Contemporary Issue: Dignity of Work
A Brief History of this Issue, as set forth in the Social Encyclicals
Pope Leo XIII's landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum was published during the tempestuous years of the Industrial Revolution, and as such was The Church's first social commentary - and our first resource in Catholic Social Teaching - considering the rights of the worker. His Holiness prefaced in this text the essential dignity in work itself:
"As for those who possess not the gifts of fortune… that there is nothing to be ashamed of in earning their bread by labor. This is enforced by what we see in Christ Himself, who… being the Son of God, and God Himself, …did not disdain to spend a great part of His life as a carpenter Himself." (RN, 23)
Pope Saint John Paul II carried forth this crucial antecedent in several of his letters. He also updated the message to our post-industrial ears, and abstracted the type of work involved to incorporate all of the work force, besides the physical laborers of Leo XIII's focus.
[Christ], while being God, became like us in all things devoted most of the years of his life on earth to manual work at the carpenter's bench. This circumstance constitutes in itself the most eloquent "Gospel of work", showing that the basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person." (LE, 6)
Work and the Virtue of Industriousness
"For when a man works he not only alters things and society, he develops himself as well. He learns much, he cultivates his resources, he goes outside of himself and beyond himself. Rightly understood this kind of growth is of greater value than any external riches which can be garnered. A man is more precious for what he is than for what he has." (GES, 35)
Saint John Paul II synthesized Paul VI's tutelage, and informed Catholic Social Teaching with the "Virtue of Industriousness," eloquently articulated in Laborem Excercens in the following passages:
"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 fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes "more a human being"." (LE, 9)
"Without this consideration it is impossible to understand the meaning of the virtue of industriousness, and more particularly it is impossible to understand why industriousness should be a virtue: for virtue, as a moral habit, is something whereby man becomes good as man" (LE, 9)
"...this fact in no way alters our justifiable anxiety that in work, whereby matter gains in nobility, man himself should not experience a lowering of his own dignity. Again, it is well known that it is possible to use work in various ways against man, that it is possible to punish man with the system of forced labour in concentration camps, that work can be made into a means for oppressing man, and that in various ways it is possible to exploit human labour, that is to say the worker. " (LE, 9)
Work is both an Obligation and a Right
Saint John Paul II distilled the concept of work to its essence, highlighting the right of all people to participate in this inextricable facet of life:
"The obligation to earn one's bread by the sweat of one's brow also presumes the right to do so."(CA, 43)
7 Defining Principles of Work
Building upon the foundation of his sucessors, in Caritas in Veritate Pope Benedict XVI clearly outlined seven defining principles of what “decent” work is:
Work and Integral Human Development
Pope Saint John Paul emphasized that the enterprise of work, in concert with the application of CST's concept of integral human development in the work environment, increases both efficiency and productivity.
"The integral development of the human person through work does not impede but rather promotes the greater productivity and efficiency of work itself..." (CA, 43)
Saint John Paul also pointed out that integral human development can only occur in the workplace when there are guarantees of basic needs, and an environment conducive to development, including:
What is the role of The Church in addressing the Dignity of Work?
"It is not for the Church to analyze scientifically the consequences that these changes may have on human society. But the Church considers it her task always to call 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." [e:LE,1]
Technology and Human Work: Help or Hindrance?
"The development of industry and of the various sectors connected with it, even the most modern electronics technology, especially in the fields of miniaturization, communications and telecommunications and so forth, shows how vast is the role of technology, that ally of work that human thought has produced, in the interaction between the subject and object of work (in the widest sense of the word). Understood in this case not as a capacity or aptitude for work, but rather as a whole set of instruments which man uses in his work, technology is undoubtedly man's ally. It 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 quality.
However, it is also a fact that, in some instances, technology can cease to be man's ally and become almost his enemy, as when the mechanization of work "supplants" him, taking 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." [e:LE,5]
What is "The Gospel of Work"?
"Christianity brought about a fundamental change of ideas in this field, taking the whole content of the Gospel message as its point of departure, especially the fact that the one who, while being God, became like us in all things11 devoted most of the years of his life on earth to manual work at the carpenter's bench. This circumstance constitutes in itself the most eloquent "Gospel of work", showing that the basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person. The sources of the dignity of work are to be sought primarily in the subjective dimension, not in the objective one." [e:LE,6]
Related EncyclicalsRerum Novarum Laborem Exercens Gaudium et Spes Centesimus Annus Caritas in Veritate
Related Thoughts on Dignity of Work
We must go from here with a sense of urgency, in haste. The going out: that is the greatest task of all. This conference, much like the Church, is not a place that we “come to.” It is a place we “go from.” Taken from "A Time to Gather, A Time to Reflect: Poverty and Developmnt Conference Summary"
Catholic Social Teaching is a set of values for us to internalize, to evaluate the framework of modern society, and to provide criteria for prudential judgement and direction for current policy and action. Taken from "Precisely, What is Catholic Social Teaching? (Audio)"
CST places economic freedom parallel to political freedom. It recognizes that free enterprise, rightly understood and implemented, is currently the best available vehicle for systemically caring for the physical needs of the poor, and true global economy is the key way to create lasting development and, thereby, peace. Taken from "Democracy and Free Market Economies"
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