HomeCommentaryA formidable theology on human work: On the essence of labor

A formidable theology on human work: On the essence of labor

St. John Paul II defines work as “any activity by man, whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances” and is among many, if not the primary aspect of human existence in which the Church must be involved in the preservation of its dignity.

According to the late pontiff, humanity derives its specific dignity from the exertions of work, because it is through the act of creation and through the existence of its outcomes that a human person expresses and fulfills oneself.

But work must inevitably involve toil and suffering, not only from the intrinsic hardship of its exertions, but also from the various external tensions between the worker and society, and in the events and changes happening throughout the world.




He thus emphasizes the need for a systematic conceptualization of human work in the light of these current contexts, because he recognizes that addressing the problems of human work is the key to the “social question.”

In what he calls as the “first gospel of work,” the pope has identified the book of Genesis as the source of the Church’s conviction “that work is a fundamental dimension of human existence.”

Interpreting Gen 1: 26-28 through the lens of Thomistic personalism, he sets forth the main theological concept which he believes must be the foundation of any relevant theology of labor: Humanity is the image of God, mandated to subdue the earth, which is done through work.

From work, human persons derive their dignity, and are therefore the subject of work, not its object. Through work, human persons reflect the creative action of God.

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The tradition of Catholic Social Teaching has bestowed upon us for our constant reflection, a number of formidable theological positions on human work. I have decided to place these positions into five major categories; a category will be featured in each one of this series of five essays.

For this essay, the Church establishes its deep comprehension of the essence of human work through the following theological positions:

  1. The wealth of a nation is the sum equivalent of the value of the labor of all workers.

This subjective notion of a measure of national prosperity based on the worth of the exertions of its labor force, is rooted in the conceptualization of value that was predominant at that time: the labor theory of value. It essentially postulates that the market price of a commodity in exchange must primarily consider the value of its labor inputs.

In Scholastic ethical doctrine, the value of a commodity in the interest of moral fairness, was related to the expenses and labor spent to produce it – “labor et expensae” was thought to constitute “justum praetium” (Theocarakis, “Metamorphoses: The Concept of Labour in the History of Political Economy,” 2010).

The dignity of the human laborer was in a way, included in the quantification of equivalent exchange. This is in congruence with the political philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas that society which is deemed to be necessary for the perfection of the sapient species to which it is destined by nature, must therefore in its mutual exchange of services purposefully pursue the common material well-being of all.

Such an idea has philosophical implications, because if the wealth created in trade engaged upon by a social community is the summation of the value of work performed by its constituents, then very simply put – the true treasures of a nation are its own people.

This statement can also be its own theological extrapolation, and hence a basis for justifying the social duty of ensuring the moral treatment of workers, the advocacy for which clearly led to the fateful Leonine proclamation of “Rerum Novarum” in 1891.

  1. Labor must have primacy over all means of production, including the owners of such means.

According to the Pastoral Constitution “Gaudium et Spes,” “Human labor which is expended in the production and exchange of goods or in the performance of economic services is superior to the other elements of economic life, for the latter have only the nature of tools.” (GS 67) It essentially postulates that the inanimate resources of production including the ownership thereof, must never be construed as to constitute a position of power over the workers.

Acutely observing that the conventional notion of ownership has led to the social conflict between “capital” and “labor” in the claim for control of resources or property as a deciding justification of one’s primacy over another, Pope John Paul II reiterated the idea in “Laborem Exercens” that property is realized through “labor” for “labor;” that “capital” as the means of production, is itself the heritage of work that in turn is needed to undertake it.

Therefore, he cleanly argues that “capital” cannot and should not be thought as to be owned in order to be used against “labor” — “capital” or property should serve “labor.” He strongly suggests instead — following Thomistic tradition — that whatever we privately possess, must be used or be ready to be used at the service of the common good: The problem does not lie in the manner in which property is possessed, rather in the manner how such owned resources are utilized for the dignity of all.

An extrapolation of this thinking may lead one to reasonably surmise that a core weakness of human nature may lie in the false and fleeting impressions that possession, power and prestige can create within a person to construct social hegemonies.

It is precisely this inordinate reversal of the importance of the possession of capital relative to the transformative potency of labor to actually create additional value, that results in the unjust claim for this additional value by the owners of capital, to the detriment of the agents of the work that in no small way, helped to make such gains possible.

To resolve the social question of worker exploitation, is thus to have the firm belief and conviction that never must the intrinsic merit of one’s labor be subordinated to anything else including the superficial pretense of control over any means by which production is facilitated or exponentially increased; or of a much greater absorption of production risks that rationalizes a much greater share if not the totality of its eventual rewards.

Brother Jess Matias is a professed brother of the Secular Franciscan Order. He serves as minister of the St. Pio of Pietrelcina Fraternity at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Mandaluyong City, coordinator of the Padre Pio Prayer Groups of the Capuchins in the Philippines and prison counselor and catechist for the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.

The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.

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