4.3.3 Work as for the human person (LE ##4-7)

Back to 4.3.2

Unit 4 Contents


As you have just seen, John Paul mentioned in #3 that CST “finds its source in Sacred Scripture, beginning with the book of Genesis…”  He now goes on, in Chapter II of LE, to expound some parts of the opening chapters of Genesis.  These points are central to his whole understanding.

In #4 he focuses on humans as made ‘in the image of God’.  We noted the meaning of this phrase on the last screen and I referred back to the detailed attention which Unit 3 gives to this.  There it is studied in the context of what CST says about ecological responsibility.

There is a difference of emphasis, I suggest, in how the vision of humans ‘in the image of God’ is interpreted between, on one hand, Laborem Exercens and, on the other, Pope John Paul’s main statements about ecological responsibility (which came later in his papacy).  If you studied Unit 3, you can assess this for yourself.  In LE, he emphasizes that the ‘dominion’ given to humanity is a mandate to “subdue the earth” (Gen. 1:28, quoted in #4). (When reading you might notice that the English translation of the encyclical refers to the exercise of dominion by the possibly misleading word ‘dominate’ at a few points.)

It is important to appreciate what he means by speaking about subduing the earth.  In the original text of Genesis, i.e. in its ancient Israelite context, the meaning of the word ‘subdue’ was probably to do mainly with agriculture.  To work the ground in order to grow crops clearly requires a subduing of it.  One commentator on Genesis says this:

The command to “subdue the earth” focuses on the earth, particularly cultivation…, a difficult task…  While the verb may involve coercive aspects in interhuman relationships (see Num 32.22, 29), no enemies are in view here.  More generally, “subduing” involves development in the created order.  This process offers to the human being the task of intra-creational development, of bringing the world along to its fullest possible creational potential…  The future remains open to a number of possibilities in which creaturely activity will prove crucial for the development of the world.1

The way of understanding ‘subdue’ presented here is basically the same as is in LE.

You will see this especially from #5, which is headed, ‘Work in the Objective Sense: Technology’.  Here Pope John Paul begins by making the fundamental point that I have already introduced (4.3.2): humanity’s task of ‘dominion’ on God’s behalf in the world “is achieved in and by means of work” (italics added). In practice this requires subduing of the earth in the sense just outlined.

He then addresses the place of technology in this work.  He speaks first about agriculture and then about industry.  The Pope emphasizes that, in these areas of work, “technology is undoubtedly man’s ally”.  It helps in the proper activity of subduing the earth and the unlocking of the potential which God gives in creation.

But, in turning to ‘Work in the Subjective Sense’ (##6-7), John Paul warns that technology must contribute to enabling human persons to be properly human – rather than the technology taking over!

As a person… works, he performs various actions belonging to the work process [including using technology]; … these actions must all serve to realize his humanity, to fulfil the calling to be a person. (#6, italics added)

The Pope’s point here is that the work of dominion, whatever technological means it involves, should always be worthy of the human persons doing it.  It must respect people’s inherent dignity and enable them to become more fully human.

Work and technology must be for the human person.

Pope John Paul II goes on (in the rest of #6) to make a point about ‘classes’ of workers.  This is an anti-Marxist point, because the existence of conflicting classes was fundamental in the Marxist world-view, as you know from our examination of Rerum Novarum.  (Marx thought that it was only in the final, perfected ‘communist’ society that would there be no class conflict.)

John Paul insists that the vision of all humans as both made to be workers and as persons in the above sense means that any division of people into different classes of workers is, at most, secondary to what all workers share.  So the Pope rejects any sharp division of workers into different classes.  Instead of such supposed class identities, what matters for all humans as workers is that their work contributes to them being persons.

This helps to bring out what John Paul means by speaking of ‘work in the subjective sense’.  We looked at the basic meaning of this phrase in screen 4.1.5.  Work is supposed to serve the subject of work, the one who does the work – the worker, the person.  John Paul even uses a formula that is parallel to Jesus’ famous statement about the Sabbath, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27, NAB).  The Pope says, “In the first place work is ‘for man’ and not man ‘for work’” (#6).

In other words, work must enable all workers to share in exercising the role of dominion in the world – and in this way to be more fully human.

There is a paradox in how John Paul’s vision is expressed here, or a mind-bending confusion, you might be thinking!  Work must be for the worker, the subject of work.  At the same time work, and the person as a worker, is for the objective role of dominion or stewardship in the world.  How do these two fit together?

In insisting that the subjective meaning of work is more important than its objective meaning, Pope John Paul is saying: if work ever suppresses a person’s real humanity, prevents them from being properly human, it cannot really contribute to the objective task which humans have in the world.  This can be achieved only if and to the extent that work is enabling those who do it to be fulfilled, to be themselves, to be truly human.  If it is not, such work is a negative, anti-human thing, regardless of its objective impact in the world.

This perspective presents a radical challenge.  It has one very obvious, practical consequence.  For any work to be ‘dehumanizing’ is totally unacceptable.  If work is in fact dehumanizing for anyone, its basic, God-given purpose has been lost: it prevents the worker from living as one created ‘in the image of God’.2)



How do you think this perspective on work could be made a reality in the labour of extracting stone from a quarry, such as the Pope himself had done?  How could such work contribute to enabling the workers to be more fully human?

To provoke your thought about this, you might want to look back at the few sentences near the top of the last screen about his experience: 4.3.2.

No doubt John Paul II did think that such labour could be made to correspond with the vision of work which LE presents.

What working and management practices might contribute to enabling this?


The challenge that John Paul’s perspective presents explains why he refers, in the title of the next section of LE, to “A Threat to the Right Order of Values” (#7).  Here he argues that, in much of modern society (both capitalist and Marxist, he implies), things have gone very badly wrong.  The human person has come to be “treated as an instrument of production” – not as an end which work is to serve.

This helps to explain, in turn, why he has said earlier that work is the “key to the social question”.  He thinks that the modern world has, to a large extent, got things terribly wrong in relation to work, and the fundamental reason for this is a failure to understand the nature of the human person.  Work has come to dominate and enslave men and women.  But, in fact, human persons are made “in God’s image” and, by their work, are to exercise their God-given role of dominion, so it ought to be exactly the other way round.

I hope the outline on this screen of what John Paul says in LE 4-7 will be a helpful introduction to your reading of this. Yet, even with this background, the reading will require sustained concentration.


Reading (5pp)

Laborem Exercens, part of Chapter II: ##4-7




When you have done this reading, look through the introductory commentary above on this screen again.

Does what I say represent what Pope John Paul said accurately?

Think again about what the Pope’s vision of work implies for the quarry workers, and also for other kinds of work with which you are familiar.



End of 4.3.3

Go to 4.3.4 Worker solidarity (#8)


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  1. T. Fretheim, ‘The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections’, in L. Keck et al., eds, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1 (Abingdon, 1994), 346 

  2. Lamoureux interprets what LE implies here in this way: “[E]xploitation occurs whenever economic activity is organized in such ways that there is a denial of subjectivity or a moral failure to recognize the worker’s personhood.  It is the reversal of means and ends, the use of persons as instruments.  While exploitation can result from workers receiving inadequate wages or oppressive working conditions, the fundamental degradation of the worker occurs when personal satisfaction and incentives to creativity and responsibility are lacking.” Lamoureux, ‘Laborem Exercens’ (ref. in 4.3.2 n.1), 395