On this Labor Day weekend, it is helpful to recall the wisdom of St. Pope John Paul II as expressed in his 1981 encyclical letter Laborem Exercens (On the Dignity of Human Labor.) In that encyclical, he developed what has been called a “creation theology” that starts with the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 and draws out sacred themes for human labor. In the modern industrial world, most people work for companies, governments or other organizations in exchange for a salary and other benefits; and most employment now involves a great deal of technology. That arrangement is in many ways conducive to a more productive economy. However, it can make people view work as simply an impersonal commodity. As St. John Paul II put it, technology and industrialization can be beneficial; but if they are not guided by respect for each person, such factors “can cease to be man’s ally and become almost his enemy as when the mechanization of work ‘supplants’ him, taking away all personal satisfaction and the incentive to creativity and responsibility.” Likewise, despite their different approaches, socialism, “strict capitalism,” and consumerism all denigrate the worker because they are based upon materialistic assumptions that fail to recognize the spiritual element in work.
In contrast to these limited views of human work, St. John Paul II presents labor as valuable above all else because it expresses human creativity and even participation in the creativity of the Almighty God. As he wrote “man, created in the image of God, shares by his work in the activity of the Creator.” Thus, before the Fall, Adam cultivated the garden and named the animals, completing God’s creation. Jesus worked as a carpenter for many years and then told His apostles to build upon their work experience and become “fishers of men.” To promote this exalted view of human labor, St. John Paul II called for employers to take specific steps such as showing concern for employees, promoting management responsibilities and even ownership for employees, and providing decent work hours and just wages. But he also emphasizes the responsibility of society at large. Thus, by such things as courtesy to people who serve us, charitable works for the disadvantaged, and learning about the conditions of workers who produce the goods and services that we enjoy, customers, neighbors, and society can promote the sort of work that is ennobling and participates in divine beauty.