During October 2017, Pope Francis asks us to pray for workers and the unemployed. First, we pray “[t]hat all workers may receive respect and protection of their rights.” Also, we pray “that the unemployed may receive the opportunity to contribute to the common good.”
The rights of workers is at the core of the Church’s social teaching. Indeed, Saint Pope John Paul II said that human work is “probably the essential key, to the whole social question ….” Laborem exercens (LE) ¶ 3. The second chapter of the encyclical offers reflections that show what it means to pray for workers and the unemployed.
Work is a fundamental dimension of the human person
Laborem exercens is grounded in John Paul’s understanding of human dignity. To pray for workers and the unemployed acknowledges this dignity. “Work,” John Paul says, “is a fundamental dimension of man’s existence on earth.” God created man and woman in his own image. God blessed them, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.'” Gn 1: 28 (NJB). In these words, John Paul sees work “as an activity for man to carry out in the world.” LE ¶ 4.
Man is the image of God partly through the mandate received from his creator to subdue, to dominate the earth. In carrying out this mandate, every human being, reflects the very action of the creator of the universe.
LE ¶ 4.
Work is for the person, not the person for work
The value of work is not found in the objective nature of the work itself. Therefore, no greater or lesser dignity attaches to manual labor or craft work or mental work. Rather, the value of work is found in the human person performing it.
As a person, man is therefore the subject of work. As a person he works, he performs various actions belonging to the work process; independently of their objective content, these actions must all serve to realize his humanity, to fulfill the calling to be a person that is his by reason of his very humanity.
LE ¶ 6. Thus, “the primary basis of the value of work is man himself”. LE ¶ 6. From this, John Paul concludes that work is for the person, not the person for work. Id. Opposed to this is the notion that human work is “a sort of ‘merchandise’ that the worker … sells to the employer”. LE ¶ 7.
The dignity of the human person was not cancelled by sin
When humans sought to rise to the level of God, they rejected their creaturely status and sinned. As a consequence, God expelled them from the Garden. He said, “By the sweat of your face you will earn your food.” Gn 3: 19 (NJB). But these words “do not alter the fact that work is the means whereby man achieves that ‘dominion’ which is proper to him over the visible world, by ‘subjecting’ the earth. LE ¶ 9.
“[I]n spite of all this toil – perhaps because of it – work is a good thing for man.” It is “something worthy”. It is “something that corresponds to man’s dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it.” LE ¶ 9.
Work is a good thing for man – a good thing for humanity – because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed in a sense becomes “more a human being.”
LE ¶ 9.
Pray for workers and the unemployed
Thus, work is rooted in our dignity as persons created in God’s image. Responding to Pope Francis’s invitation to pray for workers and the unemployed, we affirm that dignity.