Archbishop Diarmuid Martin Marks "Laborem Exercens" Anniversary
PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania, 7 OCT. 2006 (ZENIT)
Here is the text of
the keynote address given by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin at
Villanova University on Sept. 25, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of
the encyclical "Laborem Exercens."
* * *
Catholic Social Teaching and Human Work
By Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin
Work is at the center of the Church's reflection on human identity and
activity. When the dignity of the person fades from its central position
in the realities of work, then upheavals and insecurity inevitably
emerge in society. Each generation then must address the challenge of
how the centrality the human person in the world of work is respected
within the changing and ever complex situation of its time.
This applies also to us in our era of globalization. Globalization, one
can say, faces us with "new developments in industry, new techniques
striking out new paths, changed relations of employer and employee,
abounding wealth among a very small number and destitution among the
masses." These are appropriate words, but you may be surprised that I
take them from the very first paragraph of "Rerum Novarum." They were
written in 1891 in the context of the industrial revolution. They serve
to remind us that each generation is faced with a similar challenge in
its efforts to evaluate how developments in industry and technology
affect "the condition of workers."
When we celebrate the anniversary of "Laborem Exercens" we are
celebrating also the anniversary of "Rerum Novarum" and of that series
of great social encyclicals which have been written to commemorate the
groundbreaking encyclical of Leo XIII which gave rise to the modern era
of Catholic social teaching.
The centrality of work
"Laborem Exercens" was the first of three social encyclicals of Pope
John Paul II. It was written at a crucial time in modern history, at the
beginnings of a process which would eventually lead to the fall of the
Eastern European communist systems. Ten years later, Pope John Paul in
his later encyclical "Centesimus Annus" could say: "the fundamental
crisis of the systems claiming to express the rule and even the
dictatorship of the working classes began with the great upheavals which
took place in Poland in the name of solidarity. It was the throngs of
working people which foreswore the ideology which presumed to speak in
The context in which "Laborem Exercens" was written then was that of the
emerging crisis of the Communist systems in Central and Eastern Europe
and the foresight of Pope John Paul II who more than most understood
just how that system had failed to recognize the dignity of work. From
concrete experience he was acutely aware that any form of materialism or
economic system that tries to reduce the worker to being a mere
instrument of production, a simple labor force with an exclusively
material value, inevitably ends up distorting the essence of work and
the social fabric itself.
Catholic social teaching has always stressed the fact that "work,
because of its subjective or personal character, is superior to every
other factor connected with productivity; this principle applies, in
particular, with regard to capital."
A key tenet of "Laborem Exercens" in its analysis of the priority of
labor over capital is its affirmation that human work has a twofold
significance: objective and subjective.
In the objective sense, work is the sum of activities, resources,
instruments and technologies used by persons to produce things, to
exercise responsible dominion over the earth, in the words of the Book
In the subjective sense, work is the activity of the human person as a
dynamic being capable of acting in ways which correspond to the specific
vocation of the human person. "Laborem Exercens" notes that "Man has to
subdue the earth and dominate it, because as the 'image of God' he is a
person, that is to say, a subjective being capable of acting in a
planned and rational way, capable of deciding about himself, and with a
tendency to self-realization. As a person, man is therefore the subject
According to Pope John Paul, work in the objective sense constitutes the
contingent aspect of human activity, which constantly varies in its
expressions according to the changing technological, cultural, social
and political conditions. On the other hand, work in the subjective
sense represents its stable dimension, since it does not depend on what
people produce or on the type of activity they undertake, but only and
exclusively on their dignity as human beings.
The Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church stresses then that
"This subjectivity gives to work its particular dignity, which does not
allow that it be considered a simple commodity or an impersonal element
of the apparatus for productivity." It is the human person who is
always then the measure of the dignity of work: "In fact there is no
doubt that human work has an ethical value of its own, which clearly and
directly remains linked to the fact that the one who carries it out is a
person." Work therefore is for human person, the human person is
there not just to work.
The business enterprise
The priority of labor over capital has been such a dominant theme of
Catholic social doctrine that many had the feeling that the social
doctrine of the Church was not friendly to the business community. It
was said that the social teaching of the Church was not comfortable with
the concept of profit and more concerned with the distribution of wealth
than with the generation of wealth.
There is indeed a tendency within the social teaching of the Church to
stress the rights of workers and workers organization and the
responsibility of public authorities to address all forms of
exploitation. This is understandable and correct. This was due in many
ways to the epoch in which the modern era of the social teaching
emerged, during the height of the industrial revolution when the
position of workers and their rights was dramatic and required urgent
Today the situation of the world of work has changed somewhat and it
would be useful to reflect on how the social teaching of the Church has
addressed and must address this new situation.
When I look at my own country, Ireland, I can see how the structure of a
modern economy has changed. I left Dublin to study and to work Rome in
1969. In those years, Ireland was the poor relative of all the economies
of the European Union. Unemployment reached up to 17% nationally and we
had parishes in Dublin where that figure reached up to 70%. There was
widespread poverty and what one would effectively have had to call
structural poverty. Where unemployment reaches 70%, social integration
breaks down. There was large emigration of both skilled labor and of
I returned to Ireland three years ago to find a very different
situation. Unemployment stands at less than 4%. Growth this year will be
about 5%. Ireland has become a country of immigration, from all over the
world, but especially from the newly acceded countries of the European
Union. Since the accession of new countries to the European Union a
little over two years ago at least 150,000 new immigrants have arrived
in Ireland from those countries alone.
What has happened? How did it happen? There are many reasons. Ireland
was at the right position at the right time. Ireland received funds from
the European Union and used them well in improving infrastructures. And
of course, the Irish are the Irish!
But there are also other lessons to be learned which I believe an
attentive reading of the social doctrine of the Church can also help us
understand better. These lessons are also linked with the nature of a
modern economy in the knowledge era.
Many people tend to look at international economic life with a certain
skepticism, even anxiety. Globalization has added further unknowns and
threatening phenomena for the lives of many. International speculators
are considered rapacious and unscrupulous, especially in the aftermath
of various international economic crises where uncontrolled speculation
was understood to have played a major role in the destruction of entire
economies. The shape of the current global market economy tends to make
people feel that their jobs are at risk and their pensions insecure.
There is also a certain ambivalence in the attitude of the wealthier
countries which adds to the climate of insecurity. I was present in Doha
when China was admitted to the World Trade Organization. I was present
at the festivities which celebrated the event and its importance for a
global, open, rules-based trade system. The Western countries stressed
how much free trade can do for international development and especially
for the poor countries. Open markets were celebrated as the road signs
to development for all. But today, when China begins using its enormous
advantage and Western jobs in the textile industry are at stake, those
same Western countries are talking about protectionist measures and
progress on the Doha round has ground to a halt.
Catholic social teaching traditionally had reservations about assigning
a determinant role to the market in managing international economic
relations. I remember the outcry from certain circles on the occasion of
the publication of the encyclical letter, "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis,"
when Pope John Paul dared to criticize in the same breath
— but in a
— not just communism but capitalism. Some years
later, then, I remember the almost triumphal joy with which the
affirmations of the market in the subsequent encyclical "Centesimus
Annus" were greeted. Christian social reflection and the market have a
The problem was not entirely with the Church. Certain economic theorists
tend to reject any outside societal interference in the market process,
except that of guaranteeing the necessary legal framework which will
permit the market to work. Government should keep its fingers out of the
working of the market, keep taxes down, keep social expenditures to a
level which does not make business non-competitive, keep social
legislation regarding working hours and contracts as broad as possible.
The market, the theory goes, should be left to do its task of creating
wealth which would generate employment and in its own way permit social
benefits to trickle down, even if only drop by drop to reach the
poorest. There is much truth in these affirmations, but at times this
viewpoint had become almost a dogma.
A modern economy is more and more a knowledge based economy. The
so-called industrialized nations are in fact post-industrial economies
where the service sector dominates. The success of a modern economy is
greatly linked with the possibility of access to knowledge and with the
management of knowledge. The principal resource of such an economy is
the human person, with his or her creativity and capacity for
Indeed, the more resourceful the person can be made, the greater a
creative resource he or she is for the economy. In a modern economy,
investment in people and in those social infrastructures which value
human capacity can no longer belong only to the realm of philanthropy,
but constitutes an essential element in any healthy program of economic
investment. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine notes that "allowing
workers to develop themselves fosters increased productivity and
efficiency in the very work undertaken. A business enterprise must be a
community of solidarity that is not closed within its own company
The economies that have done well are those which have invested in their
people, that is, in education and health care and in improving the basic
technological capacity of the work force, in such a way as to permit
them to enter into the national and the global economy as real actors
and protagonists. On the other hand, the unskilled or the nations which
do not posses adequate social infrastructures are those destined to
remain on the fringes of social and economic progress. The unskilled are
the first victims of any economic crisis.
One of the most significant factors which contributed to Irish economic
growth was in fact the quality of the educational system, which despite
deficiencies in both buildings and curriculum did manage to produce
young people with creative and innovative ability who were able to
insert themselves with the necessary flexibility into a modern business
economy. Paradoxically, in its period of wealth Ireland has not been
investing enough in its educational system. There is a major crisis in
some aspects of the health system. There will never be social progress
without sustained economic growth. But even the extraordinary economic
progress that we have seen in Ireland will on its own ensure social
progress at the same time.
Creativity and innovative capacity are key factors in today's world.
Pope John Paul recognized that "whereas at one time the decisive factor
of production was the land, and later capital ... today the decisive
factor is increasingly man himself...; his intelligence enables him to
discover the earth's productive potential and the many different ways in
which human needs can be satisfied." Pope John Paul notes then that a
business "cannot be considered only as a 'society of capital goods'; it
is also a 'society of persons.'"
In the past the distinction between labor and capital was perhaps then a
more radical one. Today one talks about human capital and social
capital, terms I do not particularly like, since they tend to treat
persons as objects. The reality is that it is the subjectivity of
persons and the subjectivity of society which drive forwards a modern
knowledge-based economy. The worker in today's economy is a real
The Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church sums us these
reflections affirming that "all of this entails a new perspective in the
relationship between labor and capital. We can affirm that, contrary to
what happened in the former organization of labor in which the subject
would end up being less important than the object, than the mechanical
process, in our day the subjective dimension of work tends to be more
decisive and more important than the objective dimension."
When then the Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church vigorously
reaffirms the traditional Church teaching on the dignity of work through
stressing the right to work, the rights of workers, the duty to
work, the importance of rest from work,, it does so confident in
the validity of Pope John Paul words that "the integral development of
the human person through work does not impede but rather promotes the
greater productivity and efficiency of work itself."
Certainly, the current global economy offers great opportunities, but
these do not always favor workers. While there is a recognition that
human creativity is the driving force of a modern economy, its most
precious resource, there is a tendency to look on work as just another
factor in the cost of production, to be treated just like any other
factor. Indeed there is a tendency to look on labor costs as one of the
principal economic factors and to move production to where labor costs
are most advantageous. This does indeed offer great opportunity to
poorer countries, yet it also leads to a tendency in which the rights of
workers and especially of the power of workers' associations are
In fact, the current labor market is such that it is becoming harder to
see a business enterprise as a "society of persons," as Pope John Paul
saw it to be. Even the smallest business enterprise may have components
of its activities in different countries or continents. The terms
employer and employee take on a different significance as different
components of an enterprise are outsourced to a series of intermediary
enterprises around the world. In such a situation it is easy for respect
for workers' rights to fall out of the picture. Consumers in the West
can however send the message that they are not just interested in the
designer logo on their shirt, but also in the working conditions under
which that shirt was produced.
The opportunities which a knowledge-based economy can bring are also
relativized by the fact that, as Pope John Paul noted: "many people,
perhaps the majority today, do not have the means which would enable
them to take their place in an effective and humanly dignified way
within the productive system in which work is truly central. They have
no possibility of acquiring the basic knowledge which would enable them
to express their creativity and develop their potential. They have no
way of entering the network of knowledge and intercommunication which
would enable them to see their qualities appreciated and utilized. Thus
if not actually exploited, they are to a great extent marginalized;
economic development takes place over their head, so to speak, when it
does not actually reduce the already narrow scope of their old
Work, the family, migration
In fostering a broader understanding of the relationship between work
and the human person, "Laborem Exercens" stressed the relationship
between work and the family. The Compendium of the Social Teaching of
the Church takes this theme up making an appeal. "Family and work, so
closely interdependent in the experience of the vast majority of people,
deserve finally to be considered in a more realistic light, with an
attention that seeks to understand them together, without the limits of
a strictly private conception of the family or a strictly economic view
The world of work today is not particularly favorable to the family.
More and more people have to travel long distances to work. It is not
just that both parents have to work, but it can happen that one or both
spouses have to work two jobs to earn sufficient to maintain the family.
Today we often encounter the phenomenon of the "working poor," people
who are in the labor market, but who do not earn sufficient [...] for
them and their families to survive. Very often those who work end up
paying higher contributions for health and insurance and receive fewer
benefits than the person who is unemployed.
Catholic social teaching recognizes the specific contribution of women
to the world of work. The Compendium notes that "the feminine genius is
needed in all expressions in the life of society and therefore the
presence of women in the work force must also be guaranteed. The first
indispensable step in this direction is the concrete possibility of
access to professional formation." It notes the forms of
discrimination which exist against women in the work force, but also
stresses their need to be able to reconcile their responsibilities in
work and those in the family.
One of the key factors in Ireland's economic success has been the high
participation of women in the work force. But in speaking with people,
in listening to the talk shows on the radio and the letters to the
newspaper, one can see that we are still a long way away from a
satisfactory response to what women really desire in this area. Very
often women have to work just to keep up the family income, when they
would prefer at certain periods to be free to address family
responsibilities, and be able to return to the work force without
The Compendium looks at the complex situation, characteristic of many
societies, of migration and work. Migration has always been a dimension
of the world economy; it will inevitably become a normal dimension of an
economy that is global. It notes that "institutions in host countries
must keep careful watch to prevent the spread of the temptation to
exploit foreign workers, denying them the same tights enjoyed by
nationals, rights that are guaranteed to all without
discrimination." It recalls especially "the right of reuniting
families." I would also add, from a European point of view, the need to
be vigilant in the face of anti-immigrant sentiment, often racist in its
Ireland has become a country of immigration. In my two years as
archbishop of Dublin I have designated chaplaincies for large
communities from Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Nigeria, the
Philippines and for Syro-Malabar Christians from India. These immigrants
have brought a real enrichment to Irish culture and to the Irish Church.
There is however the serious problem that they often represent important
talent which is being lost to their own countries at a time in which it
is most needed. Some will return to their countries enriched by the
experience they have gained establishing an informal sharing of
technology and know-how.
Work, the state and the market
Market forces very often demand non-intervention on the part of the
state, but on their part they make demands on the way society is
structured and thus on the ability of the state to carry out its role.
The effects of the dominance of market ideology may be much more
far-reaching than we at times realize. "Small government" and "low-tax
regimes" can of course be a sound policy. Social goals can, at times, be
achieved more efficiently through market means and by the private
sector. Pension policy is moving more and more in this direction.
But who takes responsibility for guaranteeing those social goals in
times of economic crisis? Who will provide the basic safety nets to
defend the weakest, or those who are excluded in the short or long term?
Would many of our small governments have the capacity to cope with the
human and social consequences of a major market crisis?
Right across Europe today the questions of the relationship between
government and market and between market growth and equity are difficult
political questions. The ability of the state to cover the costs of
pensions, health care and social services is reduced just at the moment
in which there is also a certain feeling of precariousness about
employment security. Politicians can reply in a populist way and perhaps
damage precisely that agility of the market to foster growth.
Pope John Paul in his encyclical "Centesimus Annus" tries to balance
the roles of the market, of the state and of a broader participatory
society. He notes that "the free market is the most efficient instrument
for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs."
Interestingly, the Compendium would seem to go even farther noting that
"the free market is an effective instrument for attaining important
objectives of justice." But the Pope also stresses that "there are
collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market
mechanisms. There are important needs which escape its logic. There are
goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought and
The Compendium stresses that part of the role of the state in the face
of the market is to ensure that it is truly free. The state has the
task of determining an appropriate juridical framework for regulating
economic affairs in order to safeguard the prerequisites of the free
market, which presumes a certain equality between the parties. In that
way the state should guarantee that free competition curbs the excessive
profits of individual business and responds to consumers' demands
through bringing about a more efficient use and conservation of
But the Compendium also stresses that since "the market takes on a
significant social function in contemporary society it is important to
identify its most positive potentials and create conditions which allow
them to be put concretely into effect." It notes that "Economic
activity, above all in a free market context, cannot be conducted in an
institutional, juridical and political vacuum." And it takes up the
important affirmation of Pope John Paul II, namely, that "Economic
freedom is only one element of human freedom. ... When it becomes
autonomous, then economic freedom loses it relationship with the human
person and ends up alienating and oppressing him."
Indeed it must be pointed out that no sector of human activity can be
excluded from ethical scrutiny. Ethics also belongs to the real world.
Ethical scrutiny deals with individual behavior: observing the rules and
ethical principles such as trust and honesty, which are incidentally
also essential to the market. But ethical scrutiny, being based on the
concept of responsibility, must lead each person to reflect on all the
foreseeable consequences of their actions, including the consequences
for society as a whole. The market and economic activity constitute only
one dimension of human activity and, while following their own internal
norms, still remain at the service of the broader community.
A truly global and inclusive economy
A distinguishing characteristic of the market today is that it is
global. One could dedicate the rest of the evening to discussing the
nature of a global economy and the advantages and disadvantages that it
brings. I wish however to stress one simple point: a global economy must
be truly global. Global must be made synonymous with inclusive. An
economic system which leaves on its margins huge sectors of the
population or entire regions of a nation or of the world will always
remain fragile. The inclusion of the widest possible number of people or
nations as protagonists is a primary interest of the global economy. A
global economy which produces massive exclusion will be neither global
One of the major problems with the current economic situation is the
existence of glaring inequalities and of a lack of models
— and perhaps
— to resolve the question. There have always been
winners and losers in any economic model: In today's global economy
there are extraordinary winners and disastrous losers.
One possible positive result from globalization, however, may be a
restoration of the concept of the common good and a realization that
today there exists a "global common good" which urgently needs to be
protected. This applies to the protection of human rights, the
protection of the environment but also the protection of the dignity of
work. It is becoming more and more obvious that what happens in one part
of the world inevitably has repercussions elsewhere. No nation, not even
the most powerful, can go it alone.
Respecting the global common good, however, cannot be limited to
enforcing certain negotiated economic, financial and commercial norms
and standards. Liberalization of trade and finances, for example, is not
an end in itself. Liberalization will only lead to growth when certain
other conditions are met. But neither is growth in itself is the
ultimate value. Growth with equity and inclusion is better than growth
which generates great inequalities and exclusion. Growth with stability
is better than a growth accompanied by volatility and precariousness.
My rather disordered reflections on this anniversary of the encyclical "Laborem
Exercens" have led me to stress
— perhaps with too much optimism
that the nature of a modern economy may provide new openings for
dialogue between Christian social reflection and the world of work and
the economy today. A modern economy recognizes that it is not the market
which is its driving force. The market is only a means which can more
efficiently ensure that the fruits of human creativity can flourish and
We should not overlook the fact that "Laborem Exercens" looks on human
work not just as the work of an isolated individual. Human work has an
intrinsic social dimension. A person's work, in fact, is naturally
connected with that of other people. Pope John Paul notes that "more
than ever, work is work with others and work for others."
Human work can build solidarity. But it can do so only if the world of
work is structured and oriented towards solidarity and enables all to
participate through their work in the building up of a world where all
can realize themselves in God's image.
Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical "Deus Caritas Est" has noted that
with the Jesus' teaching "the concept of 'neighbor' is now
universalized." True neighborliness embraces all. The Good Samaritan
responds in love to an unidentified person on the road, just because he
is a person, for no other reason than that he is a fellow human being
suffering. But if "neighbor" is universalized, it is also not reduced to
a generic, abstract expression. Neighbor is not an abstract concept: but
a concrete person.
The teaching of Jesus, who came to reveal to us that God is love, is a
teaching which is the opposite of the dominant consumer mentality. The
consumer mentality tends to utilize or to use for personal satisfaction.
Through work the person can give of his or her talents to ensure that
all can realize fully the image of God that is within them. In that way
work can witness also that "love of neighbor is a path that leads to the
encounter with God, and that closing our eyes to our neighbor, also
blinds us to God."
 Encyclical "Rerum Novarum," No. 1.
 Encyclical "Centesimus Annus," No. 23.
 Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church, No. 276.
 Encyclical "Laborem Exercens," Nos. 5-7.
 Ibid., No. 6.
 Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church, No. 271.
 "Laborem Exercens," No. 6.
 Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church, No. 340.
 "Centesimus Annus," No. 32.
 Ibid., No. 43.
 Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church, No. 278.
 Ibid., Nos. 287-300.
 Ibid., Nos. 301-30.
 Ibid., Nos. 264-266.
 Ibid., Nos. 284-286.
 "Centesimus Annus," No. 43.
 Ibid., No. 33.
 Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church, No. 294.
 Ibid., No. 295.
 Ibid., No. 298.
 cf. "Centesimus Annus," No. 40.
 Ibid., No. 34.
 Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church, No. 347.
 "Centesimus Annus," No. 34.
 cf. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, No. 352, and "Centesimus
Annus," No. 15.
 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, No. 350.
 Ibid., No. 352.
 "Centesimus Annus," No. 39.
 Ibid., No. 31.
 "Deus Caritas Est," No. 15.
 Ibid., No. 16.