Laborem Exercens – On Human Labour

Context

Pope John Paul II issued Laborem Exercens to mark the ninetieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum. It is also known by the English title On Human Labour. John Paul II’s own experience as a manual labourer and his personalist philosophical ethics shape this social encyclical.

Major Issues

Unemployment and the impact of technology on work are major concerns of this encyclical. As well as affirming a right to work, to a just wage, and to form unions, Laborem Exercens introduces the concept of an ‘indirect employer.’

The indirect employer includes those persons and institutions that impact on and shape the relationship of the ‘direct employer’ and the employees themselves. The direct employer is the one who actually enters into a work contract with employees.

Laborem Exercens concludes with a spirituality of work. This spirituality focuses on the role of work in the transformation of nature and in personal fulfillment, the provision of the basis of family life, and contributing to the common good. John Paul II values the subjective over the objective dimensions of work. Work is valuable because it is the free act of a human person who is a subject and not an object.

Methodology

John Paul II does not start from the signs of the times but rather from a philosophical and theological reflection on work that offers universally applicable general principles. He brings a strongly personalist approach to questions of work.

Contribution to Catholic Social Teaching

Laborem Exercenss is notable for its well-developed spirituality and philosophy of work. It is the first encyclical on work by a Pope with personal experience of being worker.

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