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"Laborem Exercens" and the Dignity of Work

January 27, 2022 6 min read
By Dr. Karel Sovak Dean, Gary Tharaldson School of Business, University of Mary
Two men working in a field

Through work man must earn his daily bread.”

In the opening salvo of Laborem Exercens, St. Pope John Paul II highlights the necessary relationship between the human person and labor. As 2021 marked the 40th anniversary of this encyclical, it is critical to reexamine its masterfully-penned words and view the truths that remain to this day. The expression of a call to work and the connection between human dignity, flourishing, and labor is a message that business students need to hear, consider, and embed into their daily lives. The notion that labor plays a role in the formation of the whole person and the pursuit of human flourishing is central to mission-driven business education. While an older and perhaps better-known encyclical, Rerum Novarum, could also be examined for its wealth of wisdom, Laborem Exercens exhibits a sense of a fresh hope in the face of our contemporary age.

In Business as a Calling, Michael Novak defines four characteristics of a business calling: “each calling is unique…, a calling requires certain preconditions…, a true calling reveals its presence and sense of renewed energies its practice yields us… and they are not easy to discover.” In Novak’s eyes, a calling can be entirely secular. Ultimately, he concludes, “what shows each of us to be distinctive is the trajectory of the calling we pursue.” Novak’s understanding of a business calling is confirmed in Laborem Exercens, in which it is implied throughout that each of us is called to imitate Christ in all we do: an individual’s career is no exception.

St. Pope John Paul II explores the transitive nature of work, asserting that “the proper subject of work continues to be man.” With this focus of all work on the human person, all work is transformed into an opportunity to imitate Christ: if each individual were to strive for the true good of one’s neighbor through the establishment of goods, the provision of services, the formation of a workplace culture, or the distribution of resources and profits, one would imitate Christ directly in one’s work. If all were to view work in this way, the world would see genuine results that are less self-serving.

But does setting the imitation of Christ as the standard for one’s work-life set the bar too high?

In a recent article in Entrepreneur magazine, Krishna Athal objects to using Jesus Christ as a standard for servant leadership, asserting that doing so renders servant leadership impossible to achieve. Thus, he reasons, even if an individual had the desire to imitate Christ, failure would be the eventual result.

This is secular thinking.

Laborem Exercens invites us to view the imitation of Christ as a process of development. Only as we progressively actualize our human potencies can we aid in the transformation of others. Indeed, as we grow in magnanimity, we are increasingly better able to develop into the greatness for which God has created us and to assist others in their path to greatness, as well. As Laborem Exercens notes, we must understand that work is “for man, and not man for work.” This directly contradicts the thought process we often lose ourselves in, believing that we are what we do. Indeed, it is not in our doing that we achieve the greatness for which we were created, but rather it is in our being, which helps to bring out the “Gospel of work.”

The proper ordering of work being for the human person (rather than vice versa) does not take away the necessity or dignity of work. Reflecting on Genesis 3:19, “By the sweat of your face, you shall eat bread,” Laborem Exercens argues that by toil we become more of what God created us to be: work can help to actualize our human capacities, thus meaningfully upholding us in our dignity. It is precisely through this enrichment of the human person that work can enrich family and society, bringing out a proper economy of communion.

While work is upheld as enriching the human person, Laborem Execerns offers a framework for understanding the distinction between toil and exploitation. Conflicts can arise between those who own the means of production and those who work within the production process; however, St. Pope John Paul II did not view such a tension as insurmountable but rather saw it as the subject of a necessary conversation in order to get back to exploring the dignity of work and the human person. In response to the chicken-and-egg question that arises – “Which should have priority, labor or capital?” – Laborem Exercens reminds us of the instrumentality of capital. Capital, which itself has been produced through generations of intelligence, experience, and innovation, cannot exist or produce without labor. Thus, as means of production are themselves brought about by labor, the document concludes that “everything that is at the service of work, everything that in the present state of technology constitutes its ever more highly perfected ‘instrument,’ is the result of work.” This is the essence of the primacy of man over all things.

Beyond a theoretical discussion of the dignity and priority of the worker, Laborem Exercens offers a practical framework for keeping this priority intact. In addition to striving for justice in the workplace to contribute to a health culture, solidarity among workers is proposed as a means of safeguarding against exploitive tendencies. When solidarity is further integrated with subsidiarity, human flourishing ensues. With these considerations in place, the priority of labor over capital should not be taken to diminish the value of capital itself. Capital is a necessary contributor to labor’s output.

Laborem Exercens offers a rich expression of the Christian vision of the complexities of the contemporary workplace. It is “through work” that we are able to exhibit pride in ownership, uphold human rights, and adhere to the common good, and exhibit the virtues as they are meant to be lived. Indeed, each generation has bettered themselves in both their work and economic lives, manifesting the notion that work is where man can “share in the activity of the Creator.” This rich and proper understanding of work is not only necessary for directing the vision of work, but ultimately for discerning one’s vocation. As St. Pope John Paul II concludes, “It can indeed be said that [Christ] looks with love upon human work and the different forms that it takes, seeing in each one of these forms a particular facet of man's likeness with God, the Creator and Father. Is it not he who says: ‘My Father is the vinedresser,’ and in various ways puts into his teaching the fundamental truth about work which is already expressed in the whole tradition of the Old Testament, beginning with the Book of Genesis?”

May we experience the next 40 years in the same holistic manner.

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