Labor and Love

With Labor Day again approaching, it is a good occasion to reflect upon what St. John Paul II described as “the dignity of human labor” in his 1981 encyclical letter on the same topic. A year ago, this article outlined the overall wisdom of that encyclical, including its “creation theology” through which we can see human labor as a participation in the creative goodness of God and thus strive to uphold both enthusiasm in the workplace and the dignity of workers.

This article will focus on another aspect of the economy that Catholic social teaching also focuses on, namely friendship and trust. The modern development of the Catholic Church’s teachings on society began with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, or On the Social Question. Central to the wisdom of that letter was the notion that the economy should not be seen as merely a matter of buying and selling goods and services, but of building up relationships that enhance human dignity and society.

He thus said that the workplace should not be seen as a place of conflict between the interests of employers, employees, customers and the like. Rather “should be united not only in the bond of friendship but also in the bond of brotherly love.” Forty years later, in the midst of the Great Depression, Pope Pius XI would continue to emphasize the point in the 1931 encyclical Quadragessimo Anno. There he argued for a mutual respect in the workplace and the market. He thus said that people should see their work as offered, not only for a wage, but also for the improvement of the world. And, in the other direction, employers and customers should try to establish a workplace and marketplace where there is broad participation in decision-making and the ability for all people to develop their talents.

Later, the Vatican II Council’s constitution Gaudium et Spes (On the Church in the Modern World) and St. Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centissimus Annus (On the 100th year of Rerum Novarum) great emphasized on the point that both the economic and political realms should recognize the primacy of the families and cultures of a nation.

Economic productivity and political developments should support, not dominate the role of the family and culture in supporting each person’s pursuit of the good, the true, the beautiful, the holy, of God Himself. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI would later summarize this wisdom in his final encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth.) There he argued that the truth of human nature and of divine love should overriding principle, not only in family and friendships, but in all of society