An International Conference on John Paul II’s encyclical On Human Work

The University of St. Thomas’ John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought cosponsored an international conference on John Paul II’s encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work). Scholars, religious leaders, business leaders, and government and union officials from 36 countries gathered in Rome and Vatican City Sept. 12-14, to examine the role that work plays in supporting or impeding the development of the human person.

In 1981, Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical, Laborem Exercens, that “human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question, if we try to see that question really from the point of view of man’s good.” The key to John Paul’s argument and a major focus of the conference is what he calls “the subjective dimension of work.” All too often the objective triumphs and achievements of work – those discoveries, techniques and outcomes that have increased the efficiency, productivity and profitability of organizations – can too easily become forces that corrupt the soul of the subject. Rather than being conquerors, we, the workers, have been conquered – by our own objective achievements – whether by compiling great assets, organizing great numbers of people, climbing political ladders or publishing a great number of books. If work is to contribute to the development of the person, it must be embraced as a spiritual and moral activity.

Taking this subjective dimension of work as the springboard, conference presenters examined the significant changes in the world of work and offered several proposals that would foster more humane work such as humanizing business organizations through job design and participation; creating meaningful work for the poor; initiating programs such as micro-credit, grassroots formation and organization 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. There also were several papers on the critical importance of developing a spirituality of work for all occupations.

 Taking this subjective dimension of work as the springboard, conference presenters examined the significant changes in the world of work and offered several proposals that would foster more humane work such as humanizing business organizations through job design and participation; creating meaningful work for the poor; initiating programs such as micro-credit, grassroots formation and organization 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. There also were several papers on the critical importance of developing a spirituality of work for all occupations.

There was an honest concern for the victims of the globalized world, a perspective that also was clearly present in the homily of Cardinal Van Thuân who presided at one of the conference Masses inside the Basilica of St. Peter. The cardinal pointed to the connection between a spirituality of 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 also must induce real changes at a more structural level. Cardinal Van Thuân also closed the conference with personal remarks of his work years in the concentration camps in Vietnam, where he was imprisoned when the communists took control in 1975.

 One of the unique aspects of the conference was the collaboration between Catholic universities and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The Pontifical Council organized the plenary sessions, gathering major figures in the work world. The academic organizers used their resources to gather experts in the field of work covering a broad range of issues and topics. This combination created a remarkable sphere of openness and discussion among a variety of participants in the church, academy, business, government and unions. Such collaboration displayed a real readiness in the community of scholars and experts to participate in the general discernment process of the Church. As Sergio Zaninelli, the rector of the Catholic University in Milan, noted in his opening remarks, the conference served as a unique example of how subsidiarity can function in the Church.

Other sponsors of the conference included the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Vatican City; Center of Research for the Study of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Milan, Italy; the Centre for Catholic Social Thought, Catholic University, Leuven, Belgium; Peter J. Tobin School of Business, St. John’s University, New York; and Fundación “Pablo VI,” Instituto Social “León XIII,” Madrid, Spain.

Speakers and panelists at the conference’s plenary sessions included Michel Camdessus, former director general of the International Monetary Fund; Antonio Fazio, governor of the Bank of Italy; Gloria Kan of the United Nations’ Division for Social Policy and Development; Jérôme Vignon, principal adviser to the European Commission; Michel Hansenne, European Parliament and former secretary general of International Labour Office; Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; Bishop Anton Stres of Slovenia; H. Onno Ruding, from Citibank and president of the International Christian Union of Business Executives; Emilio Gabaglio, secretary general, European Trade Union Confederation; Ousmane Batako, minister of Public Works, Labor and Administration Reform, Republic of Benin; and Bishop Reinhold Marx from the Diocese of Paderborn, Germany. University of St. Thomas chancellor Monsignor Terrence Murphy chaired one of the plenary sessions.

 Besides the plenary speakers there were 52 papers presented at seminar sessions. Dr. Barbara Shank, dean of Social Work at St. Thomas, and Deborah Ruddy, John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought, Catholic Studies, served as respondents in two of the seminar sessions. I was one of the conference organizers. St. Thomas’ Bernardi Campus was used as one of the residences for conference participants.

This conference will remain alive in the memories of the participants, not only because of the content, but also because of an exceptional circumstance: the inhuman terrorist attack on two American cities on Sept. 11. The almost apocalyptic character of this act of violence made participants more aware of the fact that their reflections on work as key to the social question have, more than ever, an urgent character.