Von Ketteler, Leo XIII and John Paul II on the “Social Question”

I have chosen these three figures, Von Ketteler, Leo XIII, and John Paul II because they represent the Church coming to grips, in the 19th and 20th centuries, with certain moral issues created by the industrial revolution. All three addressed the so-called “social question.” That term came to designate problems following upon the exploitation of the worker as a result of surplus labor generated by farmers moving from marginal land into the city or as a result of craftsmen forced from their trade because of the more efficient factory production.

The Bishop of Mainz was one of the first churchmen of the 19th century to meet this problem. His contemporary, Leo XIII, acknowledges a debt to Von Ketteler as he crafted the social philosophy expressed in his famous encyclical, Rerum Novarum. In the 20th century the teachings of John XXIII and Paul VI set a slightly different course, but John Paul II, while building upon the outlook of his immediate predecessors, returns in important respects to Leo. In Roncalli and Montini emphasis is placed on communal resources and redistribution, on the exploitation of the south by the north, and on the adverse effects of a free global market. One finds that Wojtyla (John Paul II) is more cautious, in spite of newspaper headlines that sometimes indicate the opposite.

But I am anticipating myself. Let me unfold my story gradually as I attempt to indicate the course of ecclesiastical thinking from the mid-decades of the 19th century to the present. That story will reveal both continuity and change and will help place the teaching of John Paul II in perspective.

The issue we are dealing with is not simply poverty. It has to do with alternative metaphysical accounts of the real. It entails an analysis of human freedom and a consideration of the factors responsible for personal self-respect as well as those responsible for economic growth.


Von Ketteler had available to him the teaching of the Church, not only the Gospels but the teachings of the Fathers, the monastic tradition of Benedict, and the social philosophy of Aquinas and his commentators. The well-springs of Sacred Scripture taken for granted, to scan briefly Western literature is to start with the Fathers. We find that, without exception, the Fathers recommended almsgiving, but refrained from the advocacy of compulsory almsgiving either by Church rule or by civil legislation. As Jacob Viner has pointed out, “They showed no concern about economic inequality except where it involved private riches in excess of what was morally safe for owners or where it was a sign of lack of compassion on the part of the rich for those living in extreme poverty.”

Early Church teaching could be summarized by three admonitions: (1) the admonition of self-restraint in the pursuit of riches, (2) the admonition to just behavior in business, and (3) the admonition to generosity by voluntary almsgiving. All men have a moral obligation to charity, but alms are meritorious only when freely given; charity is a “precept.” Interestingly, the Fathers did not assert that any of the poor as such had specific rights or claims against any of the rich as such. It was taken for granted that it is not the function of almsgiving to eliminate poverty but only to relieve extreme distress.

In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom advised against attempts to distinguish carefully between the deserving and the undeserving, though he acknowledged that his advice would anger his hearers; he justified himself on the grounds that “if we investigate the lives of men too carefully, we shall never have pity on anyone.”

Charles Guignebert presents evidence that the Fathers did not, as a rule, advocate wholly indiscriminating almsgiving. St. Augustine, commenting on the text from Matthew, “Give to everyone who asks” (V, 39-42), writes that that passage should not be read as “Give to him everything that he asks.” What is meant, says St. Augustine, is rather that “you are to give in accord with propriety and justice,” and this may upon occasion mean that the seeker for alms should be given “correction” rather than alms. In general the Fathers advised that in giving one should give preference to the pious over the sinner and to the unfortunate over the lazy and dishonest.

From its inception the Church has also taught the dignity of labor. This stems from the Gospel narratives themselves as well as from the anthropology presupposed by the Gospels. The Gospels portray Joseph as a craftsman and it is supposed that Christ Himself learned to use His hands in His father’s workshop as a carpenter. But behind the Gospels is the conviction that man is both body and soul and that it is fitting that both be employed as man works out his salvation. This doctrine is the cornerstone of Western monasticism, and that monastic tradition, I believe, has shaped the Catholic work ethic in later ages.

Benedict prescribed manual labor for the monks who would follow his Rule. The Benedictine abbey is to be a self-contained economic organism, like the villa of a Roman landowner, but with this difference. Because the monks are themselves the workers, the old classical contrasts between servile work and free leisure no longer obtain. Significantly, the Rule lays great stress on the equal treatment of all members of the community: noble, peasant, free, or slave. As a result, Benedict’s monasteries are credited with revolutionizing the order of social values. Those monasteries, through their sanctification of work and poverty, provided an alternative social model to the slave-owning society of the empire and the aristocratic warrior class. The economic effects of the new order were not long in coming. The disciplined and tireless labor of the monks brought back into cultivation the lands which had been deserted and depopulated since the age of the invasions. In the words of John Henry Newman who wrote perceptively about the period, “by degrees the woody swamp became a hermitage, a religious house, a farm, or abbey, a village, a seminary, a school of learning and a city.” The whole Christian outlook toward labor is encoded in Benedict’s Rule, a rule which became and still is a norm for the Christian West.

Within a Christian context manual labor is seen not only as a human good in the Benedictine sense, but also as a necessity. Man may be the culmination of a hierarchy in nature, and nature’s goods may be ordained to him as their end, but nothing is given without toil. The Christian recognizes that God has presented man with the goods of the earth, but he also recognizes that man must cultivate, shepherd, and construct. In utilizing through work nature’s gifts, man perfects himself in more than one way, for work is both a physical and a psychological good. Furthermore, when work has yielded a surplus, the opportunity for charitable giving is present.

The sense of community taken for granted within the monastic tradition is a model for secular society as well. Since the goods of the earth are held in common, all are entitled to share. The assumption is that all are engaged in the productive process to the extent that their ability and station permit. A corollary of this doctrine is that property owners do not have the right to do what they please with what they call their own, for they are only stewards of their possessions.

Charity is the key element in any Christian theory of community. Charity is required because personal ability and consequent success varies. Not all can contribute to the same degree; similarly, there is no expectation that all will share to the same degree. There is the important awareness of moral failure. Some, although not ill-endowed by nature, fail as a result of their own choices to develop their abilities or fail through laziness to contribute their fair share. They who have not in justice contributed have no claim in strict justice to share. The community, nevertheless, may in charity provide for the ill-endowed; it may even care for those who have willfully failed to acquire skills or squandered their talent and resources. But charity is not mindless. It cannot encourage shiftlessness or materially cooperate in evil.

It is evident that the doctrine of free will is an important factor in Christian attitudes toward work. It is taken for granted that individuals are what they are in a large measure because of their free choices. No determinism robs man of responsibility for what he has become. By a law of nature men are brought to face the long-term consequences of youthful choices. Some have-nots have not because of personal moral failure. Poverty is not, as modern doctrine proclaims, always the product of external social and economic forces. Poverty is also the product of nature’s ill-endowment or of culpable personal failure. Poverty, more often than not, is a symptom of a radical flaw in nature or in human conduct. Men cannot be preserved from the harshness of nature or from the consequences of their vice, ignorance, or folly, either taken singly or communally.

The Church teaches that certain minimal goods are required as conditions for human freedom and growth, including spiritual growth. This requires a degree of material well-being, an amount of leisure. All are called to the moral life and to at least a minimal life of the mind. Religion presupposes reflection. Thus in common with the Greek, the Christian affirms that contemplation is the end of human toil.

While manual labor is a human good, it is still more of a means to an end than an end in itself. There are many goods of the body, but the highest goods are the goods of the spiritual life of man, i.e., personal moral growth and art, science and wisdom. Property and material wealth are the condition for the realization of these distinctively human goods. The unquenchable curiosity of the human intellect and the consequent variety of taste require material means for their legitimate and enobling satisfaction. Personal growth also depends upon the associations one makes. Material means are required if one is to choose one’s companions, to marry in accord with one’s best perceptions, and to lead the life of the mind. Apart from individual ownership of property, which makes all of these intangible goods possible, there can never be genuine individual freedom.

That a man has a right to the fruit of his labor would hardly require debate in a primitive society. But, when one hires himself out as a laborer to till another’s land or work in another’s shop, principles of equity need to be enunciated. A man may lack real property, but assuming normal health of the body, he is not without resources. The Church has taught in every period that a man by his labor, whatever the economic situation, is entitled in exchange for that labor the minimal goods of life, a living wage. Exploitation whether by feudal lord or factory owner is never sanctioned.

As Von Ketteler was quick to see, industrial society complicates the enunciation of general principles. Complexity results because labor often is not directly related to the end product. An individual or a factory may produce what is merely a component in a larger enterprise. Products themselves are bartered, their value often determined by the market. Mistakes can be made in production; the margin for error is great. Labor can be squandered, decisions to produce badly made. As an owner one may have invested in, or as a laborer hired out to, a losing enterprise. The link between labor and marketable product is too easily broken. For effort expended there ought to be a just return, but there are no guarantees that an enterprise will be profitable. The risks attached to production sometimes fall on the laborer. In Von Ketteler’s view, the risk is to be born principally by the entrepreneur who stands much to gain from success. The laborer is entitled to a living wage even in a marginal enterprise or one of dubious return. Labor is not to be exploited to bring a return to an ill-advised venture.

In his sermons of 1848, the future Bishop of Mainz called the social question “the most important of our day.” Von Ketteler, it should be noted, was made conscious of the so-called “social question” not from experience, but through the writings of Marx and Engels. Living and studying in Bavaria and Hesse, he had to read about abject poverty because he was not personally confronted with it. The poverty that Marx and Engels wrote about was unknown in the agricultural regions of Germany. The poverty that occasionally emerged there was usually the result of temporary mishap and could be dealt with at the parish level in spite of the Napoleonic despoilation of ecclesiastical holdings. At that time there were no state welfare programs.

When Von Ketteler began to think about the rising industrial order, he, like other Catholic theorists of the period, condemned laissez faire capitalism and the social atomism which the new order seemed to entail. Quite apart from any adverse economic effects, liberal philosophy and economics seemed to sanction a soulless individualism.

Von Ketteler’s early attempt to deal with the social question focused on an analysis of its origins. It was clear that the migration of peoples from the countryside to urban centers in search of employment resulted in exploitation of their labor and in the misery consequent upon poverty. It was also clear that the organization of the workers would be required. But Von Ketteler did not see this as class warfare. The setting of the proletariat against owners was the program of Marx and Engels. Von Ketteler recognized the danger of a call to revolution and in the same year that Marx and Engels published their Communist Manifesto, he was subjecting it to criticism.

Marx had argued that society evolves through a succession of stages, each with a distinctive economic structure. The latest stage, capitalism, was to be overthrown by a revolution led by the working class. His over-arching theory of history and his immediate political program were linked by an analysis of capitalism in which economic development generates both increasingly severe economic crisis and sharpening class polarization, thus setting the stage for the coming revolution. A socialist revolution is a logical and necessary outcome of capitalist development.

The capitalist owns the means of production or the money with which to buy them. The worker owns no property and cannot survive except by working for a capitalist. Having sold his labor, the worker has no claim over the product, which belongs to the capitalist employer. The worker remains poor and dependent while the capitalist becomes ever richer. The relation between capital and labor is structural, not personal. The worker is not oppressed by a particular capitalist, but by capital, by the impersonal working of the economic system.

As the Communist Manifesto (1847) declares, the development of capitalism necessarily entails the development of the proletariat. Previous historical movements were movements of minorities; that of the proletariat is a movement of the overwhelming majority. The proletariat cannot emancipate itself without destroying capitalism root and branch.

Communism, write Marx and Engels, best represents the interests of the proletariat. The aim of the communist program is the abolition of private property in its developed form, or bourgeois property. It is not a question of depriving peasants and artisans of hard-won fruits of their labor; capitalism has done that already. Capital is a social product and rightfully belongs to society as a whole. The only freedom that communists want to take away is the freedom of the bourgeoisie to subjugate the labor of others. This is to be achieved through the conquest of political power and the establishment of the proletariat as the ruling class. The proletariat will then by degrees centralize ownership of the means of production in the hands of the state. The aim, of course, is the material benefit of all.

In his attempt to understand the social question, Von Ketteler proceeds from a radically different point of view than Marx. “Even with the best form of government,” he writes, “we have not work, we have not clothing, we have not bread and shelter for our poor. Nay, the nearer political questions approach solution, the more manifest will it become that this is the smallest part of our task, the more imperiously will the social question step in the foreground and clamor for solution.” Social and moral reform go hand in hand, writes Von Ketteler: “Not poverty but corruption of heart is the source of our social misery.”

While defending private property, Von Ketteler believed that the right to property can never be regarded as an unlimited right. Man has the obligation to use the world’s goods in accord with the purpose assigned to them by God. “Separated from God, men regard themselves as the exclusive masters of their possessions and look upon them only as a means of satisfying their ever-increasing love of pleasure; separated from God they set up sensual pleasures and the enjoyments of life as the end of their existence, and worldly goods as the means of attaining this end; and so of necessity a gulf was formed between the rich and the poor.” The problem lies not with the possession of property, but with its abuse. He rejects the Marxist slogan that “property is robbery.” “Communism,” he writes, “is a sin against nature, for under the pretense of philanthropy, it would bring upon mankind the profoundest misery, destroy industry, order, and peace on earth, turn the hands of all against all and thus sweep away the very conditions of human existence.”

Von Ketteler distrusts the efficacy of material-reform proposals. The general distribution of property would not make the poor rich but the whole world poor. Entitlement is required to generate productivity. Men may possess the goods of the earth in common, but raw materials acquire value only through effort. He who produces is entitled to the fruits of his labor. Quoting St. Thomas, Von Ketteler affirms the individual right of ownership for three reasons: (1) it is the only way to secure good management; (2) it alone can successfully respond to market conditions; and (3) private property is more likely to generate peace, since joint possession leads to conflict. Regarding the fruits of their labor, men should be willing to share. By charity man more fully participates in the divine nature.

While placing emphasis on moral solutions, Von Ketteler was not naive. In addressing an assembly of German bishops at Fulda on September 5, 1869, he proposed to answer four questions: (1) Does the social question concern Germany? (2) Can and should the Church help solve it? (3) What remedies can be applied? (4) What can the Church do to apply them? Under the heading, “What remedies can be applied?” Von Ketteler lists “remedies which, as experience proves, eliminate or at any rate diminish the evils of our present industrial system.” They are: (1) Prohibition of child labor in factories; (2) limitation of working hours for those employed in factories; (3) separation of the sexes in the workshops; (4) closing of unsanitary workshops; (5) legal regulation of working hours; (6) Sunday rest; (7) obligation of caring for workmen who, through no fault of theirs, are temporarily or forever incapacitated; (8) a law protecting and favoring cooperative associations of workingmen; and (9) appointment by the State of factory inspectors.


Within a generation many of the specific proposals of Von Ketteler had been translated into law. The focus of concern had shifted so much and the involvement of the State had become so great that Leo felt obliged to defend the rights of private property as well as those of the laborer. The teaching of Rerum Novarum (May 15, 1891) advances a clear doctrine both of social responsibility and of private property. “When the alleviation of the masses is sought,” writes Leo XIII, “let this be enduring, that it must be held as fundamental that private property is to be inviolable.” Developing this concept, he writes, “No one, certainly, is ordered to give assistance to others from that which pertains to his own use and that of the members of his family; nor also to give over to others what he himself needs to preserve what befits his person, what is proper….But when sufficient care has been given to necessity and decorum, it is a duty, to assist the indigent from what remains. These are not duties of justice, except in extreme cases, but of Christian charity, which of course it is not right to seek by legal action.”

The right to private property is granted not by the laws of man, but by nature. The state “would act unjustly and inhumanly, if it should detract from private property more than is just, under the name of taxes.” Like Aquinas, Leo regards property as a basic natural right, essential to the existence and dignity of man. Property is the social condition which renders possible the pursuit of most other goods. This emphasis on property did not prevent Leo, like Von Ketteler, from acknowledging the legitimacy of social and economic legislation for the sake of public welfare and the necessity of appropriate restrictions on the scope and use of private property.

One may note that since Leo XIII, Western democracies have modified the protection of private property by a complex system of social welfare legislation, of progressive taxation, and of the transfer of basic industries and utilities to public ownership (Britain, France, Italy). The power once conferred by ownership of the means of production is no longer linked with formal ownership, but is curtailed by the controlling powers, planning devices and other directive measures of the state. The privileges conferred by the unlimited use of private property — leading to a great gap between a rich minority and a destitute majority — no longer exist. Those privileges have been countered by a variety of measures, all aimed at a partial redistribution of property. Progressive taxation siphons off some of the benefits of property and uses them for public purposes or services, such as Britain’s national health service and the many welfare programs at state and national levels in the United States. Anti-trust laws, labor legislation, and other public controls restrain, though by no means eliminate, the power of the modern corporation. On the positive side, public credit institutions facilitate the ownership of homes: housing is subsidized. Family law protects the livelihood of dependent wives and children. “Property” itself is understood more broadly. It has come to mean a bundle of powers flowing from economic assets as diverse as shares in a corporation, patents, copyrights, trademarks, mortgages held, as well as the marketability of one’s skills and labor.

One can say that many of the remedies identified by Von Ketteler and Leo XIII have been carried out. But poverty, as Von Ketteler predicted it would, remains. There is a growing awareness of the limitation of government in alleviating all hardship. The object of ecclesiastical concern has shifted from so-called “developed” countries to “under-developed” ones. Nevertheless, Wojtyla’s addressing the international problem is circumspect. He resists the temptation to blame the ills of the Third World on the West. He is aware of the many safety nets that have been devised to catch the poor who have not shared the general prosperity in North America and in Europe. He is aware that the Third World faces many of the problems which confronted Europe in the 19th century. His message is not one which assigns blame, but is one designed to create insight and to inspire confidence.

His analysis of “work” as developed principally in Laborem Exercens is a timeless and locale-transcending document. It speaks to the human race, be it north or south. Wojtyla is better trained as a philosopher and theologian than either Von Ketteler or Leo, or for that matter John XXIII or Paul VI. He can anchor his social and political philosophy in a doctrine of human nature and in a phenomenology of human action. His metaphysics of the person would deserve appreciation even if he were not pope. Yet my intent is not to examine the metaphysical foundations of Wojtyla’s analysis, but to focus on Laborem Exercens where he speaks to the same issues addressed by his predecessors.


On the subject of work, Wojtyla’s analysis develops at length the teaching of his predecessors. On the fifteenth centenary of Benedict’s birth, Wojtyla in Sanctorum altrix spoke of the dignity of work. On a subsequent occasion, in addressing a hundred thousand workers and their families in a stadium in Guadalajara, he said, “Work is not a curse, it is a blessing from God Who calls man to rule the earth and transform it, in order that the divine work of creation may continue with man’s intelligence and effort” At Noya Hutta he said: “Work is…the fundamental dimension of man’s life on earth. Work has for man a significance that is not merely technical but ethical. It can be said that man ‘subdues’ the earth when by his behavior he becomes its master, not its slave, and also the master and not the slave of work. Work must help man to become better, more spiritually mature, more responsible, in order that he may realize his vocation on earth both as an unrepeatable person and in community with others.” It is in the encyclical Laborem Exercens, issued to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, that Wojtyla provides his most profound analysis of the “dignity and rights of those who work.” The encyclical is not simply about work, but about the entire social order. Reiterating the teaching of his predecessors, he calls attention to a number of aspects not stressed in previous papal documents: (1) the psychological requirement of the place of work, (2) the interdependence of nations by reason of the uneven distribution of the earth’s raw materials, (3) the needs of migrant laborers, and (4) the employment and treatment of the handicapped.

On many of these issues, responsible employers have long ago, if for no other reason than self-interest, adopted policies that make the work load more varied and meaningful. Western nations have recognized responsibility toward those nations that are mainly the exporters of raw materials. The problems of migrant laborers have been addressed by governments, corporations, and voluntary organizations on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, federal guidelines on mainstreaming the handicapped are lengthier than the encyclical itself.

Is the force of the document lessened because it reiterates common moral teaching? Much depends on one’s attitude toward religious authority. For some, John Paul has the authority of the scholarly Reinhold Niebuhr, for others, that of the evangelical Billy Graham, but for still others, he is in a unique way the Voice of Christ as mediated by His Church. By ordinary standards he is someone who commands respectful attention. But more needs to be said.

The encyclical brings together in an authoritative way the best generic teaching on problems affecting the place of work. In a period of rampant relativism, such unification is at once more difficult and more necessary than it may seem. More difficult, because of the absence of a common way of thinking about things; more necessary, because people have no other place to look. Governments may outdo the religious mind in their concern for the laborer or the disadvantaged. Where those concerns are not crassly political, they may in fact reflect a religious world view. But governments are not good at defending principles, even principles which lead to actions that are deemed expedient. The churched as well as the unchurched need to be reminded of the unity of an outlook that is frequently assumed by both. It can be argued that much of the contemporary social doctrine is Christian in its origin and that its proper defense is Christianity itself. Though many of those values are to be found in other places, their fullness is nowhere to be found save in the tradition represented by John Paul II.

It is likely that the particular teachings of Laborem Exercens can be endorsed by secular and religious-minded alike, but I know of few intellectual systems which can justify the principles on which those teachings rest and of no global spokesmen for any of the alternative systems of justification. The role may be uniquely Peter’s.

Recent critics of John XXIII and Paul VI have pointed to a kind of naivete in Mater et Magistra and Populorum Progresso, and some of that criticism is directed also to Laborem Exercens. The charge is made that the encyclicals of John XXIII and Paul VI assume that the poor are victims, that the poor are poor because they have been exploited by others. This is thought to be the case whether we are speaking of the disadvantaged within a nation or of the gap between rich and poor nations. John Paul II himself, in Laborem Exercens, writes, “The disproportionate distribution of wealth and poverty and the existence of some countries and continents that are developed and others that are not, call for a leveling out and a search for ways to ensure just development for all.”

It is argued that the social encyclicals issued during the reign of John XXIII and Paul VI often assume economic doctrines which are open to question. The main theme of the social encyclicals is that economic differences, consistently termed “inequalities,” reflect injustice. Social justice requires that incomes be substantially equal. Appreciable differences in income reflect exploitation, oppression, discrimination, or improper privileges. This being the case, politically organized redistribution is desirable, or may even be Christian duty. The assumption of exploitation is necessary for the plausibility of politically organized redistribution. Without such an underpinning the case for redistribution is not self-evident, for it is not obviously just to penalize the more productive for the benefit of the less productive.

The assumption of exploitation, suggests Bauer, too easily overlooks the personal and cultural differences which are responsible for economic performance. Wealth is created through industry, ambition, and skill. Little is required to notice that individuals and groups within the same country with access to the same natural resources differ widely in economic performance. Similarly, in the less developed world many millions of extremely poor and backward people live in areas where cultivatable but uncultivated land is free or extremely cheap. The small size and low productivity of farms reflect not the shortage of land. Sustained prosperity, in fact, owes little to natural resources. Witness the productivity of West Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Examination will show that commercial contacts with the West have not impoverished the peoples of the Third World. On the contrary, those contacts have been the prime agents of economic advance. The economic improvement of the person depends upon the person himself, notably in his mental attitudes, especially in his attitude towards work.

It is to be conceded that history provides numerous examples of people acquiring wealth by other than peaceful economic means. Where there is no public security, the strong can despoil the weak and often have. But wealth or income acquired by spoilation is not relevant to the contemporary income differences which are the primary concern of the encyclicals under discussion. Furthermore, it is not evident that international wealth transfers are the natural and desirable extension of domestic taxation. Whatever the case for progressive taxation within a country, the analogy between progressive taxation and foreign aid is inappropriate. One must recognize that the cultures of large parts of the less developed world are uncongenial to economic achievement and advance. The idea of material progress, in the sense of a steadily increasing control by man over nature, is wholly Western in origin. One cannot at once insist that the West should respect Oriental and other cultures and urge that Westerners pay taxes for the benefit of people who embrace cultures which are not conducive to economic advance. Economic history shows that the prosperity of the West has not been achieved at the expense of the less developed countries, but rather as a result of certain qualities of mind which have resulted in Western science and technology, the real source of Western wealth.

It should be noted that the texts do not support the contention that John Paul II has succumbed to a simple reading of the global economic situation. An occasional off-hand remark is not to be taken as sustained analysis. When John Paul II wishes to make a point, he does so with conscious deliberation and with lengthy analysis. Some, to advance their own programs, will seize upon a chance remark, remove it from context, and use it to support positions which John Paul II has not himself taken. One cannot deny that papal encyclicals display the context within which they are written and that they come laden with many assumptions. Nevertheless, their main purpose is to call attention to the moral dimension of personal, corporate, and national responsibility. Sometimes the context is badly described, or the encyclicals too readily assume the validity of contemporary accounts of what is the case. But that said, it should be remembered that the social encyclicals consistently defend the interest of the socially weaker, i.e., the laborer, the farmer, the migrant or guest worker, women, and the family. The Papacy in alignment with the exploited against the exploiter has sometimes made a difference. We should be wary of assuming that the weaker is weaker because of the stronger. But the main effort of the encyclicals is to show the reasonableness of moral effort, to show the reason why concern must be displayed, why the just action should be taken. The encyclicals are at their best in enunciating and defending principle. The application of principle is a matter of prudence and context. Since they usually address global ills, the encyclicals must walk a narrow path between vacuousness and hasty solutions. They must also avoid the endorsement of a liberal capitalism on the one hand, and a Marxism or socialism on the other. And for the most part they do. John Paul II is even better at it than his immediate predecessors.

In Laborem Exercens, John Paul’s broad-ranging intellect and varied personal experience is evident. John Paul is at his best in addressing what may be called the psychology of the place of work. There, one finds clearly enunciated a theory of work with roots in tradition, but one which certainly draws upon John Paul’s own experience as a laborer. Stressed is the good effect of the striving for excellence, the drive to do superior work. It is good for the worker himself as well as for society that he learn to be a good workman. Good ‘Work is almost sure to serve the economic and political good of the wider community. Whether the work is simple or fairly complex, whether it be work in the laboratory, in research, in teaching, or in cooking, excellence in work is always good for the person. Good workmen ordinarily taken pride and joy in their work. Work is a need for expression; man feels the desire to project his own personality outside himself and to put himself into the products of labor and effort. Every man is by nature an artist and aspires to find a work which shall be a pleasing expansion of himself. The effect of projecting oneself into one’s work may not be felt in every occupation. Many jobs are routine and depersonalized. Still, men have the ability to conceive the potential good effects even of unimaginative assembly line work.

Thus it is good to know the ends our work is serving. Young persons who are preparing for work and life should be taught the ways in which their particular work-vocation is a service. To labor day after day without some sense of how we are serving is to be deprived of the honest pride that lifts impersonal labor to a vocation.

One of the side effects of work is the fellowship it brings. Even where team effort is not required, workers confer or at least chat about the prospect, progress, and product of their work. The artist or writer may spend a great deal of time alone, but even those so engaged need the sustenance of an understanding and sympathetic and appreciative friend. Work obviously requires discipline, and that discipline is frequently of a kind that can be transferred to other areas of life. The precision of thought and action, the coordination of mind and hand, the exacting task, are fundamentally human and can be humanistic. There is no opposition between work as a discipline and joy in work.

Reading the encyclical in this way we can almost see the young Wojtyla sweating and getting his hands dirty; we see the mature scholar as Archbishop of Krakow in the solitary work of his study, and we see the Pope still at work in his study, now as pope deprived of the opportunity of manual labor, but nevertheless pushing himself to limits in physical exercise. The fruit of that work is a beautiful document in which John Paul speaks to common humanity, reminding us of the dignity of labor, the rights of the laborer, and the solidarity between nations. His themes are perennial ones; they are themes which transcend time and place. They embody the wisdom which the Church enunciates with surety, a wisdom grounded in the Scriptures and in centuries of meditation on the human condition. All who attend them, be they high or low, gifted or not, can find in them insight pertinent to their station. Such is the genius of John Paul II’s teaching.


Jude Dougherty is Dean Emeritus of the School of Philosophy in the Catholic University of America and the editor of The Review of Metaphysics, and General Editor, Series Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, Washington, D.C., The Catholic University of America Press.

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