The dignity of the worker trumps the bottom line

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In 1955, Pope Pius XII established May 1 as a second feast day (in addition to March 19) in honor of St. Joseph. The feast of St. Joseph the Worker specifically commemorates Joseph as the patron saint of laborers. The date is not accidental, as May 1 had been celebrated as International Workers’ Day in many countries, including much of Europe, since the late 19th century. Pius’ purpose was to celebrate the worker and honor the dignity of work, but to offer an alternative to the Marxist-inflected secular celebration.

At least since Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, the magisterium of the Church had called for social and economic institutions to protect the interests of workers in light of the new challenges that had arisen in the late 19th century Industrial Revolution.

The encyclical included, among other things, a strong defense of collective bargaining and a call for safer, more humane working conditions. But Rerum Novarum, along with successive encyclicals and other instructions, was also unequivocal in its condemnation of Marxist-style socialism, a legacy that has persisted throughout the social encyclical tradition. Leo emphasized the legitimate place of capital and private property. But this is qualified by the priority of the protection of the worker and respect for the dignity of his or her work.

But what does it mean to refer to the “dignity” of work? And how does such a notion account for work that, from an objective point of view, doesn’t seem very dignified? The answers to these questions are found in Pope St. John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical, Laborem Excercens, written to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum.

Two principles among many stand out in Laborem Excercens that help us to understand the dignity both of the worker and work that may seem less than dignified. First, John Paul emphasizes the priority of the worker over capital. Second, he explains that the subjective nature of work is a more important consideration than its objective nature.

The priority of worker over capital

John Paul affirms the legitimacy of what he would later call the “business” or “free economy.” This includes the proper place of the capitalist, who provides the material of work and assumes the economic risks associated with the business enterprise. But he strongly emphasizes that the sources and uses of capital must be conditioned by the good of the worker, without whom material resources are worthless.

Labor is always a primary efficient cause,” explains John Paul, “while capital, the whole collection of means of production, remains a mere instrument or instrumental cause.” As such, the efficient contribution of the worker should take priority in decisions about the uses of capital. Rather than to fit the worker to the workplace, the workplace should be fitted to the worker.

Physical safety, psychological health, and moral development are more important considerations than the balance sheet or the profit and loss ledger. If those values are ignored by the uses of capital and material, the dignity of the worker is compromised, and reform is required.

The priority of the human dimension over what is produced

Second, in Laborem Excercens, St. John Paul II makes a distinction between the “objective” and “subjective” natures of work, explaining that the latter is a more important consideration than the former.

By the “objective” nature of work, the pope means the goods or services that are produced when the worker mixes his labor with material. This objective nature changes over time as new technologies emerge and other economic and political contingencies arise. We see this in the evolution of work from primarily agricultural and trade-related, through the mass production assembly line of the 19th and 20th centuries, to the digital information economy that dominates today.

A depiction of St. Joseph holding a carpenter’s square is seen in a stained-glass window in the chapel of St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue, N.Y., in this 2020 photo. The feast of St. Joseph the Worker is May 1. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

The subjective nature of work, on the other hand, emphasizes the human dimension of work. Regardless of the goods produced or services provided, the subjective purpose of work remains constant as an aspect of the dignity of the worker. “The sources of the dignity of work are to be sought primarily in the subjective dimension,” explains John Paul II, “not in the objective one.”

In Genesis 2, the human person is called by God to participate in creation. This is an essential aspect of the unique moral status of man as created in the image and likeness of God. The dignity of the subjective aspect of work is part of the nature of man. Thus, even work that doesn’t seem very dignified has the same status as the most “prestigious” jobs or professions in the co-creative structure of human work. As John Paul II puts it, this “practically does away with the very basis of the ancient differentiation of people into classes according to the kind of work done.”

The celebration of the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker is our liturgical reminder of the dignity of labor. May the prayers of St. Joseph guide and protect the laborer.

Kenneth Craycraft

Kenneth Craycraft, an OSV columnist, is a professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary and School of Theology in Cincinnati and author of “Citizens Yet Strangers: Living Authentically Catholic in a Divided America" (OSV Books).