The Catholic work ethic

It may seem a little gratuitous to add to the already vast volume of comment that has followed the death of Pope John Paul II in a specialist publication, yet his death also has a profound bearing on our subject, that of work.

Karol Wojtyla, probably more than any other previous pontiff, was a serious thinker about work, and his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens: On Human Work ranks as one of the greatest texts about work of the entire 20th century. To the world’s one billion Catholics, and all the additional millions of on-off, semi-lapsed, half-in, critical affiliates and spiritual dissidents beyond, no-one has ever done more to define the Catholic attitude towards work than he.

As he saw it, work was a field of human endeavour that badly needed rescuing – from capitalism on the one hand, with its view of the worker as an instrument of production, and from communism on the other, with its view of social classes polarised by work into ceaseless historical warfare. And perhaps there was another aspect to the rescue mission, too: to save it from the idiom of the necessary evil – that work was merely the miserable means to a meaningless end.

It was Pope John Paul II’s contention that work was something deeply good, something that made the people who did it “more [of] a human being”, something “of fundamental and decisive importance” to the system of rights and obligations through which people order the world.

Not only did the phenomenon of work separate humankind from animals, but life was unthinkable without it. In the creation story of God’s six days of labour lies the birth of the world of work. Whenever someone raises bread to their lips they pay silent homage to the fact that work has constructed the world; whenever someone works they acknowledge the toil of previous generations and build the inheritance of future generations. Only when expressed in these terms does it become possible to understand exactly why industriousness has been seen as a virtue, and why unemployment is “an evil in all cases”.

In Laborem Exercens, the pope said: “Even when it is accompanied by toil and effort, work is still something good, and so man develops through love for work. This entirely positive and creative, educational and meritorious character of man’s work must be the basis for the judgements and decisions being made in its regard in spheres that include human rights.”

Obviously, all down the centuries, the grubby reality of work has fallen rather short of such sentiments, and the fact that work has often been used as a vehicle of oppression drew Papal condemnation on more than one occasion. Yet the test for “meaningful work” remains at heart a very simple one: whether it increases or reduces the dignity and self-realisation of the worker.

John Paul II argued that most wrong-headed readings of work could be traced back to this question: is man “for work”, or is work “for man”? Is work concerned with the transformation of the world, or the transformation of humans? The right answer must be the latter. Once man starts serving work, labour becomes a commodity, and human beings are a means to an end – like a tool, or a machine, or anything whose value depends on usefulness. This error, he suggested, lay at the heart of social injustice.

John Paul II will be remembered as a stalwart opponent of communism. However, in Laborem Exercens, it is possible to see just how far he absorbed socialist criticisms of the capitalist system.

Not only were trade unions legitimate, but strikes received a blessing, too – “in the proper conditions and within just limits”. Labour and capital may need each other, but the church is basically on the side of labour: capital is “only a collection of things”. For a conservative figure, it is also striking that he took the primacy of labour to mean that the right to private property was a long way from absolute. “It is clear that recognition of the proper position of labour and the worker in the production process demand various adaptations in the sphere of the right to ownership of the means of production.”

In the UK today, of course, things have moved on, and the cultural decline of organised labour is one of the foremost signs of change in working life. It is also possible to find in Laborem Exercens outdated passages that will scare the living daylights out of every female reader of Personnel Today, and probably most male readers, too – Catholic, non-Catholic and secular alike.

Motherhood, notes John Paul II, is also work, but needs to be protected from the rapacious tentacles of the labour market. “Having to abandon these tasks [motherhood] in order to take up paid work outside the home is wrong from the point of view of the good of society and of the family when it… hinders… [the] primary goals of the mission of a mother.” Ahem, rather than amen to that.

Yet the legacy in our field, of the pope who died last week, is nevertheless a great one. His 1981 encyclical can sit alongside the thoughts of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Max Weber and Hannah Arendt as one of the defining contributions to the philosophy of work. Work has built civilisation, culture and progress, and provided the foundation for family and social life. It’s worth remembering on a filthy Monday morning.

Laborem Exercens: On Human Work (1981) can be read online at


One Response to The Catholic work ethic

  1. Drake 18 Jun 2014 at 5:41 am #

    “To the world’s one billion Catholics, and all the additional millions of on-off, semi-lapsed, half-in, critical affiliates and spiritual dissidents beyond, no-one has ever done more to define the Catholic attitude towards work than [John Paul 2].”

    No way. He wasn’t even Catholic. The pre-Vatican 2 actual popes did much more to define the Catholic attitude towards work.