5 April 2005

The Dignity of Work and Workers: The Message of 'Laborem Exercens'

I'll have more to write about Pope John Paul II but thought I'd highlight this 1981 Laborem Exercens Encyclical Letter on the dignity of work. He was as harsh a critic of unbridled capitalism as he was on the depravity and failure of communism.
A systematic opportunity for thinking and evaluating in this way, and in a certain sense a stimulus for doing so, is provided by the quickening process of the development of a onesidedly materialistic civilization, which gives prime importance to the objective dimension of work, while the subjective dimension-everything in direct or indirect relationship with the subject of work-remains on a secondary level. In all cases of this sort, in every social situation of this type, there is a confusion or even a reversal of the order laid down from the beginning by the words of the Book of Genesis: man is treated as an instrument of production, whereas he-he alone, independently of the work he does-ought to be treated as the effective subject of work and its true maker and creator. Precisely this reversal of order, whatever the programme or name under which it occurs, should rightly be called "capitalism"-in the sense more fully explained below. Everybody knows that capitalism has a definite historical meaning as a system, an economic and social system, opposed to "socialism" or "communism". But in the light of the analysis of the fundamental reality of the whole economic process-first and foremost of the production structure that work is-it should be recognized that the error of early capitalism can be repeated wherever man is in a way treated on the same level as the whole complex of the material means of production, as an instrument and not in accordance with the true dignity of his work-that is to say, where he is not treated as subject and maker, and for this very reason as the true purpose of the whole process of production.

The above principle, as it was then stated and as it is still taught by the Church, diverges radically from the programme of collectivism as proclaimed by Marxism and put into pratice in various countries in the decades following the time of Leo XIII's Encyclical. At the same time it differs from the programme of capitalism practised by liberalism and by the political systems inspired by it. In the latter case, the difference consists in the way the right to ownership or property is understood. Christian tradition has never upheld this right as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.

While the media talking heads drone about how Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War, truth is, Pope John Paul II had a much greater impact in the fall of communism. It was for one of the Pope's books, or when he was known as Karol Wojtyla (though he wrote under cover of pseudonym) that the underground presses in Poland began churning. He spoke to his countrymen and others in neighboring nations in language that they understood, but not in an overt fashion that could land him a prison sentence. He worked on the gnawing of communism from within and truly was Man of the Century.

Flawless he was not, but he was a man of momentous significance.


Very good article, Naum. I might disagree a bit, however (what's new-I think I'm pathological).

It seems to me that certain MEDIA individuals have rightfully placed the Pope in the same pulpit with Reagan and Thatcher as bringing down the empire. The Pope, in my mind, provided the moral strength to face an entity void of morality, while Reagan (like it or not) pulled the military strings.
It was a fateful choice to appoint a Pole as Popoe just when freedom in Poland was stretching and crying to get out.
I predict a future Chapter in "What If" (Volume 5, or 6). What if another Italian had become Pope in 1978; would Reagan have had the leverage to fight communism alone without the strength of the Church?

It makes one wonder who'll be the next...will it be a Latino, or African to reflect the momentum of the continents, or will another European be appointed to chastise the stupid French elite who had the gall to criticize Chirac for ordering flags at half mast to honor a truly great man.

Do you find it puzzling that the political ideologues (Cons and Libs) are playing tug-O-war with his life, actions and unwavering stance on tradition?
I lived in the former USSR for 2 1/2 years and any mention that Reagan brought down the wall would be met with laughs.

A compelling argument is that Rumsfield and Cheney actually prolonged the cold war, with fake intellegent of dubious nature (sound familar?--it should)

I live in the former USSR, and I actually think the people would have been better off if the USSR would not have collapsed.

Another alternative which would have made the Soviets better off is that when the USSR collapsed, that those who loved and had power (the communists) would have been stopped by the people. These communist became capitilist and stole much of the public property, leaving the majority of the population in poverty.

The CIS is now like many other third world countries: the majority of people in complete poverty, and a small slice of the population living like Kings. Capatilism and "freedom" to many of these people is a loser. You can't eat freedom. Freedom doesn't pay the heat. Without checks and balances, which the Russian people themselves must rise up and fight for, 'freedom' is meaningless without a social net.

But this freedom and social net must come from the people themselves. The problem with Russians and Ukrainians is they are too patient, and too pesimistic. They have much more of a herd mentalitly than Americans. I love these qualities about Russians and Ukrainians in other contexts, but with politics and power, it is a recipe for disaster. I think this is why Stalin came to power. Soviets loved Stalin, and like Germany and the Holocaust, or America and its imperlism, Stalin was a reflection of the people themselves: i.e. Stalin could not have killed millions of people without the support of many of the people themselves.

There are promosing signs in Russia and Ukraine, like the election of Yushenko, but Russia and Ukriane have a long way to go.

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