On Speaking To and For Mankind: The Laborem Exercens Encyclical of Pope John Paul II Paul II


“Years ago, in conclusion to a brief paper on the concept of work in a symposium entitled The Works of the Mind. I suggested that it was up to the manual worker to keep alive among us a certain spirit of honesty and perfection which ought to be carried from level to level up to that supreme sphere of intellectual life where all work comes to an end and the image of eternal life appears. The good worker and the lover of truth, I wrote, have much in common, and the promotion of their understanding could do a great deal for the reformation of our concept of culture. Here, I wish to add a further suggestion. It is my feeling that our best immediate chances to begin to develop the culture with a contemplative ideal may lie in promoting collaboration between all kinds of technical work and the fine arts. Such a rapprochement has been enormously facilitated by the truly fantastic developments in modern technology, of which we should take utmost advantage…”

— Yves R. Simon

Perhaps the most significant aspect for us of these 1981 “reflections devoted to human work” is that so massive a policy statement (of more than twenty thousand words) can be issued by this sovereign with the justified expectation that it will be studied by subjects and others all over the world. (This is the third such statement, or encyclical letter, issued over the name of this pope. It was preceded by one on Christian redemption, and by another on the mercy of God, as well as by papal disquisitions on the family and on the Eucharist.) It is indeed remarkable that encyclicals should still be as important as they seem to be in the Roman Catholic Church, providing “authoritative” (albeit not “infallible”) guidance to the thinking of that institution on a series of timely subjects.

An encyclical is authoritative in large part because it draws — because it obviously draws — upon earlier encyclicals and, even more important, upon Scripture and the dictates of “natural law,” upon the most distinguished teachers of the Church, and upon great Church Councils. Even when earlier encyclicals are tacitly modified — as seems to be done in the Laborem Exercens of Pope John Paul II to the 1891 Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII —, it is evident that substantial continuity with a long and rich past is critical to the integrity and vitality of the Church. No doubt, this makes for steadiness and a kind of moderation (if not prudence) in Church teachings, and hence a refusal to conform easily to the fashions of the day. Such refusal — which may be seen in this particular pope’s controversial reaffirmation on other occasions of established rules with respect to birth control, with respect to the status of divorced people, and with respect to the ordination of women — this refusal may be seen either as a dangerous rigidity or as a salutary reliability. In any event, the Church continues to conduct herself as a rare institution, in which moral, political and social adaptations must still be explicitly reconciled with long-accepted principles.

It is something very old that is drawn upon in one particularly telling observation in Laborem Exercens (Section 27):

There is yet another aspect of human work, an essential dimension of it, that is profoundly imbued with the spirituality based on the Gospel. All work, whether manual or intellectual, is inevitably linked with toil. The Book of Genesis expresses it in a truly penetrating manner: the original blessing of work contained in the very mystery of creation and connected with man’s elevation as the image of God is contrasted with the curse that sin brought with it. “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.” This toil connected with work marks the way of human life on earth and constitutes an announcement of death . . . (Hic labor dolorque viam designat humanae vitae in terris et continet mortis nuntiationem . . .)

Still, someone speaking from the Classical perspective might well take issue with this emphasis upon the doleful consequences of mortality: for when things are right, doing what one ought should be pleasurable or, at least, not unduly painful (and this should be so with meaningful work, as well as with virtuous action and even with certain bodily gratifications). Of course, the sad response may be, “But, alas, things are not right — and have not been since the Fall of Man” — and this assessment is evident throughout this encyclical, despite its repeated insistence upon the human dignity of proper work.

Critical here, then, is the status of nature. When “the guiding thread of this document” is referred to in Section 12, nature is decisively subordinated to the will of the Creator (rather than being recognized as somehow autonomous and hence ultimately authoritative. E.g., In omni gradu progredientis laboris homini donatio primaria occurrit, quam praestat natura et, ad summam, ipse Creator.) The status for the Church of nature, and of that prudence which is rooted in a confident deference to nature, bears on the uses and significance of pleasure, and on the possibility of genuine happiness, in this life. We can do no more than thus notice on this occasion a fundamental critique one might make of certain deep-rooted opinions of the Church about the necessarily blighted life of the human being on earth.

No doubt, each pope is able to influence to some degree the direction the Church will move in his time. One sees in the current pope a curious mixture of the twentieth century intellectual and the nineteenth century gentleman. The old-fashioned gentleman may be seen in how he says what he does (here and elsewhere) about the place in the home and in the Church, of women (usually non- individuated persons, the vigilant feminist is likely to complain). Even so, the next generation of theologians who become influential in the Church is likely to ratify the considerable changes with respect to women made in recent decades by the faithful (who do have a good deal to say, over time, about what the Church is and will be).

It is, however, the sophisticated side of this intellectual- pope which is more intriguing: for he is in some respect very much a modern, even with Marxist overtones in his vocabulary and in his mode of analysis (however concerned he may be, in practice, about atheistic Communism and about any recourse to class struggle). Thus, modernity may be seen in his reservations about the function of profit in the capitalist system, perhaps attempting to appeal thereby to chronically resentful intellectuals everywhere. He does not seem to recognize that workers who are supposedly being exploited by the capitalist’s maximization of profits may also be beneficiaries of that economic efficiency (and hence of more and better goods at lower prices, or a reliably higher standard of living generally) which sustained competition tends to foster. If this is the way things are, his primary concern should not be with the status of labor vis-a-vis capital but rather with that subversion of the rule of law (especially in Marxist countries and in the Third World) which interferes with a genuinely free market and with that liberty, political as well as personal, which a free market both depends upon and promotes. In this respect, Rerum Novarum, with its considerable emphasis upon the rights and the naturalness (if not even the sacredness) of private property, may provide (despite its own shortcomings) a sounder prescription than does Laborem Exercens for the economic ills of our collectivist-minded age. On the other hand, the social and moral (as distinguished from the strictly material) consequences of capitalism and its remarkable technology, of individualism and even of liberty are continuing concerns of thoughtful men and women in the Church and out.

Whatever reservations one should have about Laborem Exercens, or about any other papal encyclical, the fact remains that mankind is being addressed by the Church in an apparently comprehensive way — in a way which recognizes (and hence teaches us all) that the human being does have a mind to be nourished and a moral sense to be invoked. All this means, at the least, that the Roman Catholic Church intends to be taken seriously and that she will be so taken, in large part because she does not habitually take the easy way out (however ambiguous her “universal” statements are sometimes obliged to be) in confronting the issues of the day.


  • George Anastaplo

    Between 1950 and 1961 Professor Anastaplo conducted his own bar admission litigation, 366 U.S. 82 (1961). He was nominated annually between 1980 and 1992 for the Nobel Peace Prize. There has been issued in his honor a two-volume Festschrift, Law and Philosophy: The Practice of Theory. Six articles were devoted to his scholarship in the 1997 volume of the Political Science Reviewer. Professor Anastaplo is also a lecturer in the liberal arts at the University of Chicago and professor emeritus of political science and of philosophy at Dominican University. Professor Anastaplo was the subject of an article in Loyola Magazine in Fall 2000.

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