Timely Lessons From Pope John Paul II Remind Us of Truths About Work and Family

COMMENTARY: Two 40-year-old documents show us that the way we work and do business exerts a profound influence on our own souls and the world around us.

Pope John Paul II celebrating Mass in 1994.
Pope John Paul II celebrating Mass in 1994. (photo: Vatican Media)

This year marks the 40th anniversary of two great works by Pope St. John Paul II. Written by the Holy Father in 1981, Laborem Exercens and Familiaris Consortio offer many timely lessons for 2021. These lessons especially matter as we look to put the coronavirus pandemic behind us.

Most people hope to return to normal, especially in the workplace, as quickly as possible. Offices are opening back up and many restrictions are finally being lifted. Catholics and non-Catholics alike are looking to “contribute to the continual advance of science and technology” through their labors, to adopt St. John Paul II’s language from Laborem Exercens, his Sept. 14, 1981, encyclical to mark the 90th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical on capital and labor, Rerum Novarum. Yet in the rush to normalcy, the most important element of work is increasingly overlooked. 

As the Holy Father put it, our most essential mission in the workplace is “to elevat[e] unceasingly the cultural and moral level of the society.” Few people think of work this way, yet no understanding of work is more urgently needed. 

Even before the pandemic, businesses often lost sight of its moral mandate to improve lives. The focus has become making a profit at any cost. There is also a profound push for business to take sides in the most divisive political issues of our time. The workplace has become a source of friction, anger, and extremism — none of which moves society forward. 

We can and must do better. That means restoring the right understanding of work and business. It is not to pick political sides; it is to be a place where everyone can realize their God-given potential. Nor is it a chance to make a quick buck and nothing more; work is meant to create the goods and services that enable us all to improve our lives. 

The way we work and do business exerts a profound influence on our own souls and the world around us. We can either summon ourselves and others to service, or we can invite evil into our hearts and culture.

In a similar vein, amid the pandemic, there is a growing belief that work doesn’t matter. From the highest levels of government, our leaders have pushed to keep people from the workplace, even to the point of paying people more not to be employed. Here, too, St. John Paul II shines light on error: Humanity “is called to work,” which “expresses [our] dignity and increases it.” 

At a time when many of our national leaders think it’s fine to keep people on the economy’s sidelines, Catholics must call these actions and thoughts what they are: an assault on human dignity.

Beyond work, the family is also under siege — a crisis that precedes the pandemic. That’s where St. John Paul II’s other 1981 masterpiece comes in. 

Familiaris Consortio may have been written 40 years ago Nov. 22, yet the very first words speak to our age: “The family in the modern world, as much as and perhaps more than any other institution, has been beset by … many profound and rapid changes.” Many “have become uncertain and bewildered over their role or even doubtful and almost unaware of the ultimate meaning and truth of conjugal and family life.” The Holy Father declared, “the future of humanity passes by way of the family,” and given what’s happening in 2021 society, that future looks very grim indeed.

About half of all families fall apart in America, while marriage and children are increasingly rejected. The entire code of sexual ethics, which guided society from time immemorial, has utterly collapsed in recent years. At the same time, the constant demands of work in a 24/7 world put further strain on families. For many people, work and family seem opposed, when these two positive goods should reinforce and strengthen each other and spur us all to holiness.

In both works, Pope St. John Paul II calls for the faithful to defend what’s true and good — an urgent task for us and people of good will everywhere. 

In light of this call, the Napa Institute and The Catholic University of America will host our annual Principled Entrepreneurship Conference from Oct. 11-14 in New York City. The theme will be “Work and the American Family.”

We’ll look at the problems confronting both work and the family, as well as the solutions. We’ll also look at the role we all can play in enacting those solutions and transforming our society for the better. Every Catholic has a role, which is why anyone is welcome to attend the conference. You can register at the Napa Institute’s website to attend in-person or virtually

Forty years after Laborem Exercens and Familiaris Consortio, St. John Paul II speaks powerfully to the challenges we face. It’s time to rediscover and apply his wisdom and the Church’s teaching regarding work and family, for our sake and that of society.

Tim Busch is the founder and CEO of the Pacific Hospitality Group and the co-founder of the Napa Institute, which is co-hosting the Principled Entrepreneurship Conference in New York City from Oct. 11-14. Registration is open to anyone.