The University of St. Thomas

Center for Catholic Studies | John A. Ryan Institute

Laborem Exercens: Assessment

Laborem Exercens: Assessment

Work as Key to the Social Question

The Great Social and Economic Transformations and the Subjective Dimension of Work

 Assessment of the Seminars

by Johan Verstraeten,
on behalf of Michael Naughton and Simona Beretta

Eminence, Excellence, Ladies and Gentlemen:

This conference will remain alive in our memory, not only because of its content but also because of an exceptional circumstance: the inhuman terrorist attack on two American cities. The almost apocalyptic character of this act of violence has made us more than ever aware of the fact that our reflections on work as key to the social question, have more than ever an urgent character.

Immediately after these tragic events something has happened which was of immediate relevance to this conference: the closing, not only of the airports but also of the stock markets. The silence of Wall Street has a symbolic meaning: The interruption of time, especially of the commodificaton and economisation of time, has temporarily shaped space for a profound reflection on the meaning of the events and for rethinking our basic frameworks of interpretation in a world characterised by the shaking of its foundations and a clash of paradigms.

Confronted with exceptional circumstances our conference has taken on a very special momentum. In such a context it becomes necessary to reaffirm one of the basic methodological insights of Vatican II and more precisely of Gaudium et Spes, according to which the church has the task of scrutinising the signs of the time and interpreting them in light of the gospel.

In the original meaning of the word, signs of the time does not refer to the negative aspects of the time in which one lives. It refers to the discernment of positive signs of hope.

I think that our conference has discovered, in more than one regard, positive signs:

When I look back at the paper presentations and discussions it is amazing how many hopeful projects have been mentioned. There were proposals for a personalisation of business  organisations via more participation; many participants have proposed ways towards the creation of meaningful work for the poor, via initiatives such as micro-credit, grass root formation and organisation of people such as fishing village women in the Philippines; there were proposals for community development, watershed management in rural areas, and part-time job opportunities programs. The least one can say about this conference is that there was certainly not a lack of imagination.

Another positive sign that we can discern in this conference is trust. First of all the trust that the pontifical council has given to us in organising the call for papers and the concurrent sessions. This has created a remarkable sphere of openness and discussion. Secondly the fact that so many of us have positively responded to the call for papers. It shows a real readiness in the community of scholars and experts to participate in the general discernment process of the church. In this sense rector Zaninelli was right when he called this conference unique in its kind and a good example of how subsidiarity can function.

Remarkable also was a unique combination of, on the one hand a communis opinio about the priority of the subjective dimension of work and a common spirit, nourished in daily Eucharist and, on the other hand, a real academic debate and conversation in which the complexity of the problems could be fully acknowledged, with recognition of difference of opinion in prudential matters.

The creative tension was visible in almost all the debates about concrete problems such as extreme flexibility and downsizing, professional formation, employment policy, rethinking the corporation and so on.  Divergence of opinion was especially the case in the discussions about the consequences of the transformations for the poor, such as new forms of poverty and even of exploitation. We have stated that for the poor the crucial question remains employment and a just or living wage, but we have not bypassed arguments against the idea of a minimal or living wage. At least one paper has demonstrated that minimum wages can lead to more unemployment and to a more difficult access of inexperienced young workers to the labour market. But this opinion is challenged by others who demonstrate that in recent decades there are significant increases in the dispersion of earnings, an inequality that has affected mainly, in terms of exclusion and poverty, those individuals located at the bottom of the earned income sector. In this context union density, collective bargaining coverage and structured wage negotiations continue to be a conditio sine qua non for more justice.

Another striking aspect of this conference is that many papers have in one or other way pointed to the spiritual dimension of work, however without too much spiritualising.

This rather new turn in the theology of work is an answer to phenomena such as work-o-holism, stress, inhuman work pressure and so on, phenomena that are symptoms of a more fundamental crisis, the loss of meaning.

The crisis of meaning and humanness in the sphere of word is in more than one paper connected with the neglect of the positive role of leisure (in the deep sense of the word). The ability to be at leisure is nevertheless one of the basic powers of the human soul. Without leisure and the contemplative element, humans succumb to the spiritual sin of acedia, the inertia that "refuses to begin new things". Without a profound integration between leisure and work we cannot become what we are.

One of the most striking aspects of the papers and discussions on the spiritual aspects of work is that there is a serious attempt to overcome an all too individualistic or pietistic interpretation. There was an honest concern for the victims of the globalized world, a perspective which was also clearly present in the homily of cardinal Van Thuân when he pointed to the connection between the cross and solidarity with the suffering and the excluded. Spirituality is not only a matter of individual inner peace, nor simply a source of inspiration for 'good' management that gives workers a sense of participation. As integral spirituality it must also induce real changes at a more structural level.

In this regard it can be noted that many contributors to and participants in the conference have implicitly or explicitly pleaded for a better integration of theory and action. In their theoretical assessment of action they could not find a better guide than pope John Paul II who wrote in Centesimus annus the prophetic words that "today, more than ever, the church is aware that her social message will gain credibility more immediately from the witness of actions than as a result of its internal logic and consistency".

We have heard also critical voices during this conference. We have heard that the creation of meaningful work-conditions requires a rethinking, without falling into the pitfall of old capitalist or Marxist solutions, of the property ethic, especially with regard to business corporations. In an inspiring contribution the experience of monastic communities is mentioned as source of inspiration for a new understanding of corporations as groups in which all members are fully respected as associates.

A critical voice came also from Jerome Vignon, first advisor of the European Commission. Without denying the basic distinction of this conference he warned us against a too sharp separation between the objective and subjective dimension. I think he is right: the subjective dimension must penetrate the objective dimension so that it becomes more and more an expression of it.

It may be good to be reminded in this regard of the remark of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that for those who can see, nothing here on earth is profane, for they can mystically understand the world as a dynamic process on its way to its fulfilment and plenification. The experience of the world as milieu divin transforms the secular into a locus of divine presence, and in this perspective everything, every aspect of life, even work and business, becomes sacred for those who distinguish, in each creature and each human activity, an aspect of being attracted to the fulfilment of the world in Christ.

This has nothing to do with a return to a 'modern' progress ideology or to a simplistic form of optimism but with participation in the development of the world as re-personalization. This type of purposive action is more related to 'being' than to material outcomes. It is the gradual realisation of the fullness of the anthropogenesis in Christ.

As such work is much more than a job or a career: it becomes a fundamental calling.

Rome, Vatican City, 14 September, 2001.