4.4.2 General assessment of CST on working life

Back to 4.4.1

Unit 4 Contents


Against the background of all that we have learned from Rerum Novarum and Laborem Exercens, I shall try to sum up the significance of CST on working life as concisely as possible.  This will bring out why it matters.

  • By affirming that the human person is a worker, in light of Genesis 1, modern CST is, in this aspect, very different from the Greek tradition inspired by Plato, which sees the human person as essentially a thinker.
  • By affirming that human work must be for persons, enabling us to find fulfilment as we participate in “unfolding the Creator’s work” (LE, #25), CST is deeply different from modern economic liberalism.  This sees the human person as essentially a utility-maximizer and therefore it views work as only a means to that end.  In practice this leads to subjection of humans to projects of profit maximization, i.e. to capital.
  • By affirming a broad definition of work, encompassing both intellectual activity and manual labour, CST is deeply different from Marxism, which privileges the latter.  Marxism sees the human person as defined by economic class, and it sees work, therefore, in terms of location in the class structure.  This leads to subjection of humans to the economic forces of class struggle.
  • In contrast to these three, CST sees work as one thing that is essential to human wellbeing, in proper balance with Sabbath celebration.  As Lamoureux puts it at the end of the passage you just read, workers are “capable not only of changing the objective world by their labor but, in doing so, [of] becoming also fully human subjects” (p. 410).
  • In the ‘fallen’ world, work is always ‘toil’, but this is a distortion of a good gift in creation and does not make work inherently bad.
  • On the contrary, the very purpose of human living in the world is to work and, in balance with that, to rest. In doing this, men and women exercise their God-given role of dominion and they help to enable all things to fulfil their potential.  “[B]y means of work, man participates in the activity of God himself. . .” (LE, #26).

This summary can help us to see why work is “the key to the social question” (LE, #3).  Nothing is more fundamental if humans are to live well.  If we don’t get work and rest right, we won’t get right any other issues of social and economic life, such as those addressed in the rest of this module.

This means that the subject of this unit can be regarded as the most important one in this module.

One practical consequence of the importance of this subject is that it is the focus of one the module assignments!

To conclude the unit, we shall address on the next screen what this vision of work and rest means for what we should do in practice to change working life for the better.  In this way we shall come to the last stage of the pastoral spiral: action.

Go to this now – unless you would like to take time to read a very good article that asks how Laborem Exercens remains relevant some decades after its publication.  (It was written for a conference marking the 25th anniversary.)

This is set as ‘optional’ simply because enough reading has been set in this unit already.  So read it only if you have time.  Or save it for a spare evening – it’s a good read.


Optional reading (23pp)

Thomas Kohler, ‘The Fragile Relevance of Laborem Exercens

From Journal of Catholic Social Thought, 6.1 (2009), pp. 185-207


The link takes you to a pdf of the article.  We are most grateful to the Journal of Catholic Social Thought for permission to make this available.  See information on the Journal here and here.




This article was written not long before the 2008-13 financial and economic crisis.  Kohler argues, as the title says, for the “fragile” relevance of LE.

But can you see reasons for why its relevance is more obvious, or even greater than it was, in the aftermath of that?

In Unit 5, you have the opportunity to look at how CST speaks to the debate about business and the economy which the crisis has provoked.


Kohler’s article raises one fascinating and important question about interpretation of Laborem Exercens of which students of CST need to be aware.  In this unit, I have contrasted the vision of work in LE with that of the Greek philosophical tradition stemming from Plato – as summed up at the start of this page.  I quoted Donal Dorr in support of this way of reading LE (4.3.2).

Earlier I had referred to Joseph Pieper, a prominent mid-twentieth century Catholic philosopher and writer (4.1.5).  Pieper can be seen as one Catholic figure who articulated more-or-less the Platonic approach.  Pieper’s brilliant book on these issues has the title, Leisure, the Basis of Culture. This conveys the principal point of his argument: it is not work but leisure that really forms human culture and thereby enables us to find fulfilment as persons – ‘leisure’ being all that we do when we are not having to do the merely instrumentally useful tasks which the Platonic tradition calls ‘work’. In the light of our reading of LE, this seems significantly different from John Paul’s perspective, because in this it is by human work that we share in “the making of the world” (in Dorr’s phrase, quoted in 4.3.2).

Kohler discusses Pieper (pp. 200-203), but he does not contrast his understanding from that of John Paul II in the way I suggest here. Rather, Kohler appears to regard the critique that Pieper makes of ‘proletarianization’ – this term refers basically to what happens to people when all human activities are turned into merely instrumentally useful work – as consistent with, even as feeding into, John Paul’s critique of the same thing in LE. (You might recall noticing that John Paul uses this word in LE; see #8).

Perhaps Pope John Paul II knew Pieper’s book, and perhaps he was influenced by it. But the text of LE seems to show clearly that John Paul’s way of responding to ‘proletarianization’ was significantly different from that.  Pieper favoured keeping instrumental work in its proper place in life and not letting it take over, so that there would be ample opportunity for real leisure.  In contrast, Pope John Paul presented a vision in which work can be done in a way that is inherently fulfilling for the human person doing it, and is participation in the God-given human role of dominion in God’s good creation.

It seems to me, therefore, that Kohler doesn’t fully recognize the extent to which John Paul was articulating a different understanding from the Greek tradition that Pieper continued to represent.  If you read his article, you can form your own view on this question of interpretation.

The more important question, however, is the substantive one. Was Pope John Paul II right on this?  Or is it not more realistic, more true to the way that work is toil which we would often rather avoid, to recognize the force of the Greek view that work is instrumental activity and, as such, not something we can really find fulfilling as human persons?



Drawing attention to this apparent difference between Joseph Pieper and Pope John Paul helps to demonstrate how radical and challenging John Paul’s vision of work in LE was.  He was in effect calling for a transformation of the way work is done in both the capitalist and the then Communist worlds.

But which is more true to the realities of the human condition:

– Pieper’s emphasis that work, being merely instrumental, should not take over life, because it is in leisure that people become more fully human, or…

– Pope John Paul’s vision of work transformed to be inherently fulfilling participation in the distinctly human role of dominion or stewardship in the good creation?

Or is the difference between these two not as great as I have suggested?  In other words, does Kohler’s reading of them as consonant with each other make more sense?



End of 4.4.2

Go to 4.4.3 Christian action for workers’ rights

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