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					Pope John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens
By Ryan Boyle

        In Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical, Laborem Exercens, the Holy Father analyzes the state
and role of work in human affairs. Writing on the ninetieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, he
emphasizes the importance and dignity of man as the subject of work in light of the actions of
our Creator and the dignity and necessity of work in order to become a mature, fully realized
person. The encyclical draws a sharp distinction between the value of the worker’s subjective
nature in light of technology and capitalistic economies. The Holy Father also describes work as
the incubator for progress and the foundation for supporting a family. Finally, the encyclical
demonstrates how man finds his ultimate fulfillment in continuing the work of Jesus Christ
through his own work here today.
        Man’s first experience of work actually comes from Creation. The book of Genesis,
dubbed the “gospel of Work,”1 describes God’s creation of the universe as the primordial act of
work. At the end of each day of creation, it, his work, was good. At the end of creation, on the
sixth day, his work was very good. Finally, on the seventh day, he rested from his work. 2 From
the beginning, God shows us the importance of work.                  Additionally, God’s first words to
humanity, “be fruitful and multiply,” serve as a divine imperative for man to work just as he did
in creating the universe.3 As a result of the fall, however, man must now work in a more hostile
environment. Genesis’ rebuke of man, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,” sets the
stage for the rest of the encyclical.4
        With these ideas of work, goodness, and sweat in mind, the Holy Father spends much of
the encyclical emphasizing the dignity of work as a participation in the example and design of
the Creator and considers what that means for us both now and in the future. Just as the Bible
focuses on Creation itself pointing to dignity of the Creator, the pope shows how man’s work
points to the dignity of the worker. Man derives dignity from his work and his corresponding
rights must be protected.
        To accomplish this task, the Holy Father considers both aspects of work, the objective
product and the subjective worker’s nature.             The objective nature of work consists of a

          Pope John Paul II, On Human Work (Laborem Exercens), 8.
          Gen. 1:31.
          Gen. 1:28.
          Pope John Paul II, On Human Work (Laborem Exercens), 12.

“‘transitive’ activity, that is to say an activity beginning in the human subject and directed
toward an external object.”5 It also “presupposes a specific dominion by man over ‘the earth,’”
including the entire visible realm of the universe and all that is in or on the earth including its
natural resources, land, and animals.6 The subjective nature of man’s work considers the worker
himself and the fact that every man derives his ultimate dignity from the fact that God created
him in his own image. “As the ‘image of God’ he is a person…a subjective being capable of
acting in a planned and rational way, capable of deciding about himself and with a tendency to
self-realization.” He says work must also “serve to realize his humanity, to fulfill the calling to
be a person that is his by reason of this very humanity.”7 Showing that through work “man
manifests himself and confirms himself as the one who ‘dominates,’”8 we must always
understand that the “one who carries [the work] out is a person, a conscious and free subject…a
subject that decides about himself.”9 Accordingly, the Holy Father concludes the discussion of
the subjective and objective natures of work stressing the importance and dignity of the
subjective nature of man’s work.
       Currently, issues ranging from the proper use of technology and various economic
systems top the debate over how to properly employ man in fulfilling the divine imperative to
work and subdue the earth while at the same time respecting his subjective nature. Considering
technology, clearly it allows man to perform work better and faster. However, technology often
dehumanizes work. This denies man his proper role as subject and, in some cases, his very right
to employment. As the Holy Father explains, “Even in the age of ever more mechanized ‘work,’
the proper subject of work continues to be man.”10 The Holy Father regards technology as man’s
“ally,” noting that technology “facilitates his work, perfects, accelerates and augments it. It leads
to an increase in the quantity of things produced by work, and in many cases improves their
       However, technology possesses an innate quality that allows it to usurp man’s proper role
as subject and gain superiority over man. The pope warns, “technology can cease to be man’s
ally and become almost his enemy, as when the mechanization of work ‘supplants’ him, taking
         Ibid., 5.
         Ibid., 5.
         Ibid., 7.
         Ibid., 7.
         Ibid., 8.
          Ibid., 6.
          Ibid., 6-7.

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.”12 Thus, the question of ensuring the dignity of man’s role as
worker while employing new technology for the betterment of society remains “a continual
challenge for institutions of many kinds, for states and governments, for systems and
international organizations; they also constitute a challenge for the Church.”13
       The document also explores the relationship between the worker and the capitalistic
system. While the capitalist economic system works effectively in many regards, especially
compared to communism and socialism, certain problems with capitalism exist. One such
problem the pope criticizes is capitalism’s materialistic worldview that places primacy on the
created objective work over the subjective creator. In this view, “Man is treated as an instrument
of production, whereas he—alone, independent of the work he does—ought to be treated as the
effective subject of work and its true maker and creator.”14 Man is more than a cog in the wheel
of production.
       The natural reaction to capitalism’s materialism and mistreatment of workers led to the
creation of unions and other solidarity organizations. Desiring to serve the poor, the Church
encourages solidarity “whenever it is called for by the social degrading of the subject of work, by
exploitation of the workers and by the growing areas of poverty and even hunger.”15
Recognizing the need for the movement to remain open to collaboration and to avoid political
gamesmanship, the Church encourages workers to instead “share in running businesses and in
controlling their productivity…[and to] exercise influence over conditions of work and pay, and
also over social legislation” peacefully.16 In this important debate, the Church sees her role as
calling “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.”17

          Ibid., 7.
          Ibid., 7.
          Ibid., 9.
          Ibid., 11.
          Ibid., 11.
          Ibid., 2.

          Aside from participating in God’s work as Creator and obeying his command to be
fruitful, “work also constitutes a foundation for the formation of family life.”18 Suitable and
dignified work remains an essential element for a family, the building block of society, to sustain
itself. The family thus “constitutes one of the most important terms of reference for shaping the
social and ethical order of human work.”19 Society relies on the family and indeed on work’s
transformative nature and serves as the “great ‘educator’” of every man.”20 Society also serves
as the,
                    great historical and social incarnation of the work of all generations. All of this
                    brings it about that man combines his deepest human identity with membership of
                    a nation, and intends his work also to increase the common good developed
                    together with his compatriots, thus realizing that in this way work serves to add to
                    the heritage of the whole human family, of all the people in the world.21

          The pope concludes by reminding us of work’s ultimate goal, “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.’”22 Through work, the pope
explains, we continue preaching our own “gospel of work” and achieve our fulfillment as
persons by fulfilling God’s commands and examples in Creation and Jesus’ ministry.
          Analyzing the encyclical, the Holy Father clearly intends to emphasize several qualities
of human work. First, the Holy Father spends a significant portion of the encyclical exalting the
concept of work as man’s participation in the work of the Creator and in work’s ability to help
man realize his full potential. We see the proper role of work in Creation, before man’s fall in
the Garden of Eden. This important distinction allows for man to accept work as both an
essential and good part of his nature. True, the nature and difficulty of work changed with the
fall. However, work’s innate function allowing man to transform his environment according to
his needs and to reap the benefits thereof remains.
          With the proper understanding of work’s positive character, the pope also demonstrates
how man finds himself through working. Working allows for education, the existence and
support of his family, creativity, dreaming, and man’s inculturation into the society today built
squarely on the foundations of all that have gone before him. By preparing for work, man learns

             Ibid., 13.
             Ibid., 13.
             Ibid., 13.
             Ibid., 13-4.
             Ibid., 12.

how to subdue the earth. Man learns about the earth, including all that is above and below it.
Man receives many benefits from his work, including a salary. These benefits allow him to
support his own family and to raise children who will then work themselves and find their
fulfillment. This unbroken chain of past, present, and future workers shapes the culture of
humanity. Man also finds creative solutions to vexing and challenging problems of today
building upon the knowledge and experiences of the past. All of these characteristics of man
allow him to develop more fully and realize his full potential through work, allowing civilization
to progress and raising the quality of life watermark for all.
       The Holy Father also emphasizes the significance of the difference between the
subjective and objective qualities of work. The objective quality of work must always point to
the subjective worker who created it. Just as the heavens proclaim God’s glory, the object of
man’s work must always point back to him with dignity and rights. In this context, the pope
decries the disproportionate gap in standards of living between the developed and undeveloped
world. The Holy Father criticizes employers and economic systems that pursue the greatest
amount of materials for the lowest possible price. The Holy Father also reminds indirect
employers, those who consume the products of the direct employer, that they must do their part
as well to ensure just and living wages and working conditions for all involved the process of
       This leads the Holy Father to admonish capitalistic systems when they dehumanize their
employees. While maintaining the Church’s long held position supporting private property and
personal wealth, the Holy Father criticizes three major problems arising from capitalist systems.
First, capitalist systems can reduce the working man to the status of a cog in the wheel of
production. The paramount role of man’s subjective nature and contribution to the work of
production immediately evaporates. Man loses his identity and he becomes replaceable and
expendable. Next, a capitalist society turns its focus from man and the importance of his
subjective nature onto the object of his work. The objective work turns from icon to idol. This
leads to an overly materialistic conception of society and man’s role in it. Last, the inevitable
outcome from this is that a capitalist society forgets its dependence not only on the worker, but
also on the workers that have come before whose creativity and hard work made society’s
existence today possible. This can quickly lead to forgetting about the ultimate worker, God

       The Church also extols the importance of solidarity. Man, created in the image of God,
properly and necessarily finds himself in a community of relations. Work is no exception.
Man’s right to unionize, to participate in the decision making process, and in the profits of a
company must be affirmed. However, the Holy Father correctly admonishes those who manage
and lead solidarity movement to effectively “dialogue and collaborate.”23 Just as labor and
capital should never be separated, workers and managers must work together. As such, the
Church fulfills one of her most important missions, the protection and aid of the poor. This
solidarity finds its ultimate fulfillment when the worker realizes he is collaborating and
participating in the saving work of Christ Jesus himself.
       Reflecting on this encyclical, I was surprised to see a Church that places so much
emphasis on prayer and contemplation exalt the virtues of work. I now see the beauty and
importance of work as participating in God’s act of Creation. I see my creations, whether in my
papers or in my schoolwork for now, bearing my fingerprints. I now understand why lottery
winners all quit their jobs and six months later go back to work. Work orders our lives. As the
Holy Father said, “work is for man.”24
       This encyclical challenged me in regards to exclusive ownership of private property and
excessive focus on wealth and materialism. I have always searched for the best price and rarely
found myself willing to pay more for the same product simply because it was made in a more
worker friendly manner. If anything, I have been willing to pay more for more the same product
when it was made in a more environmentally conscious manner. This encyclical serves as a
wakeup call to pay more attention to the subjective element of production.
       But, the encyclical also affirms my understanding of man’s need to work. A favorite
Bible passage of mine, 2 Thessalonians 3:10, admonishes that those who do not work, should not
eat.25 I have often reminded people of this passage. Man has not only a right to work, but also a
duty to contribute to society and its development. This is all the more true in societies that
provide extensive benefits to those who do not work taken from those who do. Clearly, a
difference exists between someone who loses their job and genuinely searches for another job
and someone who is playing the system. The idea of providing benefits to those who are
genuinely searching is legitimate and necessary. But, these systems can encourage those who are

          Ibid., 11.
          Ibid., 8.
          2 Thess. 3:10.

not genuinely looking to delay their return to work and in extreme cases make them dependent
on the government for everything. I see how the failure to obtain education and meaningful
dignified work in these cases proves the Holy Father’s point exactly.
       Finally, I see how the capitalistic system leads to a tension between capitalism and the
Catholic ideals expounded in this encyclical. Wal-Mart, for example, built a highly successful
business model around not providing benefits to much of its workforce. The capitalist in me sees
this model as valid. The workforce needs entry-level positions. Nobody should plan on making
a career at Wal-Mart. Also, just because an employer is successful does not mean that the
employer should become obligated to provide for every aspect of its employees lives. Ideas of
lifetime pension, health care, vacation, additional education, may all contribute to the society’s
improvement. However, an employer certainly cannot, and should not have to, spend every
penny on its employees. The company does not exist for the sake of its employees.
       However, the Catholic side of me sees a responsibility for protecting workers from overly
aggressive and predatory business practices. While not every job needs to provide full benefits,
benefits should be reasonably available, whether provided by employers or for purchase by
workers. Thus, my solution to the Wal-Mart problem is to vote with one’s feet. I enjoy the
convenience and price of shopping there. But, I am mindful that workers have dignity and their
rights must be respected.    Rather than suggesting that I have solved the problem, I only
acknowledge that a tension exists between my desire for great value and the great value of the
workers. This is a paradox. But, now, I am more aware of the role of the Church in protecting
both sides.
       Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical, Laborem Exercens, considers the role of work in the life
of man. He shows us how God was the first to work through Creation. The Holy Father also
illuminates the essential role of the subject in the work process. He considers the roles of
technology and various economic systems and how they contribute or stifle the family and
fulfillment of humanity through progress. Finally, drawing on compassion for the poor and
suffering, the Holy Father reminds each person that they follow in the footsteps of Jesus and
fulfill God’s plan for humanity through their work.


Pope John Paul II. On Human Work (Laborem Exercens). 14 Sep. 1981. Papal Archive. The
       Holy See. <


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