My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
As we celebrate the Labor Day weekend, it is a fitting time to note that this is the 35th anniversary of the publication of the Papal Encyclical Letter on Human Work, in Latin called Laborem Exercens, issued by Pope St. John Paul II on Sept. 14, 1981. The significance of human work is found in “the fact that the one who, 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.” In this way, the Holy Father emphasized the dignity of human work by focusing its attention on the person doing the work, rather than the work being done by the person.
Pope St. John Paul II also spoke of solidarity, writing that “there is a need for ever new movements of solidarity of the workers and with the workers. This solidarity must be present 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.” It is no coincidence that the movement calling itself “Solidarity” grew in Poland in the early 1980s, reaching 10 million members by September 1981, which constituted one-third of the total working-age population of what was then officially Communist Poland.
The priority of labor over capital was recalled by the pope as “a principle that has always been taught by the Church,” saying, “This principle directly concerns the process of production: in this process labor is always a primary efficient cause, while capital, the whole collection of means of production, remains a mere instrument or instrumental cause. This principle is an evident truth that emerges from the whole of man’s historical experience. When we read in the first chapter of the Bible that man is to subdue the earth, we know that these words refer to all the resources contained in the visible world and placed at man’s disposal. However, these resources can serve man only through work.”
The Holy Father also addressed the relationship between the obligations and rights of workers. He wrote, “While work, in all its many senses, is an obligation, that is to say a duty, it is also a source of rights on the part of the worker … . Man must work, both because the Creator has commanded it and because of his own humanity, which requires work in order to be maintained and developed. Man must work out of regard for others, especially his own family, but also for the society he belongs to, the country of which he is a child, and the whole human family of which he is a member, since he is the heir to the work of generations and at the same time a sharer in building future of those who will come after him in the succession of history. All this constitutes the moral obligation of work, understood in its wide sense.” Rights and obligations, therefore, must be seen as two sides of the same coin. Since people have a God-given obligation to work, they also have a God-given right to the opportunity to fulfill that obligation.
With regard to wages, the pope did not speak of a minimum wage, but of a just wage, saying that “a just wage is the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system and, in any case, of checking that it is functioning justly.”
With regard to unions, they are “a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people in accordance with their individual professions … . However, the role of unions is not to ‘play politics’ in the sense that the expression is commonly understood today. Unions do not have the character of political parties struggling for power; they should not be subjected to the decision of political parties or have too close links with them. In fact, in such a situation they easily lose contact with their specific role, which is to secure the just rights of workers within the framework of the common good of the whole of society.”
Our farming communities should also note that Pope St. John Paul II spoke of the dignity of agriculture, writing, “All that has been said thus far on the dignity of work, on the objective and subjective dimension of human work, can be directly applied to the question of agricultural work and to the situation of the person who cultivates the earth by toiling in the fields … . The world of agriculture, which provides society with the goods it needs for its daily sustenance, is of fundamental importance.”
Nine years prior to the adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 here in the United States, the Holy Father wrote, “The disabled person is one of us and participates fully in the same humanity that we possess. It would be radically unworthy of man, and a denial of our common humanity, to admit to the life of the community, and thus admit to work, only those who are fully functional.”
Finally, the Holy Father describes the elements of a spirituality of work, describing work as “a sharing in the activity of the Creator.” Moreover, the “Christian finds in human work a small part of the Cross of Christ and accepts it in the same spirit of redemption in which Christ accepted his Cross for us. In work, thanks to the light that penetrates us from the Resurrection of Christ, we always find a glimmer of new life, of the new good, as if it were an announcement of ‘the new heavens and the new earth’ in which man and the world participate precisely through the toil that goes with work.”
May God give us this grace. Amen.