Laborem Exercens, Chapter I


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1. Human Work on the Ninetieth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum

Since 15 May of the present year was the ninetieth anniversary of the publication by the great Pope of the “social question”, Leo XIII, of the decisively important Encyclical which begins with the words Rerum Novarum, I wish to devote this document to human work and, even more, to man in the vast context of the reality of work. As I said in the Encyclical Redemptor Hominis, published at the beginning of my service in the See of Saint Peter in Rome, man “is the primary and fundamental way for the Church”,1. precisely because of the inscrutable mystery of Redemption in Christ; and so it is necessary to return constantly to this way and to follow it ever anew in the various aspects in which it shows us all the wealth and at the same time all the toil of human existence on earth.

Work is one of these aspects, a perennial and fundamental one, one that is always relevant and constantly demands renewed attention and decisive witness. Because fresh questions and problems are always arising, there are always fresh hopes, but also fresh fears and threats, connected with this basic dimension of human existence: man’s life is built up every day from work, from work it derives its specific dignity, but at the same time work contains the unceasing measure of human toil and suffering, and also of the harm and injustice which penetrate deeply into social life within individual nations and on the international level. While it is true that man eats the bread produced by the work of his hands2– and this means not only the daily bread by which his body keeps alive but also the bread of science and progress, civilization and culture – it is also a perennial truth that he eats this bread by “the sweat of his face” 3, that is to say, not only by personal effort and toil but also in the midst of many tensions, conflicts and crises, which, in relationship with the reality of work, disturb the life of individual societies and also of all humanity.

We are celebrating the ninetieth anniversary of the Encyclical Rerum Novarum on the eve of new developments in technological, economic and political conditions which, according to many experts, will influence the world of work and production no less than the industrial revolution of the last century. There are many factors of a general nature: the widespread introduction of automation into many spheres of production, the increase in the cost of energy and raw materials, the growing realization that the heritage of nature is limited and that it is being intolerably polluted, and the emergence on the political scene of peoples who, after centuries of subjection, are demanding their rightful place among the nations and in international decision-making. These new conditions and demands will require a reordering and adjustment of the structures of the modern economy and of the distribution of work. Unfortunately, for millions of skilled workers these changes may perhaps mean unemployment, at least for a time, or the need for retraining. They will very probably involve a reduction or a less rapid increase in material well-being for the more developed countries. But they can also bring relief and hope to the millions who today live in conditions of shameful and unworthy poverty.

It is not for the Church to analyze scientifically the consequences that these changes may have on human society. But the Church considers it her task always to call attention to the dignity and rights of those who work, to condemn situations in which that dignity and those rights are violated, and to help to guide the above-mentioned changes so as to ensure authentic progress by man and society.

2. In the Organic Development of the Church’s Social Action

It is certainly true that work, as a human issue, is at the very centre of the “social question” to which, for almost a hundred years, since the publication of the above-mentioned Encyclical, the Church’s teaching and the many undertakings connected with her apostolic mission have been especially directed. The present reflections on work are not intended to follow a different line, but rather to be in organic connection with the whole tradition of this teaching and activity. At the same time, however, I am making them, according to the indication in the Gospel, in order to bring out from the heritage of the Gospel “what is new and what is old”4. Certainly, work is part of “what is old”- as old as man and his life on earth. Nevertheless, the general situation of man in the modern world, studied and analyzed in its various aspects of geography, culture and civilization, calls for the discovery of the new meanings of human work. It likewise calls for the formulation of the new tasks that in this sector face each individual, the family, each country, the whole human race, and, finally, the Church herself.

During the years that separate us from the publication of the Encyclical Rerum Novarum, the social question has not ceased to engage the Church’s attention. Evidence of this are the many documents of the Magisterium issued by the Popes and by the Second Vatican Council, pronouncements by individual Episcopates, and the activity of the various centres of thought and of practical apostolic initiatives, both on the international level and at the level of the local Churches. It is difficult to list here in detail all the manifestations of the commitment of the Church and of Christians in the social question, for they are too numerous. As a result of the Council, the main coordinating centre in this field is the Pontifical Commission Justice and Peace, which has corresponding bodies within the individual Bishops’ Conferences. The name of this institution is very significant. It indicates that the social question must be dealt with in its whole complex dimension. Commitment to justice must be closely linked with commitment to peace in the modern world. This twofold commitment is certainly supported by the painful experience of the two great world wars which in the course of the last ninety years have convulsed many European countries and, at least partially, countries in other continents. It is supported, especially since the Second World War, by the permanent threat of a nuclear war and the prospect of the terrible self-destruction that emerges from it.

If we follow the main line of development of the documents of the supreme Magisterium of the Church, we find in them an explicit confirmation of precisely such a statement of the question. The key position, as regards the question of world peace, is that of John XXIII’s Encyclical Pacem in Terris. However, if one studies the development of the question of social justice, one cannot fail to note that, whereas during the period between Rerum Novarum and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno the Church’s teaching concentrates mainly on the just solution of the “labour question” within individual nations, in the next period the Church’s teaching widens its horizon to take in the whole world. The disproportionate distribution of wealth and poverty and the existence of some countries and continents that are developed and of others that are not call for a levelling out and for a search for ways to ensure just development for all. This is the direction of the teaching in John XXIII’s Encyclical Mater et Magistra, in the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes of the Second Vatican Council, and in Paul VI’s Encyclical Populorum Progressio.

This trend of development of the Church’s teaching and commitment in the social question exactly corresponds to the objective recognition of the state of affairs. While in the past the “class” question was especially highlighted as the centre of this issue, in more recent times it is the “world” question that is emphasized. Thus, not only the sphere of class is taken into consideration but also the world sphere of inequality and injustice, and as a consequence, not only the class dimension but also the world dimension of the tasks involved in the path towards the achievement of justice in the modern world. A complete analysis of the situation of the world today shows in an even deeper and fuller way the meaning of the previous analysis of social injustices; and it is the meaning that must be given today to efforts to build justice on earth, not concealing thereby unjust structures but demanding that they be examined and transformed on a more universal scale.

3. The Question of Work, the Key to the Social Question

In the midst of all these processes-those of the diagnosis of objective social reality and also those of the Church’s teaching in the sphere of the complex and many-sided social question-the question of human work naturally appears many times. This issue is, in a way, a constant factor both of social life and of the Church’s teaching. Furthermore, in this teaching attention to the question goes back much further than the last ninety years. In fact the Church’s social teaching finds its source in Sacred Scripture, beginning with the Book of Genesis and especially in the Gospel and the writings of the Apostles. From the beginning it was part of the Church’s teaching, her concept of man and life in society, and, especially, the social morality which she worked out according to the needs of the different ages. This traditional patrimony was then inherited and developed by the teaching of the Popes on the modern “social question”, beginning with the Encyclical Rerum Novarum. In this context, study of the question of work, as we have seen, has continually been brought up to date while maintaining that Christian basis of truth which can be called ageless.

While in the present document we return to this question once more-without however any intention of touching on all the topics that concern it-this is not merely in order to gather together and repeat what is already contained in the Church’s teaching. It is rather in order to highlight-perhaps more than has been done before-the fact that human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question, if we try to see that question really from the point of view of man’s good. And if the solution-or rather the gradual solution-of the social question, which keeps coming up and becomes ever more complex, must be sought in the direction of “making life more human”5, then the key, namely human work, acquires fundamental and decisive importance.

Return to 4.3.2 (commentary on Preface and Chapter 1)

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  1. (N. 4 in orig.) Encyclical Redemptor Hominis, 14: AAS 71 (1979), p. 284. 

  2. (N. 5 in orig.) Cf. Ps 127(128):2. 

  3. (N. 6 in orig.) Gen 3:19. 

  4. (N. 7 in orig.) Cf. Mt 13:52. 

  5. (N. 8 in orig.) Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 38: AAS 58 (1966), p. 1055. 

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