Catholic Social Teaching on Labor
John Paul II biblically grounds the meaning of work and its relation to the human person in the Genesis story (LE 4). It is through work that women and men participate in God’s creative activity and in Christ’s redemption by imbuing earthly realities with Christ’s Spirit.6 Laborem Exercens speaks of three spheres of work where this is achieved: the personal sphere, the sphere of the family, and work in the bigger society. On the personal level, people attain fulfillment as a human being and become more fully human through work (LE 9.2). On the level of the family, work is a condition for making it possible to found a family which requires a means of subsistence (LE 10.1). On the social level, a person’s particular society is a “great historical and social incarnation of the work of all generations.... [M]an (sic) combines his deepest human identity with membership of a nation, and intends his work also to increase the common good.” (LE 10.2)
Within the framework of the priority of labor over capital, Laborem Exercens discusses the rights of workers. First, a basic right is the right to work (LE 16.1). To labor is essential to all humans not only because it has been commanded by God, but in addition to this, it humanizes the person and it is done out of regard for others like a person’s family and the society as a whole. Laborem Exercens also affirms the worker’s right to just wages and other social benefits like pension, health care, regular weekly rest, holiday or vacation, insurance for old age and work accidents, and a working environment not injurious to health or the worker’s personal integrity (LE 19.1-19.5). Wages, in particular, is the most common means by which people have access to the goods of creation. Remuneration for work is the most important way for securing a just relationship between workers and employers and the concrete and key means of assessing if a socioeconomic system is functioning justly. Laborem Exercens acknowledges as well the worker’s “right to form associations to defend the vital interests of workers employed in the various professions” (LE 20).
The Church recognizes that many women have entered the world of work in the public sphere. “Since they are becoming ever more conscious of their human dignity, they will not tolerate being treated as inanimate objects or mere instruments, but claim both in domestic and public life, the rights and duties that befit a human person.” (Pacem in Terris 41)
Laborem Exercens likewise speaks of a spirituality of work. This means that work is not merely a source of money to survive but a place of livelihood7 where the worker becomes fully human and fully alive. In this regard, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church underlines that “ [t]he memory and experience of the Sabbath constitute a barrier against becoming slaves to work, whether voluntarily or by force, and against every kind of exploitation, hidden or evident”