4.3.5 Work, dignity and society (LE ##9-10)

Back to 4.3.4

Unit 4 Contents

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Even though we are progressing slowly in reading Laborem Excercens (you might think), we’re nearly one third of the way through!  The last two sections in chapter II require less introduction than the earlier ones.

In these sections John Paul takes further his engagement with the opening chapters of Genesis.  Three times he re-states the fundamental point that “work is the means whereby man achieves that ‘dominion’ which is proper to him”.1.  This is why “work is a good thing for man” (#9).

In particular, he comments on work both before and after ‘the Fall’.  The second paragraph speaks powerfully of the way that, in the fallen world, work is experienced universally as heavy toil.  Earlier I referred to the future Pope’s years of manual labour during WW2 (4.3.2), and without any doubt this is in mind when he refers to the “exceptionally laborious conditions” familiar to many, including “those who work in mines and quarries”.

Probably more than any other passage in the encyclical, this one shows that his vision of work is profoundly realistic.  He does not underplay at all the struggle that much work is or how unpleasant it can be.

Yet it is against this background that the Pope insists that work is a good thing, an essential part of a well lived human life.  Again, he puts this in terms of human dignity: work is good for human beings because

[it] corresponds to man’s dignity… [it] expresses this dignity and increases it… [T]hrough work man not only transforms nature… but he also achieves fulfilment as a human being and in a sense becomes ‘more a human being’ (#9, italics in original).

These are very important statements in the encyclical as a whole.  What they say fits fully with what John Paul has written earlier – about work as being for the human person (#6).  The human being is created to work, but this doesn’t mean that work should dominate or enslave men and women.  On the contrary, in what it requires of them, work must correspond to their human dignity and it should contribute to them being fully human.

This is hugely significant for what chapter III goes on to say about ‘the priority of labour over capital’, as the next screen will explain.

#10 brings out connections between each person’s work and family, education and the wider national society in which they live.  Work “constitutes a foundation for the formation of family life… [T]he family is a community made possible by work” (italics in original).

In one way these are statements of what is fairly obvious and very true.  However they may plausibly be seen as calling implicitly for what CST has sometimes called a ‘family wage’, i.e., a wage level that is high enough that a family can live off one spouse’s earnings.  That term is used in LE #19.  The importance of a ‘family wage’ can no doubt be argued for in terms of what justice in remuneration requires and could be a really important tool in overcoming poverty. However some critics of CST would say that the idea implies a favouring of women remaining unpaid workers in the home – although the encyclical does not say this.  In fact John Paul writes later (#19) that the freedom of women to work, as well as to be mothers, should not be inhibited.  Dorr interprets this as a notable development in CST.2

Not long after the start of Unit 4, we looked at a current application of such thinking about wage levels in the campaign in the UK for a ‘Living Wage’ (4.1.4).  We shall come back to this in the last part of the unit.

The last paragraph in #10 gives a helpful summary of what chapter II as a whole has covered.  This emphasizes the overriding importance of “the subjective dimension” of work. To recap, this means that work is to contribute to the workers doing it being fulfilled as persons.  This teaching fits within CST’s ‘personalist’ vision.  Human persons are fulfilled as they participate in their God-given role in the world, in proper relationship with other persons.  As they do so, they generate and are simultaneously able to benefit from the common good – and in this way find in it their own good.  (See 2.2.6.)

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Reading (2pp)

Laborem Exercenspart of Chapter II: ## 9-10

This link takes you to the start of Chapter II, so scroll down.

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Reflection

Having finished chapter II, spend a few minutes looking again through the two chapters of the encyclical you have so far read.

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End of 4.3.5

Go to 4.3.6 The priority of labour over capital (##11-12)

 

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  1. This quotation comes from the second paragraph.  There is a very similar formulation in the first.  The third similar statement is in the final paragraph of #10. 

  2. Dorr, Option for the Poor (cited in 4.2.2 n. 1), 300-302 

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