Toward a Civilization of Work: From March 7, 1987

Chapter Five, section two, of the "Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation," issued April 5, 1986, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, contains a remarkable phrase, one that could easily be overlooked in the public discussion over the significance of the Instruction for Latin American liberation theology. It is obvious that this section of the Instruction is an abbreviated version of the thought of Pope John Paul II on the meaning of human work. It serves as an invitation to reread his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens. And yet, in one important respect, the Instruction goes one step further than the encyclical Laborem Exercens. In an imaginative leap it knits together the various socioethical principles found there by giving a name to the vision that inspired them, a vision that is gradually emerging as the centerpiece of contemporary Catholic social thought. The name the Instruction bestows on this moral vision is "a civilization of work."

Like similar efforts at naming--"the industrial revolution "or "the post-industrial society"--the phrase "a civilization of work" is significant because it is an attempt to reveal the inner meaning, in this case, of a social teaching. The full implications of this evocative phrase (and vision) for Catholic social thought and praxis lie in the future. But even now it sets a direction and an overall strategy for Catholic social action. And it links contemporary Catholic social thought to a much older tradition, much of it buried in the intellectual cupboards of the past--a tradition recalled by Simone Weil: "Our age has its own particular mission or vocation, the creation of a civilization founded upon the spiritual nature of work. The thoughts relating to a presentiment of this vocation, and which are scattered about in Rousseau, George Sand, Tolstoy, Proudhon and Marx, in papal encyclicals and elsewhere, are the only original thoughts of our time, the only ones we have not borrowed from the Greeks."

One can miss the radical nature of this vision by interpreting "a civilization of work" in the class-conscious terms common to both capitalist and socialist societies. In such societies not everyone who works is considered a "worker." It is true that both the Instruction and Laborem Exercens show a special concern for wage-workers. But both documents understand that in a true civilization of work, doctors, corporation executives, lawyers, scientists, academics as well as machinists and assembly-line operators would wear with pride the title of worker. Such an understanding of work "practically does away with the very basis of the ancient differentiation of people into classes according to the kind of work done" (Laborem Exercens). It would discourage the invidious comparisons between manual and intellectual work, between so-called professional and nonprofessional work.

In such a civilization such abstractions as technology, progress. culture, science and the arts would be seen for what they essentially are: various forms (or products) of human labor. To suggest, as Pope John Paul II does, that the bread produced by the work of our hands is not only the bread that keeps our bodies alive, but also "the bread of science and progress, civilization and culture" is already a reversal of traditional thought patterns and a new way of thinking about work.

The Instruction, like the encyclical on which it leans, regards work as central to human development and the moral progress of civilization. Although it, like Laborem Exercens, says that "work is the key to the whole social question," it is now clear that the "social question" to which it refers is no longer to be regarded as synonymous with the plight of "the working class." The social question now refers to the much broader and radical question of how best to structure the entire productive forces of society--the question originally raised by socialism.

Although this is the first time ever, as far as I can tell, that the phrase "a civilization of work" appears in a document coming from Rome, now that it has appeared it becomes clear that the idea of such a civilization has always been latent in Catholic social thought, at least since the time of Pope Leo Xill. Laborem Exercens, however, goes far beyond the narrow understandings of work in Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo Xill's encyclical defended the dignity of the worker and the right to organize into unions--two of the essential elements in a civilization of work. But it was in Quadragesimo Anno especially that the vision fully developed by Pope John Paul II begins to come to the surface. Pope Pius XI called for a reconstruction of the social order. In the United States it was referred to as the Industry Council Plan, in which each industry forms a separate "order" (or "guild" or "occupational group" or "industry council"), and the various industries, thus organized, are to work together for the common good. The principle behind such a reordering of economic life is that men have their place, not according to the position each has in the labor market but according to the respective functions that each performs.

The market divides men and women into employers and employees. What such an arrangement overlooks is that both employers and employees are workers in the same industry and that each industry has a social function. The notion of social function links the work of the individual and the entire industry to the whole of society. Work viewed in that fashion makes for a solidaristic society. Although now considered as passe by many, the Industry Council Plan was at the heart of a new way of looking at work, one that foreshadowed later developments in Catholic social thought.

The "Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation" makes a challenging observation. Our age, it says, awaits a true civilization of work. Is this meant to be diagnostic or prophetic? Perhaps both. As a diagnosis of the fundamental flaw in the structure of societies today, the Instruction is radical. It boldly suggests that the relationship between the human person and work is so "radical and vital" that work relationships are paradigmatic for relationships in the other areas of society. Therefore, the process of true liberation in all societies must begin with a radical overhaul of how work is structured, accompanied by a cultural transformation of the meaning of work. Marxists can now no longer complain that the Christian definition of the human person consistently omits the "vital and radical" element of work.

The fate of the Instruction as prophecy depends On how Christians face the task of beginning the culture transformation it calls for. The challenge is awesome if indeed, as some have argued, the centrality of work in the lives of individuals can no longer be assumed. Can "a civilization of work" have any meaning when work is regarded simply as a necessary means to achieve largely private ends? If the challenge of the "Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation" is accepted, what is the first step and who shall take it?

The Instruction, again echoing Pope John Paul II. uses another phrase, the "Gospel of Work." This refers to an understanding of work in a uniquely Christian sense, in contrast to "a civilization of work," which is more philosophical in its perspective. The "Gospel of Work" suggests that there is a spirituality of work when work is viewed in the light of the Creation, the Cross and the Resurrection. It focuses on Jesus as a working man. It is the particular task of the church to preach the "Gospel of Work" to its own. Presumably, if the church can evangelize its own members in the "Gospel of Work," it will help to bring about "a civilization of work." It would be naive, however, to assume that the "Gospel of Work" is a salient feature of the spirituality of most Catholics. Here again, the task is awesome and it can again be asked: What is the first step and who shall take it?

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Screengrab from a viral video showcasing a confrontation between a Native American drummer and a group of Catholic high school students in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 18, 2019. Screenshot via YouTube.
Several clips of the encounter circulating on social media show a small group of Native American drummers, who were in Washington for the Indigenous People’s March, being surrounded by a much larger band of teenagers.
Pope Francis has suppressed the Ecclesia Dei Commission, a significant decision with consequences for the Holy See’s relations with the priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 19, 2019
Photo: IMDB
A new Netflix miniseries brings out the story’s aspects of adventure and conflict, with occasionally pulse-pounding results.
Rob Weinert-KendtJanuary 19, 2019
Protestors march to support a U.N. anti-corruption commission in Guatemala City on Jan. 6. Photo by Jackie McVicar.
“What they are doing not only puts Guatemala at risk but the entire region. Bit by bit, for more than a year, they have been trying to divide us. The elections are at risk. We are six months away.”
Jackie McVicarJanuary 18, 2019