4.3.2 Laborem Exercens: preface and introduction (##1-3)

ack to 4.3.1

Unit 4 Contents


In the short preface of Laborem Exercens, John Paul gives a very broad definition of work, as you will see when you start reading.  At first sight, the definition can seem so wide as to rule out almost no human activity!  But it is clear, on reflection, that he is making a hugely significant point by defining work in that way.

Before we look at why, read the preface carefully.


Reading (1p)

Laborem Exercens, Preface


Here are two background points that can help us to see the significance of Pope John Paul’s very wide definition of work.

First, as a young man during the years of WW2, Karol Wojtyła (the future Pope John Paul II) did manual labour, first in a quarry for four years and then in a chemical company.  This was when Poland was under Nazi occupation. He is the only pope in modern history to have experience of such work.  What he saw in the lives of fellow workers had a lasting impact.  Later he wrote that he came to know intimately “their living situations, their families, their interests and their human worth”.1. One commentator on LE says, “He was struck by the innate dignity of these workers expressed in their friendliness, self-sacrifice, and generosity”.2

That formative experience is part of the background to what he wrote forty years later in LE.  We could say that for him it constituted the ‘experience’ stage at the start of the pastoral spiral!  (On this see 2.3.2.) Although the climb up the spiral proved a long one, he continued, via engagement with the Marxism that then dominated Poland for decades, to undertake deep ‘theological reflection’ about work – and out of all this came Laborem Exercens.

The second background point is to do with the ‘theological reflection’ stage of the spiral.  It draws on what comes later in LE to illuminate what the preface says. To understand this encyclical it is necessary to see the centrality in it of the following: the main way in which humans fulfil their God-given task of exercising dominion within the good creation is by their work.

Let us unpack this a little.  If you have studied Unit 3, you will have looked closely at what it means that human beings are, as Genesis chapter 1 says, created ‘in the image of God’ (3.3.4-3.3.7).  This was also touched on in Unit 2 (2.2.3).  As the next two readings will show, John Paul gives much attention in LE to Genesis 1.

Here is a summary of what Unit 3 brought out about ‘image of God’.  The theological affirmation that human persons are made in God’s image means (a) that they are given the responsibility to exercise dominion on God’s behalf, stewardship, within his good creation, and (b) that they find their proper fulfilment in a community of persons, male and female, destined for perfect communion with the three-in-one God.  (Cf. 3.3.7.)  Seen in this way, persons have immeasurable worth, human dignity.  This is the ‘personalist’ vision.

In LE, Pope John Paul II focuses on (a), that is, on the responsibility of dominion that God gives to human beings.

Here is the pivotal point: the main practical way in which we fulfil our role of dominion is by work.  He says this in slightly different ways several times in the encyclical.  Here is one of them:

[By humans working] there is realized… that dominion over the world of nature to which man is called from the beginning according to the words of the Book of Genesis (#10).

With those two points in the background, we can start to see the way in which his very broad definition of work is significant.  It communicates this: everything human beings do that is part of their dominion in the world is the proper work of human persons, however highly regarded or despised it is, and whether it is paid or unpaid.  Hence all such work has the same status, simply because it is the proper work of human persons.

The definition rules out any view which says that only some categories of work are the valuable ones.  This has vast significance for people who find themselves in social contexts in which the work they do is demeaned or disregarded.  To people in India’s Dalit or ‘untouchable’ class, to people whose work is ‘only’ home-making, to farm labourers earning subsistence wages for long hours in stifling heat, John Paul’s says at the start of LE: your work is on the same level as anybody else’s, because it is the proper work of human persons.  He is saying to all workers: you count.

Yet this point is immediately vulnerable to misinterpretation. He is not for a moment implying that we should all be content with whatever work we do, regardless of the context in which we have to do it or the wage we receive.  Quite the reverse is true.  As the rest of LE will bring out, the dignity of men and women who are fulfilling their God-given role of dominion in the world by their work entails that its conditions really must be fitting for them. But to achieve this big changes might be needed.

In short, God-given human dignity means working conditions must be worthy of humanity.

We shall keep returning to this theme as we read LE.



I have sought to bring out why John Paul’s wide definition of work is significant.  Maybe you’re thinking: but isn’t it just obvious that ‘work’ covers a huge range of human activities?  What does this tell us that isn’t common sense?

If this is your reaction, read the last five paragraphs again, from “With those two points in the background…”.

If that’s still your reaction, the next point takes the explanation further.


There is another very important reason why LE’s wide definition of work is significant: it marked a new emphasis in Catholic Social Teaching.  Donal Dorr comments very helpfully as follows:

Catholic thinkers in the past generally followed the Greek tradition of defining the human person as a thinker.  In presenting the human person as fundamentally a worker, the pope… is breaking from this Greek tradition and following in the tradition of Karl Marx.  Of course he does not [thereby] become a Marxist…  [I]t must be added at once that the pope takes a much broader view of what is meant by ‘work’ than is common in the Marxist tradition.  In [this], there is a tendency to use… ‘work’ mainly to refer to industrial labour.  For John Paul, on the other hand, the meaning of the word ‘work’ is so comprehensive that everybody can be called a worker in some sense.  Work, for him, includes such intellectual occupations as study; … organizational work such as management, [and] the work of caring for a family.3

Dorr concludes that, “The pope’s conception… is one of homo faber – [in Latin] the human person as a maker, one who shares in the making of the world” (p. 309).

It is helpful to see this in a long-term historical context.  In the tradition of Greek philosophy to which Dorr refers, especially as inspired by Plato, thinking or contemplation was seen as the human ideal.  Work was viewed as a practical necessity to be avoided if possible, even by getting slaves to do it for you.  In other words, intellectual activity was seen as inherently different from and superior to work.  This philosophical tradition is one influence behind the long-held interpretation of ‘image of God’ in terms of human reason/intellect (which Unit 3 referred to, 3.3.4), an interpretation now regarded as inadequate.

What John Paul says, in contrast, is that the human person is by nature a worker – in other words, participation in work is an essential part of a fulfilled human life.  All kinds of proper human work are of equal status before God and intellectual activity is one of these.

Given that Dorr says that John Paul’s teaching here is in line with Karl Marx, rather than the Greek tradition, it may be worth emphasizing that the Pope was as strong a critic of Marxism as any Pope has been. As you will see, Laborem Exercens itself makes this clear.  Moreover, thanks not least to having grown up in Poland under Communism, he was a very well informed, and therefore an exceptionally incisive, critic of Marxism.  As reading for his spare time, he took a Marxist philosophy journal with him into the conclave of cardinals in 1978 at which, unexpectedly, he was elected Pope!4. But his affirmation of the human person as a ‘maker’ was based on Scripture, not on something similar being said in Marxism.  (It can be argued that, historically, this aspect of Marxism was itself part of the continuing legacy of Christianity in secularizing nineteenth century Europe, but we can’t look at this here.)

You might recall, from Unit 3, John Paul’s later statement that “[t]he human creature receives a mission to govern creation in order to make all its potential shine”.5. This is closely related to his vision of the human being as ‘sharing in the making of the world’, as Dorr puts it.  We shall look at this further below, especially in connection with what John Paul says about the command in Genesis 1 to “subdue” the earth – which he has already mentioned in the preface.

We now turn to the text.

In #1, the Pope begins to bring out the positives and negatives of work, not least the dignity the worker has and the toil and suffering that work involves.  In #2 he refers to the 90 years since Rerum Novarum. The context in 1981 is evident at the end of the second paragraph – the Cold War and the constant threat of nuclear war between the USA and the Soviet Union.  #3 affirms the pivotal importance of the issue of working life in the Church’s social teaching – it is “probably the essential key”.


Reading (3pp)

Laborem Exercens, Chapter I, all (##1-3)




In light of your reading of the preface of LE and ##1-3, why do you think that “human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question”?

We shall return to this later.



End of 4.3.2

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

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  1. Pope John Paul II, Gift and Mystery (Doubleday, 1996), 21-22, cited in Patricia Lamoureux, ‘Laborem exercens’, in Kenneth R. Himes, Lisa Sowle Cahill, et al. (eds),  Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries and Interpretations (Georgetown University Press, 2005), 392. 

  2. Lamoureux, ‘Laborem exercens’, 392 

  3. Dorr, Option for the Poor (ref. in 4.2.2 n. 1), 308-9, italics in original 

  4. One source for this is: G. Simmermacher, ‘The conclave of October 1978: How John Paul II became pope’, Cape Town: The Southern Cross, October 15-21, 2003, accessible (July 2011) at: http://www.mail-archive.com/pope-john-paul-ii@yahoogroups.com/msg00008.html

  5. Pope John Paul II, ‘God made man the steward of creation’, #2 (General Audience, 17 Jan. 2001, accessible at 1 Apr. 2014 at  http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/audiences/2001/documents/hf_jp-ii_aud_20010117_en.html.) This was quoted in 3.3.5 and 3.5.1