On the 30th Anniversary of ‘On Human Work’

Following in the footsteps of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, John Paul II’s gave us incisive teaching on how labor can bring us closer to God.

(photo: Courtesy of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops)

Sept. 14 was the 30th anniversary of Laborem Exercens (On Human Work) by Blessed John Paul II. The 1981 encyclical marked 90 years since Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, which started the Church’s modern social teaching. It was also a public sign of support for the Solidarity Movement in the Pope’s homeland of Poland.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the Holy Father offers a spirituality of labor along with a philosophical meditation on the meaning of work, a spirituality that unites the feast of the Triumph of the Cross on which it was promulgated with our own daily embrace of the personal cross.

With this teaching, Blessed Pope John Paul II gives all who labor for their bread a chance to find spiritual depth in even the most oppressive of working conditions. On the feast of the Triumph of the Cross, the Pope promulgated this great meditation on human work and closes it by telling us that we can find life-changing and sanctifying meaning at our jobs. All of a sudden, the nasty boss, the harping secretary, the back-biting colleague in the next cubicle — they all provide us with opportunities to find solidarity with Christ crucified. Every strained effort to meet our employer’s standards is now a chance to offer a little flower of sacrificial love to God and in the meantime save the world. 

John Paul begins by saying that “human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question.” The point of the social teaching is to guide men on how to make life more human, and since labor is a part of all of our lives, it must naturally be central to this guide to life.

From sacred Scripture we learn that God is our Creator and that he has made us in his own image and likeness. Therefore, through the creative efforts of our own labor, we fulfill the calling to participate in God’s creative activity in the world. We live up to that image and likeness. Through us, the creative power of the Holy Trinity continues to transform and make things new, and through our labor, we become connected to the rest of the glorious creation God has given us to steward.

This insight about the nature of labor itself allows Pope John Paul II to show us that it is through working that we become more fully ourselves, more complete human persons. “As a person he works,” wrote the Pope, and, in the process, he fulfills “the calling to be a person.” Work exists for a person to become more fully himself, no matter how menial that labor is. Therefore, the Holy Father boldly argues, the “primary basis of the value of work is man himself.”

The danger of our age, he explains, is in assessing the value of work apart from the person doing the work. When this happens, human persons become “treated as an instrument of production.” This invariably leads to the great error of our time, which is pretending that the value of the person depends on the productivity or the market value of their work. Rather, it is the other way around. For this reason, the Holy Father reiterates the long-held teaching of a right to a just wage.

After reflecting on the history of inappropriate ways men have attempted to address the question of labor through Marxism and what the Pope refers to as “rigid capitalism,” he introduces the term “socialization.” By it he hopes to communicate an old idea, which is that private property is a right of the human person, but it is not an absolute right. God gives us stuff, one might say, not so that we can have stuff, but so that with that stuff we as individuals and as associations of persons can do the most possible good in society.

The most important part of the document, which comes after reiterations of the rights of unions and various other laborers, is the closing section on “a spirituality of work.” Through this spirituality, says the Holy Father, he hopes that the Church can “help all people to come closer, through work, to God, the Creator and Redeemer, to participate in his salvific plan for man and the world and to deepen their friendship with Christ in their lives.”

This meditation on spirituality returns to the beginning of the document. Our relationship and participation with God through his creation and our creative power is unique. Through it, we can truly say that our labor contributes to the unfolding of “the divine plan” in history. Furthermore, we are reminded that Christ was a laborer, which tells us that there is a worth to labor that has been lifted up to even greater dignity.

Yet, all work involves toil, and here the Pope tells us that it is by uniting the toil of our labor with the sufferings of Christ crucified that mankind can collaborate with the work of salvation. No more is our labor just a matter of being co-contributors with God’s creative power. Suddenly, by offering up our pain in work, we can fulfill what St. Paul says in Colossians 1:24, “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.”

In Laborem Exercens, the Holy Father invites Christians to unite work with prayer so that we can participate not just in “earthly progress, but also in the development of the Kingdom of God.”

Omar Gutierrez works for the Diocese of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes about culture and faith at RegnumNovum.com.

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