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

In his letter Gaudium et Spes, Pope Paul VI first pointed out the profound causal link between the act of work and its affect upon the value of human development

"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:

  1. It expresses ones essential dignity;
  2. It is freely chosen;
  3. It enables respect and freedom from discrimination;
  4. It allows families to meet their needs and provide for their children’s education;
  5. It permits free organization of workers;
  6. It “leaves enough room for rediscovering one’s roots at a personal, familial and spiritual level”;
  7. It guarantees retirees “decent standard of living.”

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:

  • Political and economic stability
  • The certainty of better prospects for the future
  • Improvement of workers’ skills
  • Training of competent business leaders who are conscious of their responsibilities 

What is the role of The Church in addressing the Dignity of Work?

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Technology and Human Work: Help or Hindrance?

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What is "The Gospel of Work"?

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Related Thoughts on Dignity of Work


“The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern.” (DCE, 28) Taken from "

What does Catholic Social Teaching say about a “Welfare State”?
A conference "to confront hunger and structural poverty in a more effective and promising way."(Pope Francis - 2017 World Food Day) Review Program and Schedule - REGISTER NOW Taken from "Quote: Reduce Hunger: Pope Francis' Call for New Approaches"
Human labor tends to be undervalued for what it can produce, and negotiations between employer and employee tend to be uneven.  Accordingly, the Church expects every employer to pay a fair wage, and assigns the responsibility for ensuring fair wages jointly between employers and the state. Taken from "Toward Achieving a “Just” Distribution of Wealth"

Related Events on Dignity of Work

10 hours
Reduce Hunger: Pope Francis' Call for New Approaches

Friday, September 28, 2018 at 8:00am

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2018 Certificate Course in Catholic Social Teaching

Sunday, October 28, 2018 at 3:00pm

Washington Retreat House
The 2018 Certificate Course in Catholic Social Teaching(CST) will be held in Washington, D.C., at the Washington Retreat House (directly across from The Catholic University of America), the week of Oct. 28 to Nov. 2, 2018.

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