If John Paul II is a socialist, as some would claim, you could not establish it on the basis of Laborem Exercens. This encyclical letter On Human Work certainly extols the value and dignity of man the worker. It underlines the fact that man fulfills himself as a human being through his work; man is intended by God to be a worker and through his labor perfects his human nature. Happily, work is understood in the most open sense, not only the farmer and the miner are recognized as workers, but the office worker, the computer developer, the teacher are all covered in the Pope’s discussion of the varieties of ways in which we earn our livings. Again and again the theme to which the Pope returns is the importance and dignity of man the worker.
It is an obvious concern of John Paul II to argue that what he is asserting in 1981 is in continuity with traditional Church teachings on labor and property. He views the tradition of private ownership for the sake of the common welfare from St. Thomas Aquinas through Leo XIII, Pius Xl and on to John XXIII and Paul VI. This is a personalist direction and he incorporates more recent teaching praising Catholic social teaching which would involve joint ownership of the means of work and the sharing by workers in the management and profits of a business enterprise. Obviously this is not what is called “rigid” capitalism, nor is it the Marxist-Leninist dogma of class warfare. It is a development which is sensitive to the objectives and concerns of responsible enterprise which is open to the participation of the worker in fruits of this enterprise.
There are capitalisms and capitalisms as there are socialisms and socialisms. Before one rushes to claim the Pope as a socialist one should take care to appreciate the evolution of the past century in these classic positions. We no longer have to speculate about the implications of the collective ownership by the state of the means of production. There is always a tension between liberty and equality. But in striving for equality, socialism has failed in country after country to attain equality even with the sacrifices of liberty. The Western countries have by and large preserved the democratic liberty of their citizens, and in the context of freedom to organize and affect the conditions of life and work, the owners and workers have cooperated to improve constantly the quality of life in their countries.
A feature of On Human Work is the attention this encyclical gives to the working conditions beyond just wages and the right to associate for collective bargaining. John Paul II shows his concern for the “various social benefits intended to insure the life and health of workers and their families” such as the availability of medical assistance, regular vacations as well as weekly rest and recreation periods, and the special situation of disabled workers. This is all to the good for it recognizes that these are matters of concern for the proponents of private enterprise as well as of collective systems. The challenge is being met. It is not a theoretical question. One simply looks at the world and asks according to what system are the workers better off? Here the evidence of immigration and emigration is decisive. For all its limitations and need for further development the economic system which prevails in the United States of America surpasses its competitors.