The encyclical Laborem Exercens was written by Pope John Paul II in 1981 to celebrate 90 years since the publication of Rerum Novarum.
In those ninety years issues surrounding employment and labor have not ceased to remain of importance to the Church. Work has changed considerably since the industrial revolution and technological and innovative advances are accelerating that change. In this encyclical His Holiness focuses on the dignity of human work in the contemporary world.
It is not the role of the Church to scientifically analyze the consequences of these changes on society, but instead to call attention to the dignity and rights of those who work and to help guide society to authentic progress.
Since the beginning, as revealed in Genesis work has been a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth. Even though the command to Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28) didn’t explicitly refer to work, it certainly indicates work is good for people.
Many of the earlier injustices against workers have ended as a result of worker solidarity, yet some flagrant injustices persist. There should be continued studies of worker’s and their living conditions and new movements of solidarity of the works and with the workers. It is the duty of the Church to help the poor and weak, especially those whose dignity has been violated.
Work also constitutes a foundation for the formation of family life – a natural right and something that humanity is called to. Work allows for the creation of a family by providing subsistence. A fundamental error in judgment occurs when one views human labor solely in economic terms. Work ought to be seen as a privileged expression of human activity as it is an example of human creation in the image of the creator.
Throughout history there has been conflict between labor and employers. The Church has always held to the principle of the priority of labor over capital. Yet capital cannot be separate from labor, and we are reminded that everything that is at the service of work is the result of work.
In Church teachings, private property has never been understood to imply a conflict between labor and capital. People ought to use their private property in a way that benefits the common good.
Rational planning and proper organization should be used to limit underemployment. It is a disconcerting fact that while many natural resources are not used, there are many people who are unemployed or underemployed and many people who are hungry.
Workers are due payment for their services and the knowledge that he or she is working for himself or herself. Employers must compensate their employees for work with an amount that will be enough to properly maintain a family and provide security for its future. Workers must also have the right of association to form labor or trade unions. This right is not limited to certain types of workers – unions have formed among agricultural workers, white-collar workers, and employers.
These associations can be mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice and ought to have a concern for the common good by promoting wise politics. Society must also prevent discrimination against disabled persons and allow them to attain employment. It must also preserve the right of individuals to emigrate to find work opportunities.
It is the job of the Church to speak out on issues relating to work to preserve human dignity and to also to form a spirituality of work to help all people come closer to God.