25/09/06 25th Anniversary of ‘Laborem Exercens’

Print Friendly
Key Note Address given by Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of all Ireland
at Villanova Universitty, Philadelphia, to comemorate the 25th Anniversary of ‘Laborem Exercens’,
an encyclical letter written by Pope John Paul II on work, which was published in 1981.

Villanova University, Philadelphia, 25th Sept 2006.

‘Catholic Social Teaching and Human Work’.

Work is at the centre of the Church’s reflection on human identity and activity.  When the dignity of the person fades from its central position in the realities of work, then upheavals and insecurity inevitably emerge in society.  Each generation then must address the challenge of how the centrality the human person in the world of work is respected within the changing and ever complex situation of its time. 

This applies also to us in our era of globalization. Globalization, one can say, faces us with “new developments in industry, new techniques striking out new paths, changed relations of employer and employee, abounding wealth among a very small number and destitution among the masses”[1].  These are appropriate words, but you may be surprised that I take them from the very first paragraph of Rerum Novarum.  They were written in 1891 in the context of the industrial revolution. They serve to remind us that each generation is faced with a similar challenge in its efforts to evaluate how developments in industry and technology affect “the condition of workers”.  
When we celebrate the anniversary of Laborem Exercens we are celebrating also the anniversary of Rerum Novarum and of that series of great Social Encyclicals which have been written to commemorate the ground breaking Encyclical of Leo XIII which gave rise to the modern era of Catholic Social Teaching.
The centrality of work
Laborem Exercens was the first of three Social Encyclicals of Pope John Paul II.  It was written at a crucial time in modern history, at the beginnings of a process which would eventually lead to the fall of the Eastern European communist systems.  Ten years later, Pope John Paul in his later Encyclical Centesimus Annus could say: “the fundamental crisis of the systems claiming to express the rule and even the dictatorship of the working classes began with the great upheavals which took place in Poland in the name of solidarity. It was the throngs of working people which foreswore the ideology which presumed to speak in their name”[2].
The context in which Laborem Exercens was written then was that of the emerging crisis of the Communist systems in Central and Eastern Europe and the foresight of Pope John Paul II who more than most understood just how that system had failed to recognize the dignity of work. From concrete experience he was acutely aware that any form of materialism or economic system that tries to reduce the worker to being a mere instrument of production, a simple labour force with an exclusively material value, inevitably ends up distorting the essence of work and the social fabric itself.
Catholic Social teaching has always stressed the fact that “work, because of its subjective or personal character, is superior to every other factor connected with productivity; this principle applies, in particular, with regard to capital”[3].
A key tenet of Laborem Exercens[4] in its analysis of the priority of labour over capital is its affirmation that human work has a twofold significance: objective and subjective.
In the objective sense, work is the sum of activities, resources, instruments and technologies used by persons to produce things, to exercise responsible dominion over the earth, in the words of the Book of Genesis.
In the subjective sense, work is the activity of the human person as a dynamic being capable of acting in ways which correspond to the specific vocation of the human person. Laborem Exercens notes that: “Man has to subdue the earth and dominate it, because as the ‘image of God’ he is a person, that is to say, a subjective being capable of acting in a planned and rational way, capable of deciding about himself, and with a tendency to self-realization. As a person, man is therefore the subject of work”.[5]
According to Pope John Paul, work in the objective sense constitutes the contingent aspect of human activity, which constantly varies in its expressions according to the changing technological, cultural, social and political conditions.   On the other hand, work in the subjective sense represents its stable dimension, since it does not depend on what people produce or on the type of activity they undertake, but only and exclusively on their dignity as human beings.
The Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church stresses then that: “This subjectivity gives to work its particular dignity, which does not allow that it be considered a simple commodity or an impersonal element of the apparatus for productivity”[6].   It is the human person who is always then the measure of the dignity of work: “In fact there is no doubt that human work has an ethical value of its own, which clearly and directly remains linked to the fact that the one who carries it out is a person”.[7]   Work therefore is for human person, the human person is there not just to work.
The business enterprise
The priority of labour over capital has been such a dominant theme of Catholic Social Doctrine that many had the feeling that the Social Doctrine of the Church was not friendly to the business community.  It was said that the Social Teaching of the Church was not comfortable with the concept of profit and more concerned with the distribution of wealth than with the generation of wealth.
There is indeed a tendency within the Social Teaching of the Church to stress the rights of workers and workers organization and the responsibility of public authorities to address all forms of exploitation.   This is understandable and correct.  This was due in many ways to the epoch in which the modern era of the social teaching emerged, during the height of the industrial revolution when the position of workers and their rights was dramatic and required urgent attention.
Today the situation of the world of work has changed somewhat and it would be useful to reflect on how the Social Teaching of the Church has addressed and must address this new situation.
When I look at my own country, Ireland, I can see how the structure of a modern economy has changed.   I left Dublin to study and to work Rome in 1969.  In those years, Ireland was the poor relative of all the economies of the European Union.   Unemployment reached up to 17% nationally and we had parishes in Dublin where that figure reached up to 70%. There was widespread poverty and what one would effectively have had to call structural poverty.  Where unemployment reaches 70%, social integration breaks down.  There was large emigration of both skilled labour and of ordinary workers.
I returned to Ireland three years ago to find a very different situation.   Unemployment stands at less than 4%.  Growth this year will be about 5%.  Ireland has become a country of immigration, from all over the world, but especially from the newly acceded countries of the European Union.  Since the accession of new countries to the European Union a little over two years ago at least 150.000 new immigrants have arrived in Ireland from those countries alone.
What has happened?  How did it happen?  There are many reasons. Ireland was at the right position at the right time.  Ireland received funds from the European Union and used them well in improving infrastructures. And of course, the Irish are the Irish!
But there are also other lessons to be learned which I believe an attentive reading of the Social Doctrine of the Church can also help us understand better.  These lessons are also linked with the nature of a modern economy in the knowledge era.
Many people tend to look at international economic life with a certain scepticism, even anxiety.  Globalisation has added a further unknowns and threatening phenomena for the lives of many.  International speculators are considered rapacious and unscrupulous, especially in the aftermath of various international economic crises where uncontrolled speculation was understood to have played a major role in the destruction of entire economies.   The shape of the current global market economy tends to make people feel that their jobs are at risk and their pensions insecure.
There is also a certain ambivalence in the attitude of the wealthier countries which adds to the climate of insecurity.  I was present in Doha when China was admitted to the World Trade Organization.  I was present at the festivities which celebrated the event and its importance for a global, open, rules-based trade system.  The Western countries stressed how much free trade can do for international development and especially for the poor countries. Open markets were celebrated as the road signs to development for all.  But today, when China begins using its enormous advantage and Western jobs in the textile industry are at stake, those same Western countries are talking about protectionist measures and progress on the Doha round has ground to a halt.
Catholic Social Teaching traditionally had reservations about assigning a determinant role to the market in managing international economic relations. I remember the outcry from certain circles on the occasion of the publication of the Encyclical Letter, Sollecitudo Rei Socialis, when Pope John Paul dared to criticize in the same breath – but in a differentiated fashion – not just communism but capitalism.  Some years later, then, I remember the almost triumphal joy with which the affirmations of the market in the subsequent Encyclical Centesimus Annus were greeted.   Christian social reflection and the market have a difficult relationship.

The problem was not entirely with the Church.  Certain economic theorists tend to reject any outside societal interference in the market process, except that of guaranteeing the necessary legal framework which will permit the market to work.  Government should keep its fingers out of the working of the market, keep taxes down, keep social expenditures to a level which does not make business non-competitive, keep social legislation regarding working hours and contracts as broad as possible. The market, the theory goes, should be left to do its task of creating wealth which would generate employment and in its own way permit social benefits to trickle down, even if only drop by drop to reach the poorest.   There is much truth in these affirmations, but at times this viewpoint had become almost a dogma. 

Knowledge-based economy

A modern economy is more and more a knowledge based economy.   The so-called industrialized nations are in fact post-industrial economies where the service sector dominates.  The success of a modern economy is greatly linked with the possibility of access to knowledge and with the management of knowledge.    The principle resource of such an economy is the human person, with his or her creativity and capacity for innovation.   Indeed, the more resourceful the person can be made, the greater a creative resource he or she is for the economy.  In a modern economy, investment in people and in those social infrastructures which value human capacity can no longer belong only to the realm of philanthropy, but constitutes an essential element in any healthy programme of economic investment.  The Compendium of the Social Doctrine notes that “allowing workers to develop themselves fosters increased productivity and efficiency in the very work undertaken.  A business enterprise must be a community of solidarity that is not closed within its own company interests”[8].

The economies that have done well are those which have invested in their people, that is, in education and health care and in improving the basic technological capacity of the workforce, in such a way as to permit them to enter into the national and the global economy as real actors and protagonists.   On the other hand, the unskilled or the nations which do not posses adequate social infrastructures are those destined to remain on the fringes of social and economic progress.   The unskilled are the first victims of any economic crisis. 
One of the most significant factors which contributed to Irish economic growth was in fact the quality of the educational system, which despite deficiencies in both buildings and curriculum did manage to produce young people with creative and innovative ability who were able to insert themselves with the necessary flexibility into a modern business economy.  Paradoxically, in its period of wealth Ireland has not been investing enough in its educational system.  There is a major crisis in some aspects of the health system.  There will never be social progress without sustained economic growth. But even the extraordinary economic progress that we have seen in Ireland will on its own ensure social progress at the same time.
Creativity and innovative capacity are key factors in today’s world.  Pope John Paul recognised that “whereas at one time the decisive factor of production was the land, and later capital… today the decisive factor is increasingly man himself…;” his intelligence enables him to discover the earth’s productive potential and the many different ways in which human needs can be satisfied”[9]   Pope John Paul notes then that a business “cannot be considered only as a ‘society of capital goods’; it is also a ‘society of persons’”.[10]  
In the past the distinction between labour and capital was perhaps then a more radical one.  Today one talks about human capital and social capital, terms I do not particularly like, since they tend to treat persons as objects.  The reality is that it is the subjectivity of persons and the subjectivity of society which drive forwards a modern knowledge based economy. The worker in today’s economy is a real protagonist.
The Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church sums us these reflections affirming that “all of this entails a new perspective in the relationship between labour and capital. We can affirm that, contrary to what happened in the former organization of labour in which the subject would end up being less important than the object, than the mechanical process, in our day the subjective dimension of work tends to be more decisive and more important than the objective dimension”[11].
When then the Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church vigorously reaffirms the traditional Church teaching on the dignity of work through stressing the right to work[12] the rights of workers[13] the duty to work[14] the importance of rest from work[15], it does so confident in the validity of Pope John Paul words that “the integral development of the human person through work does not impede but rather promotes the greater productivity and efficiency of work itself”[16]
Certainly, the current global economy offers great opportunities, but these do not always favour workers.  While there is a recognition that human creativity is the driving force of a modern economy, its most precious resource, there is a tendency to look on work as just another factor in the cost of production, to be treated just like any other factor. Indeed there is a tendency to look on labour costs as one of the principle economic factors and to move production to where labour costs are most advantageous.  This does indeed offer great opportunity to poorer countries, yet it also leads to a tendency in which the rights of workers and especially of the power of workers’ associations are weakened.

In fact, the current labour market is such that it is becoming harder to see a business enterprise as a “society of persons”, as Pope John Paul saw it to be.  Even the smallest business enterprise may have components of its activities in different countries or continents.  The terms employer and employee take on a different significance as different components of an enterprise are outsourced to a series of intermediary enterprises around the world.  In such a situation it is easy for respect for workers rights to fall out of the picture.  Consumers in the West can however send the message that they are not just interested in the designer logo on their shirt, but also in the working conditions under which that shirt was produced. 

The opportunities which a knowledge-based economy can bring are also relativized by the fact that, as Pope John Paul noted: “many people, perhaps the majority today, do not have the means which would enable them to take their place in an effective and humanly dignified way within the productive system in which work is truly central.  They have no possibility of acquiring the basic knowledge which would enable them to express their creativity and develop their potential.  They have no way of entering the network of knowledge and intercommunication which would enable them to see their qualities appreciated and utilized.  Thus if not actually exploited, they are to a great extent marginalized; economic development takes place over their head, so to speak, when it does not actually reduce the already narrow scope of their old subsistence economies”[17]

Work, the family, migration

In fostering a broader understanding of the relationship between work and the human person, Laborem Exercens stressed the relationship between work and the family.   The Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church takes this theme up making an appeal.  “Family and work, so closely interdependent in the experience of the vast majority of people, deserve finally to be considered in a more realistic light, with an attention that seeks to understand them together, without the limits of a strictly private conception of the family or a strictly economic view of work”[18].
The world of work today is not particularly favourable to the family.  More and more people have to travel long distances to work.  It is not just that both parents have to work, but it can happen that one or both spouses have to work two jobs to earn sufficient to maintain the family.  Today we often encounter the phenomenon of the “working poor”, people who are in the labour market, but who do not earn sufficient to for them and their families to survive.  Very often those who work end up paying higher contributions for health and insurance and receive fewer benefits than the person who is unemployed.
Catholic Social Teaching recognises the specific contribution of women to the world of work.  The Compendium notes that: “the feminine genius is needed in all expressions in the life of society and therefore the presence of women in the workforce must also be guaranteed.  The first indispensable step in this direction is the concrete possibility of access to professional formation”.[19]    It notes the forms of discrimination which exist against women in the workforce, but also stresses their need to be able to reconcile their responsibilities in work and those in the family.   One of the key factors in Ireland’s economic success has been the high participation of women in the work force.  But in speaking with people, in listening to the talk shows on the radio and the letters to the newspaper, one can see that we are still a long way away from a satisfactory response to what women really desire in this area.   Very often women have to work just to keep up the family income, when they would prefer at certain periods to be free to address family responsibilities, and be able to return to the workforce without suffering disadvantage.
The Compendium looks at the complex situation, characteristic of many societies, of migration and work.  Migration has always been a dimension of the world economy; it will inevitably become a normal dimension of an economy that is global.  It notes that “institutions in host countries must keep careful watch to prevent the spread of the temptation to exploit foreign workers, denying them the same tights enjoyed by nationals, rights that are guaranteed to all without discrimination”.[20]  It recalls especially “the right of reuniting families”. I would also add, from a European point of view, the need to be vigilant in the face of anti-immigrant sentiment, often racist in its character. 
Ireland has become a country of immigration.  In my two years as Archbishop of Dublin I have designated chaplaincies for large communities from Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Rumania, Nigeria, the Philippines and for Syro-Malabar Christians from India.  These immigrants have brought a real enrichment to Irish culture and to the Irish Church.  There is however the serious problem that they often represent important talent which is being lost to their own countries at a time in which it is most needed.  Some will return to their countries enriched by the experience they have gained establishing an informal sharing of technology and know how.


Work, the State and the Market

Market forces very often demand non-intervention on the part of the State, but on their part they make demands on the way society is structured and thus on the ability of the State to carry out its role.  The effects of the dominance of market ideology may be much more far-reaching than we at times realize.  “Small government” and “low tax regimes” can of course be a sound policy.  Social goals can, at times, be achieved more efficiently through market means and by the private sector.  Pension policy is moving more and more in this direction.  But who takes responsibility for guaranteeing those social goals in times of economic crisis?   Who will provide the basic safety nets to defend the weakest, or those who are excluded in the short or long term?     Would many of our small governments have the capacity to cope with the human and social consequences of a major market crisis?
Right across Europe today the questions of the relationship between government and market and between market growth and equity are difficult political questions.   The ability of the State to cover the costs of pensions, health care and social services is reduced just at the moment in which there is also a certain feeling of precariousness about employment security.  Politicians can reply in a populist way and perhaps damage precisely that agility of the market to foster growth.
Pope John Paul in his Encyclical Centesimus Annus[21] tries to balance the roles of the market, of the State and of a broader participatory society.  He notes that “the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs”[22].  Interestingly, the Compendium would seem to go even farther noting that “the free market is an effective instrument for attaining important objectives of justice[23]”.  But the Pope also stresses that “there are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms.  There are important needs which escape its logic.  There are goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought and sold”[24].
The Compendium stresses that part of the role of the State in the face of the market is to ensure that it is truly free[25] .  The State has the task of determining an appropriate juridical framework for regulating economic affairs in order to safeguard the prerequisites of the free market, which presumes a certain equality between the parties.  In that way the State should guarantee that free competition curbs the excessive profits of individual business and responds to consumers’ demands through bringing about a more efficient use and conservation of resources.

But the Compendium also stresses that since ”the market takes on a significant social function in contemporary society it is important to identify its most positive potentials and create conditions which allow them to be put concretely into effect[26].  It notes that “Economic activity, above all in a free market context, cannot be conducted in an institutional, juridical and political vacuum”[27].  And it takes up the important affirmation of Pope John Paul II namely that “Economic freedom is only one element of human freedom…  When it becomes autonomous, then economic freedom loses it relationship with the human person and ends up alienating and oppressing him”[28]
Indeed it must be pointed out that no sector of human activity can be excluded from ethical scrutiny. Ethics also belongs to the real world.  Ethical scrutiny deals with individual behaviour:  observing the rules and ethical principles such as trust and honesty, which are incidentally also essential to the market.  But ethical scrutiny, being based on the concept of responsibility, must lead each person to reflect on all the foreseeable consequences of their actions, including the consequences for society as a whole.  The market and economic activity constitute only one dimension of human activity and, while following their own internal norms, still remain at the service of the broader community.
A truly global and inclusive economy

A distinguishing characteristic of the market today is that it is global.  One could dedicate the rest of the evening to discussing the nature of a global economy and the advantages and disadvantages that it brings.  I wish however to stress one simple point: a global economy must be truly global.  Global must be made synonymous with inclusive.  An economic system which leaves on its margins huge sectors of the population or entire regions of a nation or of the world will always remain fragile.  The inclusion of the widest possible number of people or nations as protagonists is a primary interest of the global economy.   A global economy which produces massive exclusion will be neither global nor stable. 

One of the major problems with the current economic situation is the existence of glaring inequalities and of a lack of models – and perhaps political will – to resolve the question.  There have always been winners and losers in any economic model:  in today’s global economy there are extraordinary winners and disastrous losers. 

One possible positive result from globalization, however, may be a restoration of the concept of the common good and a realization that today there exists a “global common good” which urgently needs to be protected.  This applies to the protection of human rights, the protection of the environment but also the protection of the dignity of work. It is becoming more and more obvious that what happens in one part of the world inevitably has repercussions elsewhere.  No nation, not even the most powerful, can go it alone. 
Respecting the global common good, however, cannot be limited to enforcing certain negotiated economic, financial and commercial norms and standards.   Liberalization of trade and finances, for example, is not an end in itself. Liberalization will only lead to growth when certain other conditions are met. But neither is growth in itself is the ultimate value.  Growth with equity and inclusion is better than growth which generates great inequalities and exclusion.  Growth with stability is better than a growth accompanied by volatility and precariousness. 


My rather disordered reflections on this anniversary of the Encyclical Laborem Exercens have led me to stress – perhaps with too much optimism – that the nature of a modern economy may provide new openings for dialogue between Christian social reflection and the world of work and the economy today.  A modern economy recognizes that it is not the market which is its driving force.  The market is only a means which can more efficiently ensure that the fruits of human creativity can flourish and be distributed.
We should not overlook the fact that Laborem Exercens looks on human work not just as the work of an isolated individual.  Human work has an intrinsic social dimension. A person’s work, in fact, is naturally connected with that of other people.   Pope John Paul notes that “more than ever, work is work with others and work for others[29].
Human work can build solidarity.  But it can do so only if the world of work is structured and oriented towards solidarity and enables all to participate through their work in the building up of a world where all can realise themselves in God’s image. 
Pope Benedict XVI in his Encyclical Deus Caritas Est has noted that with the Jesus’ teaching “the concept of ‘neighbour’ is now universalized”[30].    True neighbourliness embraces all.  The Good Samaritan responds in love to an unidentified person on the road, just because he is a person, for no other reason than that he is a fellow human being suffering.  But if “neighbour” is universalized, it is also not reduced to a generic, abstract expression.  Neighbour is not an abstract concept:  but a concrete person.

The teaching of Jesus, who came to reveal to us that God is love, is a teaching which is the opposite of the dominant consumer mentality.  The consumer mentality tends to utilize or to use for personal satisfaction.  Through work the person can give of his or her talents to ensure that all can realize fully the image of God that is within them   In that way work can witness also that “love of neighbour is a path that leads to the encounter with God, and that closing our eyes to our neighbour, also blinds us to God”[31].

[1] Encyclical Rerum Novarum, #1
[2] Encyclical Centesimus Annus, #23
[3] Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church, #276.
[4] Encyclical Laborem Exercens, 5-7
[5] Ibid, #6
[6] Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church, #271
[7] Encyclical Laborem Exercens, #’6
[8] Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church, #340
[9] Encyclical Centesimus Annus, #32
[10] Ibid., #43
[11] Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church, #278
[12] Ibid, #287-300,
[13] Ibid. #301-30,
[14] Ibid. #264-266
[15] Ibid.,#284-286
[16] Encyclical Centesimus Annus, #43
[17] Ibid., #33
[18] Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church,#294.
[19] Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, #295
[20] Ibid., #298
[21] cf. Encyclical Centesimus Annus, #40
[22] Ibid., #34
[23] Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church, #347.
[24] Encyclical Centesimus Annus, #34
[25] cf. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,#352 and Encyclical Centesimus Annus, n.15

[26] Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, #350
[27] Ibid., #352
[28] Encyclical Centesimus Annus, #39
[29] Encyclical Centesimus Annus, # 31
[30] Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, #15
[31] Ibid., #16
Share it with the world...Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrPin on PinterestDigg thisShare on Reddit