John Paul II: Laborem Exercens

Critical Comments Selected by Gerald Darring

Peter Hebblethwaite. National Catholic Reporter (25 September 1981) 32. "The difficulty with Laborem Exercens taken as a whole (is that) it is a deliberate attempt to breathe some new life into Catholic social doctrine. In the post-conciliar period, it was frequently said Catholic social doctrine--as expounded in the encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI--was moribund. This doctrine worked on too high a level of generality. No one paid any attention to it.... And Pope Paul VI acknowledged the demise of Catholic social doctrine (in Octogesima Adveniens).... John Paul does not accept Paul VI's pessimistic diagnosis. He believes Catholic social doctrine can be revived, and that it is possible to sketch a blueprint for a renewed human society. Ignoring the frontiers of capitalism and communism, he tries to say what would happen ideally if the human person were placed at the center of all our thinking about work. The answer is--with all the ambiguity of the term--utopia."

Harley Shaiken. National Catholic Reporter (25 September 1981) 2. If the pope were in the U.S. and preaching the ideas as contained in his encyclical, "I think he would be viewed as among the more radical leaders in the United States today. I think his stress in terms of issues of automation, his stress on the primacy of the worker, and realistic measures to deal with both these areas, as well as the idea of the legitimacy of collective bargaining as a tool for all workers, would certainly make him be viewed as a radical within the business community and, I think, even within the labor community.... given the current situation in the United States, the teachings that are being stressed in the encyclical would require a profound change to implement.... the actions of the business community of late in particular are very much contrary to the broad themes that are stressed in the encyclical."

Tablet (3 October 1981) 956. "Where the pope will attract most scepticism among conventional businessmen is in his assertion that unemployment has to be solved by attending to immediate human needs, not to long-term economic arguments, but his answer is that, seen in a global and not a local dimension (a contrast replacing the old class war), there is little room for unemployment in a world where the new technology would be devoted to correcting the appalling inequalities of the distribution of wealth. Again and again he reminds us that every man's right to use of the fruits of the earth is prior to that of ownership."

Daniel Seligman. Fortune (2 November 1981) 63. "The great bulk of the encyclical displays once again the evidently invincible determination of the Church not to understand capitalism. Judging from the general tenor of Laborem Exercens, the Church remains wedded to socialist economics and is increasingly a sucker for Third World anti-imperialist rhetoric. The encyclical's references to capitalism are almost uniformly hostile.... The capitalist alternative, which has markets allocating resources more rationally than planners and moralists, is never described fairly.... Laborem Exercens has an implicit economic model. Its premises are largely socialist, and in trying to think of ways in which they might be implemented we have difficulty envisioning outcomes that look like social justice."

Donal Dorr. Furrow (November 1981) 700. "Over the years the main thrust of Catholic social teaching has shifted from concern about social justice within the nation to concern about justice between nations, between rich and poor countries and continents. At first sight it looks as though the present encyclical Laborem Exercens is a step backward from this direction. In so far as it concentrates on human work it appears to have more in common with Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum than with Paul VI's Populorum Progressio. But to make this kind of superficial comparison is to miss the real originality of John Paul's approach. The fact is that he has not moved backward but has moved to a deeper level of analysis. And this more profound study of human work gives him a viewpoint where justice within countries and justice between countries are not seen as two distinct issues."

Steve Askin. Natinal Catholic Reporter (25 December 1981) 7. Washington's political think tanks treated the arrival of the encyclical as a major political event. But each political tendency, to a greater or lesser degree, tried to reshape the document in its own image. Some right-wing conclusions: the pope rejects the various forms of Western socialism, and supports a deep conservatism which closely parallels the thought of Edmund Burke; the encyclical's rather harsh critique of 'rigid capitalism' refers to the economic system as it was a century or so ago. Some left-wing conclusions: no system on earth matches the pope's ideals; it is a radical statement 'in our American context'; the true novelty of the document is to define capitalism as the problem and socialization as a solution. "Perhaps commentators, academics and think tank scholars devote too much effort to manipulating words, too little to figuring out how the world really works."

Robert Oakeshott. Month (March 1982) 91. "The progressive teaching of the Church" expresses "a consistent opposition to both unfettered private capitalism and full-blooded state socialism.... On the other hand, until Laborem Exercens, it has been less clear what this tradition stood for: what set of arrangements should be evolved by Catholic businessmen and working people to be in line with the positive precepts of this tradition." John Paul II points to "proposals for joint ownership of the means of work, sharing by the workers in the management and/or profits of the business," that is, worker ownership and co-ops.

Jude P. Dougherty. "The Work Ethic of John Paul II" (1982) 6. "If the encyclical of John Paul advances Papal teaching it does so, in my judgment, when it calls attention to several facets of the productive process which were not singled out in prior papal documents: 1) The psychological requirements of the work place; 2) The interdependence of nations by reason of the uneven distribution of the earth's raw materials; 3) The needs of migrant laborers; and 4) The employment and treatment of the handicapped. A case can be made that on all of these issues the Pope is behind the times" because they have been dealt with in our society.

William A. Stanmeyer. "Interpreting Laborem Exercens" (1982) 36. I am afraid that "the Pope's words may be misapplied by those who do not realize how far, in some ways, industrialized nations like the United States have gone to implement, in a practical way" the ideas of the encyclical. For example, we seem to be "on the brink of perhaps wholesale adoption of some of the Pope's general suggestions on widening worker ownership of the means of production" and our comparatively higher wages constitute "another reason to reject any claim that the Pope is condemning American 'welfare capitalism.'"

Johannes Schasching, S.J. "The Originality and Importance of Laborem Exercens" 144-45. "In the tradition of the social teaching of the Church there has always been great concern about the need to bring the word of the Gospel into the world of labor.... The present encyclical continues the same stress, but it speaks not only about the Gospel for the world of labor but explicitly about the Gospel of human work. This formulation is much more than a different way of using words. It is, rather, an affirmation that an important part of the divine message is to be found in work itself, a message which has to be discovered, formulated and communicated."

George Huntston Williams. Journal of Church and State (1983) 475. "Laborem Exercens, dealing with the most fundamental activity common to all human beings, one distinguishing them from animals ... is built to an extraordinary degree not on natural law, prominent in Rerum Novarum, but on scriptural revelation.... The encyclical, which takes Scripture far more earnestly ... than did pre-Vatican II encyclicals, must be seen as a profound Christian meditation on how in the fullness of time it is indeed possible to speak of 'the Gospel of work' rather than the curse thereof."

Stanley Hauerwas. This World (1982) 42. This encyclical is a disaster, revealing the methodological shortcomings inherent in papal social encyclicals. "My concern with Laborem Exercens involves two interdependent arguments: (1) the theological analysis of work is deficient and (2) this results in a social and economic theory that systematically distorts the nature and significance of work in most people's lives."

Joseph A. Pichler. Houck and Williams, eds. Co-Creation and Capitalism (1983) 113-15. Conceptual capitalism and Laborem Exercens are in fundamental agreement on fundamental issues, but there are significant areas in which the encyclical is either contrary to capitalism or states things in such a way that there is potential conflict. "It is not clear whether the encyclical is condemning conceptual capitalism or the exploitation that may result when the system is not fully implemented."

Denis Goulet. Houck and Williams, eds. Co-Creation and Capitalism (1983) 147. "Middle-way theories are nothing new in Christian circles and John Paul II's letter On Human Work brings no fresh elements to theoretical reflection on third ways. The Pope's letter is to be read as a fervent re-affirmation of the principle that no economic system or ideology is moral if it dehumanizes those who work in it."

Russell Barta. Chicago Studies (1984) 168. "For the first time in modern history a civilization based on work, accepted and acknowledged as such, has become a viable idea. We are moving into a work-society which transcends both capitalist and socialist categories. To discern the 'new meaning of work' will require overcoming the barriers of traditional language and concepts. The letter of John Paul II is remarkable for having caught a glimpse of the new meaning of work. It is an attempt to find a language that adequately reflects that reality. To suggest as he does that the bread produced by the work of our hands is not only the bread that keeps our bodies alive, but also 'the bread of science and progress, civilization and culture' is already a reversal of traditional language thought patterns and a new way of thinking about work."

Brien Hallett. America (1985) 373-74. "John Paul II's critique of modern liberal capitalism is too profound and too important to be assimilated in the four short years since Laborem Exercens. It is as startling as was Leo XIII's 1891 critique of early industrial capitalism. Ninety-four years ago people could hardly imagine all the numerous structural changes implicit in Leo XIII's simple assertion that every working person 'has the right of securing things to sustain life'.... In the same way, people today can hardly imagine all the numerous structural changes implicit in John Paul II's simple assertion: 'Human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question.' In an economy where work is still viewed objectively as merely a job, as merely one of the inputs of production, as a simple variable to be manipulated by managers in their endless search for profit maximization, John Paul II's reaffirmation of man's social nature and of the subjective value of work is stunning."

John T. Pawlikowski, O.S.M. "Modern Catholic Teaching on the Economy" (1986) 21. In its desire to correct certain "false" signals from Paul VI, this encyclical may be giving out some of its own. It seems to tip too much back towards the individual basis of economic life and away from the communal. "The encyclical also fails to recognize adequately that economic justice will not be achieved without a certain measure of struggle and even expropriation."

Kevin J. Cassidy. Thought (1987) 230-31. "His approach differs from that of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI who placed their faith in a reformed capitalism regulated by government oversight. John Paul II has clearly decided that this system has proven unable to make capital serve labor and that new structures are necessary."

Ricardo Antoncich. Christians in the Face of Injustice (1987) 110. "While Leo XIII specified a just wage as a means of access to private property for the worker, John Paul II establishes that dominion over the means of production can be had not only by way of private possession of them but also by way of a right to participate responsibly in the decisions taken with regard to these means. This demand is in fact not new, since the church in its social teaching had already called for a share of the worker in management, that is, in the decisions affecting a business. What is new is that this demand is extended beyond capitalism to the socialist system."

Dennis P. McCann. O. F. Williams, F. K. Reilly and J. W. Houck, eds. Ethics and the Investment Industry. Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1989, p. 136. "Laborem Exercens is to be welcomed for insisting upon the religious significance of human labor, and for pointing out how utterly counterproductive and needless, both in theory and in practice, is an adversarial relationship between labor and capital. But this good news rings rather hollow so long as Catholic social teaching is unable or unwilling to spell out in equally promising terms the relationship between this kind of 'capital' and the ordinary workings of finance capital. The point is that none of the 'means of production' described by the Pope would exist, had not some agent, either an individual, or a private corporation, or a parastatal organization invested in them."

Phillip Berryman. Our Unfinished Business. New York: Pantheon, 1989, p. 89. "Traditional Catholic social teaching tended to be grounded in a consideration of the spiritual qualities of the human being, especially reason and free will. John Paul II's letter represents a new development insofar as it reflects a humanism that embraces homo faber, seeing what is distinctively human in the ability to build and transform as well as to reason and contemplate."

Maria Riley, O.P. Transforming Feminism. Kansas City, MO: Sheed & Ward, 1989, p. 85. "In Laborem Exercens John Paul II makes explicit his views on the proper role and vocation of women. The encyclical, while recognizing that women do work outside the home, continues the tradition that the primary role of women is to be responsible for the family and the primary role of men is to be responsible for economic support of the family. John Paul continues the position that the man, as head of the family, is entitled to a family wage. In reality, he is re-asserting the patriarchal model of the family. He calls for a 'social re-evaluation of the mother's role,' calling for a society to support a woman in this role, not inhibiting her freedom or in any other way penalizing her as compared with other women. He speaks of women 'having to abandon' their tasks as mothers as being wrong from the point of view of society and the family. Finally, he insists that 'true advancement of women requires that labor should be structured in such a way that women do not have to pay for their advancement by abandoning what is specific to them and at the expense of the family, in which women as mothers have an irreplaceable role.' John Paul does not call for a concomitant social re-evaluation of fatherhood."

Richard T. DeGeorge. "Decoding the Pope's Social Encyclicals" (1991) 36. "Capitalism is the name the Pope uses for free enterprise of whatever kind. There is no nuanced examination of the present-day structures of free enterprise. All existing forms of free enterprise are indiscriminately attacked in the same language that Marx, and later Lenin, used in attacking capitalism. This is an important reason why the encyclical fell on predominantly deaf ears in the United States. The Pope was not speaking directly to Americans but to those for whom Marxism has an appeal, and he was presenting an alternative to them that built on the strength of Marx's critique, while adding a spiritual and religious dimension lacking in Marx. To say this is not to criticize the encyclical but to understand it."

Al Gini. Thought (1992) 232. "In saying that work is for the person and that the person derives both dignity and identity from work, John Paul II allies himself with Karl Marx's earliest philosophical writings. Although Leo XIII feared the rise and expansion of nineteenth-century socialism, Karol Wojtyla, a citizen of the second world and the son of a tradesman, and a lifelong opponent of totalitarian Marxist-Leninist policies, recognized in Marx's writings an understanding of the person which corresponds to both the letter and the spirit of Scripture, especially the Book of Genesis."