A Theological Appreciation of Work
by Henry L. Novello
IT IS COMMONLYacknowledged that Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), which was promulgated against the backdrop of the rise of modern industrial society, inaugurated a new beginning for Catholic social thought and that it represents a kind of magna carta for modern Catholic social teaching. This is evidenced by the fact that Popes subsequent to Leo XIII, namely Pius XI (1931), Paul VI (1971), and John Paul II (1991), all promulgated encyclicals that revised and updated the analyses of Rerum Novarumin light of changing economic, social, and political conditions. The manner in which each newly promulgated encyclical revisits and re-evaluates the earlier ones alerts us to the evolving character of Catholic social teaching as open to the dynamics of history and seeking to discover new tasks in the process of humanizing our world. In other words, Catholic social teaching is truly focused upon reading the signs of the times and is therefore an arena of the development of doctrine (Coleman & Baum, 1991, ix).
The purpose of this essay is to offer an appraisal of John Paul II’s encyclical Laborem Exercens (LE) by bringing his understanding of the meaning of labour into dialogue with Miroslav Volf’s proposed theology of work which is set forth in his book Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work. The essay will show that there is a significant degree of overlap between these two thinkers on the subject of human work, but it will also seek to highlight some weaknesses in the encyclical that are overcome by Volf’s explicitly eschatological and pneumatological perspective of human work.
In order to do this, the first part of the essay will present the core of LE, which is the portrayal of the person as the subject of work, and the implications of this view for employer-employee relations, while the second part will discuss Volf’s portrayal of work as work in the Spirit, and how this perspective sheds light on potential weaknesses in LE. The essay will conclude by proposing that the eschatological concept of the ‘new creation,’ which features in Volf’s theology of work, is preferable to the protological notion of ‘dominion over the earth’ (Gen 1:28) that forms the basis of John Paul II’s reflections on the meaning and purpose of human work.