The University of St. Thomas

Center for Catholic Studies | John A. Ryan Institute

Laborem Exorcens: Background

Laborem Exorcens: Background

Work as Key to the Social Question

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

Conference Background Paper

by John Verstraeten
Michael Naughton
Simona Beretta

Since Rerum novarum the problem of work has been a major concern of the Catholic Church. Considering work as “the very centre of the social question” (LE, 2), the magisterium has dealt with the problem in a number of different ways.  Through the articulation of principles and virtues, it has developed a moral horizon which has moved the Church to advocate for a just wage, as well as for specific rights related to work, such as the natural right to association (and the creation of solidarity movements), the right to leisure, the right to safe and just working conditions and the right to participation at different levels of economic life. It has continuously defended the rights of specific and often vulnerable groups in the economic system (poor, disabled, migrants, people who have no access to the levels of knowledge required for employment). With the use of the distinction between the direct and indirect employer, it has sought to clarify the moral duties of policymakers and institutions. It has strongly affirmed the priority of labour over capital, and it has connected the right to private property and the creation of wealth to the duty of contributing to the creation of useful goods and the distribution of wealth.

This rich moral framework has been deepened philosophically, anthropologically and theologically by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Laborem exercens (1981).  The key to his argument is the subjective dimension of work. John Paul has seen all too often that our objective triumphs and achievements—those discoveries, techniques, and outcomes which have increased the efficiency, productivity and profitability of work—can too easily become forces that corrupt the human soul. Rather than being conquerors, we have been conquered – by our own objective achievements.  Rather than developing us, work has corrupted us, precisely because we have become inattentive to work’s subjective effect on our souls.  He points out that the work of teachers, executives, technicians, carpenters, and farmers is not only an activity that terminates in objects.  Workers change not only the world, but also themselves.  When people work,  they not only make a choice about what they work on—that is, the objective dimension of work—but they also simultaneously make a choice about themselves.  Work, then, is an essential expression of the person, an ‘actus personae’. The basis for determining the value of human work “is not primarily the kind of work being done, but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person. The sources of the dignity of work are to be sought primarily in the subjective dimension, not in the objective one.”

The conference takes as its starting-point the priority of the subjective dimension of work, not simply to repeat and synthesize the existing teaching, but to deepen and develop our understanding of what it means, and to explore and clarify the interpretations of the subjective dimension in the context of the massive transformations in the world of work since 1981. Getting to specifics, the conference has a number of particular aims:

1.      Exploring the theoretical implications of the ‘subjective dimension’. What does it mean in light of contemporary theology and philosophy, especially the theology of creation?

2.      Analysing the great transformations in the world of work since Laborem exercens and discerning the ways in which they have a positive or negative influence on the very condition of human work.

3.      Exploring solutions for the problems described.

4.      Defining the role and duties of collective actors, such as the indirect employer in respect of the humanization of work.

The papers are structured along these lines, though it is clearly not possible to keep the themes entirely separate. In practice there will be a mingling of themes and cross-links in many papers.

A first series of papers will explore the philosophical, theological and anthropological meaning of work. Special attention will be paid to the notion of co-creation and co-redemption and its implications, as well as to the question of how the different aspects of work are related to each other. Categories for work, such as job, career and calling, are used, as well as the three interrelated dimensions of ‘labour’, ‘work’ and ‘action’. Labour is the activity which corresponds to the biological process of the human body. It is the domain of the animal laborans whose life is dominated by the metabolism with the natural world and who lives in seasonal cycles, as well as in the cycle of production and consumption. Work, in the narrow sense of the word, can be considered as the production of a more stable ‘artificial’ world of things; this is the domain of the homo faber. And human action, as personal action and direct interaction between humans, includes among other things the creation of culture, political action, promise, forgiveness and, not least of all, providing work with meaning. It is via action that other dimensions of work allow the subjects of work to see the meaning of their work. Meaning comes from action that allows the self to be disclosed to others. Meaningful work discloses the self in a manner analogous to the way a meaningful metaphor discloses the self: both present the subject with a ‘something more’ than what he or she previously was, or was only potentially. That is precisely what Laborem exercens has in its own way stated: “Through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to its own needs, but he also achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being’.”

In this perspective, one of the basic questions is: How can the whole of work become human action? How can we avoid work from becoming reduced to either the sphere of working for subsistence and working for consumer goods, or to the sphere of the homo faber in which the subject substitutes making for acting, and in which the ‘product’ of work (the utility of what one does, the external criterion, the objective dimension) becomes more important than human action and self-disclosure itself?

Given the increased sense of ‘meaninglessness’ in the world of work, it becomes even more urgent to create a space for the full understanding of the human person. Functional differentiation, instrumental rationality, extreme forms of flexibility, and a change in the perception of the self have affected our capability to give meaning to work. Homo economicus has gradually imprisoned the world of work in a positivistic and objective language and in frameworks of interpretation which narrow the perspectives from which we can interpret our world meaningfully and humanize it.

Work becomes appropriated like the way Mr. Gradgrind, in Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times,  represents the “man of realities”, the calculating citizen who believes “that in this life, we want nothing but facts (…) nothing but facts” (Nussbaum, 1995, p. 19). The world of these “Gradgrinds” is totally disenchanted and objectified so that it becomes perfectly ‘manageable’.

This attitude has negative consequences. It leads to a reduction and objectivization of human reality where we begin to see human beings as counters in a mathematical game, and refusing to see their mysterious inner world. “The Gradgrind philosophy is able to adopt a theory of human motivation that is elegant and simple, well-suited for the game of calculation, but whose relation to the more complicated laws that govern their inner world of a human being should be viewed with scepticism” (Nussbaum, 1995, 24).

One of the main reasons why men and women in our world cannot experience business and work as meaningful, is that the process of functional differentiation has lead in some cases to a radical disconnection between the differentiated spheres of life and between them and ultimate ends. One can call this a ‘disconnection syndrome’ resulting in the incapacity to put the pieces together.

Before modernity the individual found him or herself embedded in a dense cultural framework which gave sense and meaning to his or her life. As a consequence of the process of rationalization, the different spheres of life have become autonomous, and the different fields of science become more and more specialized and hyper-specialized, while all these spheres and areas of specialization have developed their own rationality apart from and even without the original framework of meaning and value (cf. Max Weber). As Christopher Dawson aptly explained: “Instead of the whole intellectual and social order being subordinated to spiritual principles, every activity has declared its independence, and we see politics, economics, science and art organising themselves as autonomous kingdoms which owe no allegiance to any higher power.” The foundations of these autonomous kingdoms are laid in universities where academic disciplines are incarnate as schools and departments that suggest rows of storage silos rather than threads in a web of interconnected knowledge.

There is still an ethic in these spheres, but it goes no further than a limited form of professional [role] duties and instrumental values which, as such, do not take into account values and perspectives of meaning which transcend the limits of the rationality of the sphere, while fundamental ethical and religious values are banished to the separate sphere of private life and religion. In the context of the corporate world, “the executive is required to treat certain goals as given, and, within certain broad constraints, he or she is set to consider how he or she may most economically and efficiently use present resources to reach these goals (…) and the framework of such executive reasoning is socially defined so that certain limits are placed upon what questions may and may not be raised about it” (MacIntyre, 1979, 126). This is similar to what Kenneth Goodpaster describes as teleopathy, the unbalanced pursuit of instrumental ends which are disconnected from their moral justification in the context of society.

The disconnection process, which is reinforced by the demands for more flexibility (cf. Sennett) produces also an inner fragmentation of the human person as moral actor. MacIntyre refers (not without nuancing it afterwards) to the metaphor of social life as a theatre “with a set of adjoining stages upon which a number of very different moral philosophical dramas are being acted out, the actors being required to switch from stage to stage, from character to character, often with astonishing rapidity” (MacIntyre, 1979, 127-128). Such a situation can lead to a world in which it becomes very difficult to maintain beyond the separate roles a configured self. To configure oneself as acting person is the basic condition for the humanization of work. Finding new ways to integrate the different roles and aspects of life into a meaningful whole is one of the challenges of today, to which the Church can contribute in more than one way.

Another important aspect which in our time has become an urgent problem, is 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. “Like the gift of contemplative self-immersion in Being, and the ability to uplift one’s spirit[s] in festivity [also sacramental and liturgical festivity], the power to be at leisure is one of the basic powers to step beyond the working world and win contact with those superhuman, life-giving forces that can send us, renewed and alive again, into the busy world of work” (Pieper, 36). Without leisure and the contemplative element, humans succumb to the spiritual sin of acedia, the inertia that “refuses to begin new things”. Without a healthy balance we cannot become what we are, and is that refusal not the greatest sin, the acedia of our time?

After having explored the more theoretical and anthropological aspects of work, the conference then turns its attention to an analysis of the great transformations, pressing issues and problems.

One of the issues discussed is burn-out and workaholism.  The conference wants to answer the question: How do these new pathologies affect human dignity? How do we distinguish theologically between working hard and accepting the normal burdens of work (cf. Laborem exercens, chapter 5) and an addiction to work which estranges us from our essential selves?

A series of papers will focus on the great changes in the global market, the increased pressure from the international financial markets and the use of new information and communication technologies influencing the world of work. In this context questions arise such as:

(a)    What effects does the objectivizing of language and practices (re-engineering, down-sizing, right-sizing etc…) have on people, management practices and job-design? In this context an analysis of the effects of downsizing on individuals (more workload, fear, cynicism, loss of dignity and solidarity) becomes necessary. How does extreme flexibility cause a corrosion of character, in the sense of reinforcing the process of the post modern disintegration of the human person? How does all of this affect family life? And how does the commodification of time affect professional life?

(b)    How do the great transformations affect the poor? Several papers will explain in what terms the recent economic developments have created new forms of poverty and even of exploitation. One of the most pressing discussions in this regard is: How is unemployment related to social exclusion?  A crucial question for the poor is the just wage. Some participants argue against the idea of a minimal or living wage—especially insofar as it leads to more unemployment or to more difficult access for inexperienced young workers to the labour market—while others demonstrate that there are in recent decades 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 earnings sector, and that institutional variety in the labour market is able to explain a great deal of the pattern in low wage countries. In this context union density, collective bargaining coverage and structured wage negotiations continue to be a conditio sine qua non for more justice.  Also, legal frameworks such as constitutional norms in the US appear to have an influence on wages and work conditions.

(c)    What is the most characteristic feature of the commodification of work? For the Catholic Church it is of the utmost importance to evaluate not only the consequences of the recent transformations in terms of justice and solidarity, but also in terms of how all of this affects the spiritual well-being of persons. The dominance of instrumental rationality is not only a matter of manipulation of the body, as it has been the case in the Tayloristic economy (symbolically expressed by Charles Chaplin in Modern Times). The subjection of the person to instrumental economic ends is more subtle. It is replaced by “the management of the hearts”. Nicole Aubert has demonstrated that business organizations have sometimes become surrogate suppliers of meaning by totalising the life of their constituents: becoming an object of an almost religious devotion; consuming all the energies of their leaders, managers and employees; absorbing their desires; and dominating their imagination. In these cases business organizations make use of the subjective needs of their constituents, who, confronted with an existential emptiness, almost completely surrender to their companies because they expect from them the possibility of self-realization, self-transcendence and immortality. Because of the lack of authentic mediators of transcendence, companies, with pretensions to be ‘built to last’ (cf. Collins and Porras, 1994), behave sometimes like a secularised church (with a creed, code and cult) which provides them with the illusion of eternity and meaning:

“In former times, the Church was the predominant organizational representation of our collective western belief in immortality, and this was expressed, to some extent, in the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the living and the dead as in various forms of worship. Nowadays our companies have, to a degree, taken over the spiritual and cultural function of confirming belief in immortality” (Siefers, 1996, p. 133).

With their ‘thirst for the absolute’, many people become totally dependent on their companies insofar as they expect them to respond to their narcissistic dreams and phantasms. Nicole Aubert calls this totalising influence of business organizations an “absorbing of being at the service of producing”, which leads to an existential perversion: instead of realizing oneself or going beyond oneself by way of a life project which is meaningful, work, once a source of life, risks to become a source of existential death (Aubert, 1996, p. 115).

The conference does not stop at analysing problems or at criticizing developments which become an obstacle for the humanisation process. Its most challenging task is to find alternatives, realistic ways to induce a process of change and humanisation. While some papers focus on collective actors and institutional changes, others open perspectives on a smaller scale, such as:

New ways of conceiving leadership in business

Proposals for a personalisation of the organisation

The creation of meaningful work for the poor, via initiatives such as micro-credit, grass roots formation and organisation of people (cf. the example of fishing village women), community development, watershed management in rural areas, and part-time job opportunities programs.

The creation of new forms of participatory business organisations (cf. Mondragón).

Not least:  revaluing leisure and spirituality. Several contributions focus on this crucial issue. Some point to spirituality as transformation of the individual toward more inner peace, integrity and meaning. Others consider spirituality as a source of inspiration for ‘good’ management that gives workers a sense of participation and which evokes in them a spirit of creativity and dedication. At least one paper pleads for an integral spirituality which integrates the previous levels, but also creates, at a more structural level, frameworks for change in the business world and thus around generative issues. Awareness of the spiritual dimension of work leads also to a new understanding of sacrifice and to reconnecting work and sacrament. Spirituality in work can finally be connected with what Charles Handy describes as the need for ‘cathedral builders’, people with a sense of  purpose which goes beyond the limits of a role, a job, a career or even a life.

Vanquishing the fragmentation requires a holistic experience of reality, a consciousness that our life is part of a greater whole. But this consciousness requires a rediscovering of the world, through a mystical return to the world as divine milieu. For those who can see, nothing here on earth is profane (Teilhard de Chardin), 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 (Teilhard, 1957, 47). This has nothing to do with returning to a ‘modern’ progress ideology or to a simplistic form of optimism. As Lyotard has pointed out, this type of great story has come to an end. But there remains a fundamental sadness (chagrin): if we have no stories at all, we live in fact according to the hidden story which dominates everything: economism (cf. Pope John Paul II in Centesimus annus). But in that case we remain in the closed horizon of interpretation already described. There is, however, another world of experience. Purpose means something else than merely modern progress: participation in the development of the world is re-personalized and more related to ‘being’ than to material outcomes. It is realizing gradually the fullness of the anthropogenesis. One of the main aspects of this is the opening of the sources of an élan vitale in the depth of human beings and a communion with the world and the sources of life and love. The belief in the meaningfulness of life as described above, leads to a joy of life which finds its expression in a joy of acting. It is participating in the energy of the personalization of reality, and what else is this, ultimately, than the rediscovery of the forces of love and the transformation of the destructive forces of history? This, moreover, allows us to say that that there is no longer a strict separation between professional life or management decisions and trust in the meaning of life. Management and work become an integral part of the humanization of the world in evolution and acquire a meaning beyond the limits of a differentiated field.

This also changes and intensifies moral responsibility beyond the limits of role obligation. One starts acting and living in the consciousness that the human quality of professional activity has a real influence on the quality of the global evolution of the world.

This sense of responsibility is at the heart of the conference.


Background Bibliography

Pope John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 1981

Pope John Paul II, Centesimus annus, 1991

Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, The Social Agenda. A Collection of Magisterial Texts, Città del Vaticano, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000


H.J. ALFORD, M.J. NAUGHTON, Managing as if Faith Mattered: Christian Social Principles in the Modern Organization, Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 2001

M.S. ARCHER, Towards Reducing Unemployment. The Proceedings of the Fifth Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, 3-6 March 1999 (Pontificae Academiae Scientiarum Socialium Acta, 5), Vatican City, 1999.

H. ARENDT, The Human Condition, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Dave ARNOTT, The Insidious Lure of the All-Consuming Organization, New York, American Management Association, 2000.

Nicole AUBERT, L’entreprise comme instance de création existentielle: apsirations et desillusions, in: Th. C. PAUCHANT, La quête du sens, pp. 101-120.

R. BELLAH, The Good Society, New York, Knopf, 1992

J.S. BOSWELL, F.P. McHUGH, J. VERSTRAETEN (eds.), Catholic Social Thought. Twilight or Renaissance? (B.E.T.L., CLVII), Leuven, University Press/Peeters, 2000.

P.E. BRACKE, J. F.T. BUGENTAL, La dépendence existentielle: traiter le comportement de type A et la boulotmanie, in: T. C. PAUCHANT, La quête du sens, pp. 73-100.

James C. COLLINS, Jerry I. PORRAS, Built To Last. Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, New York, HarperCollins, 1994.

E.M. van der DOES de WILLEBOIS, Over de ziel in het vaderloze tijdperk, in: I. VERHACK, P. VAN den BERGHE, K. DEPOORTERE e.a., Niet op zand gebouwd. Waarden, ethiek, geloof, Antwerpen, Amsterdam, Patmos, 1985, pp.81-98.

Chantal DELSOL, Le Souci Contemporain, Bruxelles,  Ed. Complexe, 1996.

V.E. FRANKL, Das Leiden am sinnlosen Leben. Psychotherapie für heute, Freiburg, Basel, Wien, Herder, 1977.

Charles HANDY, The Hungry Spirit. Beyond Capitalism: A Quest for Purpose in the Modern World, New York, Broadway Books, 1998.

Alasdair MACINTYRE, Corporate Modernity and Moral Judgment: Are They Mutually Exclusive? In: Kenneth E. GOODPASTER, KENNETH M. SAYRE, Ethics and the Problems of the 21st Century, Notre Dame, Notre Dame University Press, 1979, pp. 122-135.

David M. NOER, Healing the Wounds. Overcoming the Trauma of Layoffs and Revitalizing Downsized Organizations, San Francisco, Jossey Bass, 1993.

Martha C. NUSSBAUM, Poetic Justice. The Literary Imagination and Public Life, Boston, Beacon Press, 1997.

Th. C. PAUCHANT (et al.), La quête du sens. Gérer nos organisations pour la santé des personnes, de nos sociétés, de la nature, Paris, Ed. d’Organisation, collection Institut Manpower, 1997

Id. (ed.), Pour un management éthique et spirituel. Défis, cas, outils et questions, Québec, Fides, 2000.

Josef PIEPER, Leisure. The Basis of Culture, South Bend, St. Augustine’s Press, 1998.

R. SENNETT, The Corrosion of Character, New York, Norton, 1998.

Burkhard SIEVERS, Participation as a Collusive Quarrel, in: Ethical Perspectives, 3 (1996) 3.

Pierre TEILHARD DE CHARDIN, Le Milieu Divin. Essai de vie intérieure (Coll. Sagesses), Paris, Ed. du Seuil, 1957.

A.E.M. van der DOES de WILLEBOIS, Over de ziel in het vaderloze tijdperk, in: I. VERHACK, P. VAN DEN BERGHE, K. DEPOORTERE (red.), Niet op zand gebouwd. Waarden, ethiek, geloof,  Kapellen, Patmos, 1985.

Johan VERSTRAETEN, From Business Ethics to the Vocation of Business Leaders to Humanize the World of Business, in : Business Ethics. A European Review, 7 (1998), 2, pp. 111-124.

Patricia WERHANE, Moral Imagination and the Search for Ethical Decision-Making in Management as quoted in Deborah VIDAVER-COHEN, Moral Imagination in Organizational Problem-Solving: An Institutional Perspective, in: Business Ethics Quarterly, 7 (1997), 4, p. 2-3.