4.1.5 What this unit is about and not about

Back to 4.1.4

Unit 4 Contents


As will already be clear, the issue of working life is central in Catholic Social Teaching.  The main reason for this is that appalling conditions experienced by many workers in nineteenth century industrial capitalism were the focus of Rerum Novarum, and subsequent documents have repeatedly returned to this topic.

What is work?  Here is a short definition:

To work is to exert oneself by doing mental or physical activity for a practical purpose or out of necessity.

This definition is slightly adapted from one found on several dictionary websites.1

Here is another definition:

Work is purposeful, primarily instrumental activity performed for God, community or self.2

In Pope John Paul’s encyclical on work, Laborem Exercens, he defines it very broadly:

Work means any activity by man, whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances. (Laborem Exercens, opening para.)

You will read the whole of this encyclical in the course of working through this unit, doing which will help to make clear why John Paul II defined work in such a wide way.

In using the word ‘working’ in the last sentence, I am assuming study of this module feels like work!  Possibly it does not!  Indeed there is a venerable tradition, espoused by some prominent Catholic writers (notably Joseph Pieper) according to which study is leisure, not work!3



Does your study feel like work or leisure?


Why might anyone think this?  The answer is twofold.  First, the Latin word schola, from which the English words ‘school’ and ‘scholarship’ are derived, essentially meant ‘leisure’.  Second, the nature of study is that it is seeking to understand what is true, to apprehend the way things really are in the world.  So it is about contemplation rather than action.  In studying we aim to learn about things by attending to them, giving them careful attention – contemplating them.  This means study is not really about practical outcomes.  On this view, such things as lecture timetables, assignments with deadlines, exams, etc., are all a distraction from the leisure required for real study!

There is something in this view.  Gaining understanding cannot be forced, and so cannot be the outcome of an educational conveyor belt.

But John Paul II challenges this view in Laborem Exercens, as the very broad definition of work he gives suggests.  He explicitly says that intellectual endeavour, such as study, is work.  A common sense argument in favour of this is that such learning doesn’t happen just by doing nothing.  Rather, it requires effort – concentration and focus, deliberate use of reasoning to think things through, committing new knowledge to memory.

Thinking about what work is raises the further question: what is not work? The short answer is rest or, indeed, leisure.  Here is one definition of rest:

A state of quiet or repose; a cessation from motion or labour; tranquillity; as, rest from mental exertion; rest of body or mind. (This definition is found in several web dictionaries.)

If what is not work is rest, we could say that rest is what we do when, at any particular moment, there is no work we have to do.  No doubt we can all recognize the sense of bliss that comes when, if we’ve been busy, we reach the point where we can just stop and need not do any more right now.

According to the Bible, people should rest, in something like this sense, on one day in seven – this is one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11).

In this way of seeing rest, it need not be just inactive – it could involve some activity. Even if gardening is usually work, it could be pure rest. Even though walking requires some physical exertion, it could be longed-for rest or leisure.  Reading too could be rest – even if study is in fact usually work.

Given that this unit is about work, it is also about rest!

There is another big question about the scope of what this unit covers.  Read the next few paragraphs carefully because they introduce a distinction that is important in what CST says about work.

Any work can be seen as having two aspects – one to do with the worker him or herself, and one to do with the external outcomes of the work.  The first aspect is what we have already begun to focus on in this unit: how work is experienced by the worker, including in terms of the costs and benefits of doing it – costs such as physical exertion or even injury, and benefits such as satisfaction and wages.  The second aspect is what the worker is actually bringing about through their work, the outcomes he or she produces.

To give examples of this second aspect of work, a worker might sell train tickets, or nurse ill people, or administer the council’s housing office, or look after a young child, or report news on the radio.  Or, more controversially, he or she might sell high-interest loans to poor people, or grow opium in Afghanistan, or lay anti-personnel mines near civilian populations.  All these things are the results his or her work has in the world – its practical outcomes for other people.

These two aspects of work – how it experienced by the worker and what the outcomes of the work are – are always distinguishable, at least in principle.  Pope John Paul II refers in Laborem Exercens to these two aspects of work as, respectively, ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’. To illustrate further, there could be a nurse whose own experience of her work is extremely bad because she is sick herself and very badly paid (subjective) but who nevertheless does very good work with great benefits to ill people (objective).  Or there could be a supplier of illegal weapons in an area subject to civil war (objective) who earns a lot of money and gets great satisfaction because he believes he’s defending his people (subjective).

This unit is about ‘work in the subjective sense’, to use John Paul’s phrase.

In other words, this unit focuses on workers.

The biggest, most important point that CST makes on this subject is that workers are human persons.  Its central insistence is that, because workers are persons, work must be organized and done in ways that recognize this.  Work must not treat workers as things, as mere instruments – because this dehumanizes them.  Rather, it must enable workers to become, in and through their work, more fulfilled as persons.

What about ‘work in the objective sense’?  Isn’t this at least as important as work in the subjective sense – whether people provide goods and services that actually benefit others, rather than harm them?  Don’t we need to focus on this?  We certainly do – but in CST this mainly comes up under different headings.

Therefore ‘work in the objective sense’ is studied in different units in both this and the twin CST module.  Work, in this objective sense, in the private sector comes up in Unit 5 of this module.  There we look at the aims that private businesses should have and therefore at what they should supply to markets.  Unit 6 of this module addresses the ‘objective’ work involved in family life.

As for the public and ‘third’ sectors, the ‘objective’ work done in these comes up in the twin CST module, Living in a Just and Free Society. Unit 3 there is on the role of government and the limits to this role – i.e. the work that those with political power should do and what should be done in ‘civil society’. Some later units study specific aspects of the work of government, such as in addressing poverty, and peace and war.

In fact, John Paul II teaches that ‘work in the subjective sense’ is more important than ‘work in the objective sense’.  Why?  The answer is straightforward: workers are persons, and unless work actually serves the persons doing it, it is bound to be dehumanizing.  He insists that work must be for the persons doing it.  It should enable the workers to become more human.

In this teaching, CST represents an immense challenge to a world of work in which, to a very large extent, workers are regarded as instruments – whether serving maximization of profit or bureaucratic procedures in a state agency.

CST’s vision that work should be good for the worker is massively counter-cultural.  It could inspire a great movement of resistance and change: Catholic workers of the world unite!  Seeking a Living Wage would be only the first step.

Oddly enough, Laborem Exercens is a pretty dry and difficult document – but grasping that central point should whet the appetite for the close attention you will give to this encyclical in section 3 of this unit.


End of 4.1.5


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  1. For example, http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com 

  2. Miroslav Volf and Gordon Preece, ‘Work’, in A. Hastings et al, eds, The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (OUP, 2000), 759 

  3. See Joseph Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (St Augustine’s Press, 1998; first published 1948).