One of Saint John Paul II's great contributions to Catholic social teaching is Laborem exercens, his encyclical on human work. It was promulgated in 1981 and is available in its entirety on the Vatican website. The excerpts that follow serve as an introduction to his thought on the meaning of work.
As the Second Vatican Council says, “throughout the course of the centuries, men have laboured to better the circumstances of their lives through a monumental amount of individual and collective effort. To believers, this point is settled: considered in itself, such human activity accords with God’s will. For man, created to God’s image, received a mandate to subject to himself the earth and all that it contains, and to govern the world with justice and holiness; a mandate to relate himself and the totality of things to him who was to be acknowledged as the Lord and Creator of all. Thus, by the subjection of all things to man, the name of God would be wonderful in all the earth.”
The word of God’s revelation is profoundly marked by the fundamental truth that man, created in the image of God, shares by his work in the activity of the Creator and that, within the limits of his own human capabilities, man in a sense continues to develop that activity, and perfects it as he advances further and further in the discovery of the resources and values contained in the whole of creation. We find this truth at the very beginning of Sacred Scripture, in the Book of Genesis, where the creation activity itself is presented in the form of “work” done by God during “six days,” “resting” on the seventh day. Besides, the last book of Sacred Scripture echoes the same respect for what God has done through his creative “work” when it proclaims: “Great and wonderful are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty”; this is similar to the Book of Genesis, which concludes the description of each day of creation with the statement: “And God saw that it was good.”
This description of creation, which we find in the very first chapter of the Book of Genesis, is also in a sense the first “gospel of work.” For it shows what the dignity of work consists of: it teaches that man ought to imitate God, his Creator, in working, because man alone has the unique characteristic of likeness to God. Man ought to imitate God both in working and also in resting, since God himself wished to present his own creative activity under the form of work and rest. This activity by God in the world always continues, as the words of Christ attest: “My Father is working still ...”: he works with creative power by sustaining in existence the world that he called into being from nothing, and he works with salvific power in the hearts of those whom from the beginning he has destined for “rest” in union with himself in his “Father’s house.” Therefore man’s work too not only requires a rest every “seventh day,” but also cannot consist in the mere exercise of human strength in external action; it must leave room for man to prepare himself, by becoming more and more what in the will of God he ought to be, for the “rest” that the Lord reserves for his servants and friends.
Christ looks with love upon human work and the different forms that it takes, seeing in each one of these forms a particular facet of man’s likeness with God, the Creator and Father.
Awareness that man’s work is a participation in God’s activity ought to permeate, as the Council teaches, even “the most ordinary everyday activities. For, while providing the substance of life for themselves and their families, men and women are performing their activities in a way which appropriately benefits society. They can justly consider that by their labour they are unfolding the Creator’s work, consulting the advantages of their brothers and sisters, and contributing by their personal industry to the realization in history of the divine plan.”
This Christian spirituality of work should be a heritage shared by all. Especially in the modern age, the spirituality of work should show the maturity called for by the tensions and restlessness of mind and heart. “Far from thinking that works produced by man’s own talent and energy are in opposition to God’s power, and that the rational creature exists as a kind of rival to the Creator, Christians are convinced that the triumphs of the human race are a sign of God’s greatness and the flowering of his own mysterious design. For the greater man’s power becomes, the farther his individual and community responsibility extends. ... People are not deterred by the Christian message from building up the world, or impelled to neglect the welfare of their fellows. They are, rather, more stringently bound to do these very things.”
The knowledge that by means of work man shares in the work of creation constitutes the most profound motive for undertaking it in various sectors. “The faithful, therefore,” we read in the Constitution Lumen Gentium, “must learn the deepest meaning and the value of all creation, and its orientation to the praise of God. Even by their secular activity they must assist one another to live holier lives. In this way the world will be permeated by the spirit of Christ and more effectively achieve its purpose in justice, charity and peace... Therefore, by their competence in secular fields and by their personal activity, elevated from within by the grace of Christ, let them work vigorously so that by human labour, technical skill, and civil culture created goods may be perfected according to the design of the Creator and the light of his Word.”
The truth that by means of work man participates in the activity of God himself, his Creator, was given particular prominence by Jesus Christ—the Jesus at whom many of his first listeners in Nazareth “were astonished, saying, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? ... Is not this the carpenter?’” For Jesus not only proclaimed but first and foremost fulfilled by his deeds the “gospel,” the word of eternal Wisdom, that had been entrusted to him. Therefore this was also “the gospel of work,” because he who proclaimed it was himself a man of work, a craftsman like Joseph of Nazareth. And if we do not find in his words a special command to work—but rather on one occasion a prohibition against too much anxiety about work and life—at the same time the eloquence of the life of Christ is unequivocal: he belongs to the “working world,” he has appreciation and respect for human work. It can indeed be said that he looks with love upon human work and the different forms that it takes, seeing in each one of these forms a particular facet of man’s likeness with God, the Creator and Father. Is it not he who says: “My Father is the vinedresser,” and in various ways puts into his teaching the fundamental truth about work which is already expressed in the whole tradition of the Old Testament, beginning with the Book of Genesis?
The books of the Old Testament contain many references to human work and to the individual professions exercised by man: for example, the doctor, the pharmacist, the craftsman or artist, the blacksmith—we could apply these words to todays’ foundry-workers—the potter, the farmer, the scholar, the sailor, the builder, the musician, the shepherd, and the fisherman. The words of praise for the work of women are well known. In his parables on the Kingdom of God Jesus Christ constantly refers to human work: that of the shepherd, the farmer, the doctor, the sower, the householder, the servant, the steward, the fisherman, the merchant, the labourer. He also speaks of the various form of women’s work. He compares the apostolate to the manual work of harvesters or fishermen. He refers to the work of scholars too.
This teaching of Christ on work, based on the example of his life during his years in Nazareth, finds a particularly lively echo in the teaching of the Apostle Paul. Paul boasts of working at his trade (he was probably a tent-maker), and thanks to that work he was able even as an Apostle to earn his own bread. “With toil and labour we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you.” Hence his instructions, in the form of exhortation and command, on the subject of work: “Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living,” he writes to the Thessalonians. In fact, noting that some “are living in idleness ... not doing any work,” the Apostle does not hesitate to say in the same context: “If any one will not work, let him not eat.” In another passage he encourages his readers: "Whatever your task, work heartly, as serving the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward.”
The teachings of the Apostle of the Gentiles obviously have key importance for the morality and spirituality of human work. They are an important complement to the great though discreet gospel of work that we find in the life and parables of Christ, in what Jesus “did and taught.”
On the basis of these illuminations emanating from the Source himself, the Church has always proclaimed what we find expressed in modern terms in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council: “Just as human activity proceeds from man, so it is ordered towards man. For when a man works he not only alters things and society, he develops himself as well. He learns much, he cultivates his resources, he goes outside of himself and beyond himself. Rightly understood, this kind of growth is of greater value than any external riches which can be garnered ... Hence, the norm of human activity is this: that in accord with the divine plan and will, it should harmonize with the genuine good of the human race, and allow people as individuals and as members of society to pursue their total vocation and fulfil it.”
Such a vision of the values of human work, or in other words such a spirituality of work, fully explains what we read in the same section of the Council’s Pastoral Constitution with regard to the right meaning of progress: “A person is more precious for what he is than for what he has. Similarly, all that people do to obtain greater justice, wider brotherhood, and a more humane ordering of social relationships has greater worth than technical advances. For these advances can supply the material for human progress, but of themselves alone they can never actually bring it about.”
This teaching on the question of progress and development—a subject that dominates present-day thought—can be understood only as the fruit of a tested spirituality of human work; and it is only on the basis of such a spirituality that it can be realized and put into practice. This is the teaching, and also the program, that has its roots in “the gospel of work.”