4.3.10 ‘Elements for a Spirituality of Work’ (LE ##24-27)

Back to 4.3.9

Unit 4 Contents


Probably the central point in the teaching of LE is both simple and profound: the most important thing about work is that it should benefit the worker, enable him or her to be more fully a person. This is the main theme of ##4-7, which we looked at on screen 4.3.3.

This point presents a radical challenge to any view in which the worker as seen as only an instrument, whether to the end of profit or for the sake of a collective social project.

At the beginning of the final chapter of LE, Pope John Paul makes a very similar point but in a different way.  Work is always the action of a person, and therefore “the whole person, body and spirit,” is involved in it (#24).

This might sound like a statement of the very obvious, but a moment’s thought shows that this is far from so.  It is highly significant because it denies a separation of life into material and spiritual parts, in which work is just to do with the material part, and spiritual life is in a separate compartment.  It is as whole persons that we work, whether our work is manual or intellectual.



Do you think some people do put the spiritual and material parts of their lives into separate compartments – so that, for example, their participation in church life has no meaningful connection with what they do at work?

Do you do that?  Or can you say that the material and spiritual dimensions are well integrated in your life?

The whole point of CST can be said to be to enable such integration – to show how working life, business, family life, etc., can be lived in the light of Christian faith.


It is because work involves the whole person, body and spirit, that it is meaningful to speak about a ‘spirituality of work’, as the title of chapter V does.  This phrase refers to doing one’s work in a way that understands it within the bigger picture of God’s purposes, and thereby in the context of engagement with God in worship and prayer.

Pope John Paul goes on, in #25, to locate what he has said in LE about men and women being “in the image of God” in the context of such a spirituality of work.  He speaks here of work as “sharing in the activity of the creator”.1



Thinking back to study earlier in this unit ( and to Unit 3 (if you studied this), can you see why it might make sense to describe work as ‘sharing in the activity of the creator’?


Now read the first half of chapter V.


Reading (2pp)

Laborem Exercens, Chapter V, first half: ##24-25


Drawing on the Bible’s first account of creation (Gen. 1:1-2:3), the text says: “Man ought to imitate God both in working and also in resting, since God wished to present his own creative activity [as] work and rest” (#25, italics in original).

Men and women being ‘in the image of God’ and having the responsibility to exercise dominion on God’s behalf, we fulfil this as we work, thereby “unfolding the Creator’s work”.  This is so even in “the most ordinary everyday activities” (#25, quoting Gaudium et Spes, #34).

What this means is that, as long as our work both “provides the substance of life” for ourselves and benefits society (#25), we really can see our lives in an integrated way.  We are participating in the shared responsibility of living in the image of God, as those with the “mission to govern creation in order to make all its potential shine”.2

Yet this isn’t a matter of work only: just as God rested, so humans are to rest.  There is a proper ordering of human living with six days of work and one day of rest.  Moreover we are to leave room within this pattern to attend to God, in order to prepare ourselves and become “more and more what in the will of God [we] ought to be” (#25).

I find it surprising how little attention is given to rest in LE, because over-work can be so destructive of the possibility of people living properly human lives – by preventing enjoyment of friends and family as well as play and worship.  Perhaps one reason is that the issue of excessive working hours was much less a problem, at least across the Western world, when LE was issued than it came to be in the 1990s and 2000s.  I referred to this problem near the start of this unit (4.1.2).

Yet we need to keep in mind the Pope’s insistence earlier that working people have a right to weekly rest and other holidays (#19).  We also may assume that he takes for granted what Rerum Novarum established about this (##41-42; cf. 4.2.6).  Besides which, the whole point of LE is to articulate a fuller understanding of work!  Possibly he would say Catholic teaching in the past had always been much stronger on the Sabbath day than on what people do on the other six days of the week!  If so, LE is restoring a proper balance.



Does the spirituality of work and rest summarized here from LE ##24-25 make sense to you?  Does it enable you to see working life in the context of the bigger picture of God’s purposes in creation?


In the final two sections of the encyclical, John Paul connects this understanding of work and rest with other texts in Scripture and especially with the person of Jesus Christ.  He concludes in #27 by focusing on the cross and resurrection of Christ. The cross of Christ shows us very clearly that faithfully carrying out the particular work God has for us can involve not just toil but also suffering – the way of the cross.

The ‘work of Christ’ led to the cross, but because of Jesus’ complete faithfulness in that work – in his vocation – such that even unjust, cruel, public execution did not defeat him, the crucifixion was a perfect victory.  Therefore, he was raised from the dead.

Likewise, any person’s work might turn out to involve the greatest of challenges – to be faithful to God’s ways in doing it, however costly this might be. Yet, living by the Spirit of Christ, our faithful work has its own fruits in the world which, in light of Christ’s resurrection and the coming of God’s reign that it promises, we can see as both the ‘unfolding’ of creation’s potential and as signs of the renewal of all things.  Pope John Paul says:

In work, thanks to the light that penetrates us from the Resurrection of Christ, we always find a glimmer of new life, of the new good, as if it were an announcement of “the new heavens and the new earth”. (#27; cf. 2 Pet. 3:13, Rev. 21:1; italics original)


Reading (4pp)

Laborem Exercens, Chapter V, second half: ##26-27

This link takes you to the start of Chapter V, so scroll down.


If you have stayed with it, you’ve now read the full encyclical.  Well done.  On the next screen you have an opportunity to test your understanding of it overall.


End of 4.3.10



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  1. Although this is the only place in LE where John Paul directly expresses the notion of ‘work as co-creation’, this concept has sometimes been taken as the central idea in the encyclical.  See especially the early collection of essays edited by John W. Houck and Oliver F. Williams, Co-Creation and Capitalism: John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens (University Press of America, 1983).  Rather, the principal theological idea, which that phrase diverts us away from, is ‘work as dominion in creation’ (cf. 4.3.2).  One way to describe the difference is this: the former privileges creativity, relative to other characteristics of work and in an account of human fulfilment, whereas the latter locates creativity as one important thing among others that enable work to contribute to human fulfilment and that the exercise of dominion requires. 

  2. Pope John Paul II, ‘God made man the steward of creation’,  referenced in  4.3.2 n. 5