4.4.1 Summary and review of Laborem Exercens

Back to 4.3.9

Unit 4 Contents


This final part of Unit 4 will enable you to stand back from the detail of Rerum Novarum and Laborem Exercens and to assess what they say and what this means in practice.

We shall focus (especially in 4.4.3) on a theme that has come up a number of times – namely what these documents mean for how to handle disagreement and conflict in bringing about change for the better in working life.  In doing this we shall give more attention to the kind of campaigning done by the Citizens UK movement, for example on the Living Wage. (We looked at this near the beginning of this unit, in 4.1.4.)

But first we shall review the content of Laborem Exercens and, through this, where CST stands on work.



Section 2 of the unit identified ‘five planks’ that together formed Pope Leo XIII’s ‘remedy’ in RN to the crisis of the conditions of workers in the late nineteenth century.  For a reminder of these, see 4.2.8 Response to Exercise.

From your reading of Laborem Exercens, what are the main constructive planks that it adds to those five, thereby building on them?

What are its main points of criticism of other views?

Make notes to answer these two questions, concentrating on the first.  Then look at the Response.




Laborem Exercens was published at the start of the 1980s.  The Cold War confrontation of capitalism and Communism was very entrenched.  There was just the beginning of effective opposition to Communist regimes, in the form of the Solidarity trade union in Poland, about which you read earlier (4.3.4).  The global revival of economic liberalism was getting underway, with the recent election of Thatcher and Reagan.

In order to begin to assess LE, we shall now take a look at reactions to it in that context.

In a moment you are asked to do a short reading by Patricia Lamoureux which both gives a brief critical assessment of LE and summarizes a range of reaction to it.  This is an extract from an article that I have referred to at a few places earlier.

In a passage in the article not long before the point at which the reading set below begins, Lamoureux refers to an issue on which LE was quickly subject to criticism: women in the workplace.  Lamoureux says that there was a “cacophony of reactions from women” which were “mostly negative” (p. 408).  Critics pointed out that LE gives negligible attention to the huge change represented by the entry of women into working life outside the home, and to specific injustices experienced by women in employment.  Lamoureux summarizes this critique:

The vision of women presented in LE seems almost oblivious to the dramatic changes that have occurred in the world of women and work.  Moreover, [it] fails to recognize the systemic nature of sexism and unequal wages that persist in the workplace.

She continues,

Nevertheless, the pope makes a crucial point in stating that care of the family is as important as labouring in the marketplace, and neither parent should be forced to abandon these responsibilities to take up work outside the home.1



In light of having read LE, what is your initial reaction to that line of critique?


While it is certainly true that there is very little in LE that is specifically about issues of justice for women in working life, we may note one very important aspect of its position that Lamoureux’s discussion overlooks.  This goes right back to Pope John Paul II’s very wide definition of work at the start of the encyclical.  I sought to bring out the significance of this on 4.3.2.

One of the main points made there is that the very breadth of that definition raises to the same level all the forms of human work by which people participate in fulfilling the role of dominion.  This can lead to a big shift of perspective on roles that have been widely seen as ‘women’s work’: raising children; home-making; care for elderly relatives and others.  According to LE, such work must not be generally demeaned.  It has the same status as all other kinds of work proper to human persons, whether it is done by men or women.  In many if not all cultures, this is very positive step.

In Unit 8 of this module, we shall give attention directly to what CST says to do with justice for women.  There I shall recommend as optional reading a very good article that takes up issues studied in this unit.  (If you want to look at this now, go to the end of 8.3.4 and see reading by Hinze.)

We now turn to Lamoureux’s discussion of other reactions to LE.


Reading (5pp)

In Virtual Module Reader: P. Lamoureux, ‘Commentary on Laborem Exercens’, pp. 406-410.

This is from K. Himes, L. Cahill, et al., eds, Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries and Interpretations (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2005)


At Feb. 2012, pages 406-7 and 409-410 can be accessed at Google Books, but not p. 408 (nor the numerous footnotes to those pages).  At http://books.google.co.uk, search using ‘Himes Cahill’, and then search in the book using ‘LE provides a good foundation’ – this should take you to p. 406.




From the understanding of LE you have gained through study of this unit, which of the various critical comments in that reading do you agree with, and which not?



End of 4.4.1

Go to 4.4.2 General assessment of CST on working life


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  1. Lamoureux, ‘Laborem Exercens’ (ref. in 4.3.2 n.1), 401