complement the dogmatic constitution entitled Lumen Gentium and deal more specifically with issues beyond the Church´s nature.

Gaudium et Spes is the longest of the conciliar documents and it treats the question of labor and leisure in paragraph 67. Echoes of earlier papal encyclicals are heard in paragraph 67. But we also find hints of what Pope John Paul II will say later about work in his encyclical Laborem Exercens (1981). What I aim to do is show the development between Gaudium et Spes and Laborem Exercens. This connection is important to note if we are attempting to understand the direction of the Church´s theology and spirituality of work.

The Council Fathers associate themselves with earlier papal encyclicals by stating in Gaudium et Spes that “labor . . . is superior to the other elements of economic life (67).”1 They indicate that labor “comes immediately from the person (67).”2 And they assert that “the person stamps the things of nature with his seal and subdues them to his will (67).”3 The Council Fathers then go on to offer the example of Christ “who conferred an eminent dignity on labor when at Nazareth He worked with His own hands (67).”4

The Abbott/Gallagher edition of the Documents of Vatican II inserts a footnote at this point. Footnote 216 reads as follows: “The Council refuses to render a technical or concrete ethical judgment on a complex economic development such as the very recent step-up in automation.”5 This caveat or cautionary note is important. The Council Fathers do not engage in any sustained treatment of “complex economic development” and they do not offer any analysis of “the very recent step-up in automation.” What the Council Fathers do, however, is plant the seeds for future deliberation and reflection and ecclesiastical pronouncement.

Near the end of paragraph 67, the Council Fathers teach that “any way of organizing and directing [economic] activity which would be detrimental to any worker would be wrong and inhuman (67).”6 They concede that “even in our day, that in one way or another workers are made slaves of their work (67).”7 To eliminate this, the Council Fathers recommend that “the entire process of production work . . . be adapted to the needs of the person and to the requirements of his life, above all his domestic life (67).”8 They suggest further that “the opportunity should also be afforded to workers to develop their own abilities and personalities through the work they perform (67).”9 Finally, the Council Fathers advise that workers “have the opportunity to develop on their own the resources and potentialities to which, perhaps, their professional work gives little scope (67).”10

This relatively small part of Gaudium et Spes (paragraph 67) did not, obviously, draw a whole lot of attention in the post-conciliar era-until 1981, that is, the year Pope John Paul II published Laborem Exercens. To understand why this is so and why the present pontiff is especially qualified to enlarge upon the themes of paragraph 67, it is necessary that we go back and consider briefly the kind of philosophical thought which shaped the mind of the former Karol Wojtyla and which he, quite obviously, brought to the Chair of Saint Peter.

Wojtyla on subjectivity

In 1969, Karol Wojtyla published the Polish version of The Acting Person, his philosophical anthropology. Ten years later (1979), a publishing company produced a revised edition and a translation into English. In Chapter One of The Acting Person, Karol Wojtyla, then Cardinal Archbishop of Cracow, identifies the person as a subject. He calls subjectivity “the ground on which the dynamic relation, or rather interrelation, between the person and the action is actualized. The failure to recognize man´s subjectivity would deprive us of the level on which can be grasped all the aspects of this interrelation.”11

Wojtyla is careful to distinguish here subjectivity and subjectivism. He writes that subjectivism “conceives consciousness itself as a total and exclusive subject-the subject of experiences and values, so far as the domain of moral experience is concerned. Unfortunately, with this approach, experiences and values lose their status of reality; they cease being anything real and remain only as the moment of consciousness.”12

Wojtyla´s phenomenology and personalism are concerned with relation, action and actualization. These considerations are closely linked to the ethical sphere, a sphere which is concerned with experiences and values. Wojtyla seeks to integrate and order these various aspects, and show how determinism and idealism are philosophical postures which harm the dignity of the person prior to any cost-benefit analysis or cross-cultural study. For Karol Wojtyla, there can be no personal dignity without freedom; neither can there be personal dignity without truth. The person without freedom and the person without truth are intellectually unimaginable for Wojtyla the philosopher.

An important component of Wojtyla´s philosophical anthropology is the notion of fulfillment. In The Acting Person, Wojtyla argues “to fulfill oneself means to actualize, and in a way to bring to the proper fullness, that structure in man which is characteristic for him because of his personality and also because of his being somebody and not merely something; it is the structure of self-governance and self-possession.”13 This leads Wojtyla to conclude “human actions once performed do not vanish without a trace: they leave their moral value, which constitutes an objective reality intrinsically cohesive with the person, and thus a reality also profoundly subjective. Being a person man is ´somebody´ and being somebody he may be either good or bad.”14

George Huntston Williams is the author of a very perceptive volume entitled The Mind of John Paul II. In his book, Williams tries to get at the origins of the Polish pontiff´s thought and action. Williams describes the philosopher-pope´s conception of the person “as freely willing his own actions through self-determination according to good or evil and thus fulfilling or not fulfilling his humanity. The person sees the world through ´ethically tinted glasses,´ that is, he orders and judges his actions according to some normative system of ethics. Through the use of that normative ethic the person puts his actions, including self-restraint from evil, in touch with an absolute truth.”15

Williams then goes on to define the philosopher-pope´s position as follows: “When man wills the good he fulfills himself; when he does not will the good he remains unfulfilled. Each action includes the experience of a ´moment of truth´ when the self knows the truth or lack of truth, that is, the goodness or lack of goodness of his action. This concept of fulfillment is crucial to the Christian personalism of the author [Wojtyla/John Paul II], the fact that the person fulfills his or her own humanity through freely willing the good.”16

The phenomenology and personalism of Karol Wojtyla was to prove very decisive for the Church and the world beginning in October of 1978. On the sixteenth day of the month dedicated to Our Lady, the college of cardinals elected Karol Wojtyla as the 263rd Successor of St. Peter. Instead of publishing books to be read by other phenomenologists and personalists, the new pope would now be in a position to influence much wider audiences. Not only has he reached much wider audiences as pope, but Pope John Paul II has extended the Church´s teaching on work beyond the basic statement of Gaudium et Spes.

Alienation and freedom

Pope John Paul II wasted little time in addressing himself to the question of work. In Redemptor Hominis, his first encyclical, Pope John Paul II gives some hint of the themes he would treat in much greater depth in a later encyclical devoted entirely to the issue of work. In Redemptor Hominis, Pope John Paul II writes:

The man of today seems ever to be under threat from what he produces, that is to say from the result of the work of his hands and, even more so, of the work of his intellect and the tendencies of his will. All too soon, and often in an unforeseeable way, what this manifold activity of man yields is not only subjected to ´alienation´, in the sense that it is simply taken away from the person who produces it, but rather it turns against man himself, at least in part, through the indirect consequences of its effects returning on himself. It is or can be directed against him (RH, 44).17

In accord with John Paul II´s concern for authentic freedom, he warns:

Man cannot relinquish himself or the place in the visible world that belongs to him; he cannot become the slave of things, the slave of economic systems, the slave of production, the slave of his own products. A civilization purely materialistic in outline condemns man to such slavery, even if at times, no doubt, this occurs contrary to the intentions and the very premises of its pioneers (RH, 50).18

A fuller treatment of work, including the themes of alienation and freedom mentioned above, is found in Laborem Exercens, an encyclical to mark the ninetieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum. At the beginning of Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II underscores the importance of the task at hand. He argues that “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.”19

Immediately after addressing the biblical roots of work, the Holy Father takes up consideration of work in its objective dimension and its subjective dimension. As Karol Wojtyla used this distinction in The Acting Person, so does Pope John Paul II return to these valuable categories in Laborem Exercens. In Laborem Exercens, the Holy Father considers the aspect of work in which the person “subdues the earth” to be the objective dimension. He recalls how for much of history the objective dimension was agricultural in nature. With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, the objective dimension of work involved subduing the earth through the use of machinery. He, then, refers to the industrial era giving way to “successive phases of development through new technologies, such as the electronics and microprocessor technology in recent years (LE, 5).”20 Pope John Paul II makes clear, however, that the proper subject of work continues to be man (LE, 5).21 And, of the two dimensions, preeminence is given to the subjective meaning of work over the objective one (LE, 6).22

The development here is not the terminology. The words “objective” and “subjective” have been part of the Church´s parlance for a long time. Certain moral acts, for instance, are described as objectively wrong. And the assignment of culpability takes into account such factors as freedom, consent of the will, etc., what are referred to as subjective dimensions. What is new is Pope John Paul II´s application of these traditional categories. First, he applies them to work, a topic without a long history of moral evaluation in ecclesiastical circles. Second, he uses the terms in a largely philosophical sense. What we have now is a philosophical anthropology giving rise to an ethical vision.

The concept of fulfillment

After establishing the objective and subjective dimensions of work, the Holy Father treats an issue with a decidedly modern ring to it: fulfillment. Modern people have a proclivity for talking about their work being fulfilling or not fulfilling. When modern people use the term “fulfilling,” they mean it in a largely psychological sense. Careers can fulfill certain needs we all have, the need for achievement, the need for respect from peers and colleagues, etc. When Pope John Paul II uses the term “fulfillment,” he refers not only to psychological needs but to ethical needs.

For example, the Holy Father writes in Laborem Exercens that “as a person works, he performs various actions belonging to the work processes; independently of their objective content, these actions must all serve to realize his humanity, to fulfill the calling to be a person that is his by reason of his very humanity (LE, 6).”23 He continues “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 of a human being (LE, 9).”24

What the Polish pontiff accomplishes is not an abrogation of fulfillment but an expansion of it. In The Acting Person, he referred to fulfillment along the lines of actualization, self-governance and self-possession. We recognize these expressions as having a very definite psychological orientation. The would be pope hastens to mention in The Acting Person that being a person is tied up with being somebody, being bad or good.

In Laborem Exercens, he places fulfillment within the context of the calling to be a person and becoming more of a human being. The development here has two aspects really. The first is spiritual. Pope John Paul II confers a legitimacy upon the quest for fulfillment. A more traditional understanding of spirituality emphasizes not self-fulfillment but self-abasement. What the Holy Father does in Laborem Exercens is remove lingering suspicion that it is somehow not proper or insufficiently humble to expect to find self-fulfillment in our work. T

he second aspect is psychological. As Pope John Paul II points up the rightful place for self-fulfillment in work, he does not use the expression as many others do. When the Holy Father refers to self-fulfillment in work, he is not thinking primarily of ego satisfaction. In Laborem Exercens, fulfillment is not a selfish pursuit of gain in its multiple manifestations but fulfillment along the lines of a Christian understanding of personhood. Fulfillment for the Christian comes in self-donation, not in closing oneself off to the free and sincere gift of oneself to God and others.

Linking truth and dignity

The former Lublin professor placed a strong emphasis on truth in his philosophical anthropology. Unlike many in the professoriate today, however, truth for Wojtyla was not a matter of separate truths for you and separate truths for me. Truth was normative, that is, it binds on all and it clearly has an absolute character. It ought not to come as any surprise, then, that the professor become pope would link truth and dignity together in Laborem Exercens. In Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II calls work “a good thing for man . . . It is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy; it is also good as being something worthy, that is to say, something that corresponds to man´s dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it.”25

Without linking truth and dignity together in an ethical context, Pope John Paul II would not be able to condemn the various abuses the person is made to suffer in economic systems which are always based on philosophical reductionism.

Sections Three and Four of Laborem Exercens cover historical and social issues connected to work. These include ownership, employment, unions, wages and immigration. Section Five of Laborem Exercens treats the elements for a spirituality of work. These include creation, redemption, the Cross and the Resurrection. As important as these considerations are, they would lack a convincing foundation in today´s skeptical world if they were not preceded by an enlightened defense of the person as a free subject who longs for fulfillment without compromising truth and goodness. The case for the person as a free subject who longs for fulfillment without compromising truth and goodness is ably carried forward in Laborem Exercens. Thus, we are afforded an illustration of how philosophical ethics is the thread uniting conciliar teaching with papal teaching.

The conciliar teaching that any way of organizing and directing [economic] activity that would be detrimental to any worker would be wrong and inhuman (GS, 67) waited for amplification and enlargement until Laborem Exercens. In Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II defines as wrongful whatever opposes the rightful priority of the subjective over the objective, provided of course we do not understand the subjective dimension as subjectivism. In Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II defines as inhuman whatever strips away the inherent dignity of the person, reducing him or her to the status of a slave. The conciliar teaching that workers be afforded the opportunity to develop their abilities, personalities, resources and potentialities (GS, 67) waited for extension and enrichment until Laborem Exercens. In Laborem Exercens, the Holy Father teaches that work must not be used against the person, stifling his or her creativity and imagination. Rather, work must test and engage the whole person, not just the physical aspect.

There are clear and discernible threads connecting Gaudium et Spes and Laborem Exercens. Such are the clear and discernible threads that we can properly say that there is a genuine development between the former and the latter. Just as we claim that from Rerum Novarum to Centesimus Annus the social question has been brought up to date all the while respecting the timeless character of Catholic truth, so too can we claim that the teaching of Vatican II on work in one paragraph of Gaudium et Spes is filled out by the teaching of Pope John Paul II in Laborem Exercens, especially Section Two of the encyclical.


1. Gaudium et Spes, 67.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Karol Wojtyla, The Acting Person, trans. Andrzej Potocki (Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1979), p. 57.

12. Ibid., p. 58.

13. Ibid., p. 151.

14. Ibid.

15. George Huntston Williams, The Mind of Pope John Paul II (New York: The Seabury Press, 1981), p. 205.

16. Ibid., p. 208.

17. Redemptor Hominis, 44.

18. Ibid., p. 50.

19. Laborem Exercens, 3.

20. Ibid., p. 5.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., p. 6.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid., p. 9.

25. Ibid.

Reverend Robert J. Batule is a priest of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y. He earned his M. Div. degree at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Lloyd Harbor, N.Y. and an M.A. in sociology at Adelphi University in Garden City, N. Y. Fr. Batule writes a regular column for Our Sunday Visitor´s popular The Catholic Answer. He is currently assigned to Corpus Christi Church in Mineola, N.Y. Reprinted with permission from Homiletic and Pastoral Review. All rights reserved.



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