The right to work: what does the Catholic Church teach?

The right to work: what does the Catholic Church teach?

Bishop Kevin Manning

The release of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Report on youth has again thrown into focus the matter of work and unemployment. The young people interviewed said it was the major concern in their lives; and the reason why is not hard to find. Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Laborem Exercens (LE) or "On Human Work" (n.9) says "that through work, paid or unpaid, a person achieves fulfilment as a human being and, in a sense, becomes more a human being."

The most obvious way in which work is important is its function in providing access to the necessities of life. It is the primary way in which people meet their basic survival needs.

In Australia high levels of unemployment make the provision of the necessities of life for those who are unemployed, underemployed, or enduring low wage poverty, a serious concern for Catholics. The goods of the earth were intended by God for the use of all, so everyone has a right of access to what they need for their survival. But there is more.

The vast majority of unemployed people want a job. This alerts us to the fact that work is significant for a variety of reasons beyond access to the means of subsistence.

Work includes but cannot be reduced to employment. Much work takes place outside the market and, in a non-agricultural money economy, bears no direct relationship to acquiring the necessities of life. The most obvious example here is the vast quantity of unpaid work done, primarily by women, nurturing children and fostering relationships both within households and, in the community more generally, in voluntary work.

So we need to define clearly how we understand work and what is full employment and why, beyond mere subsistence, we do it.

Work in the Catholic tradition is a valuable means of self-expression, self-development, and self-actual- isation. Through it we express ourselves and grow as persons, develop our capacities, develop dignity and become more human (LE, n. 9).

Being deprived of meaningful work thus deprives the person of an important opportunity for self- expression, growth and development. This dimension of the lack of work is felt acutely by young people struggling to establish adult roles for themselves in the world. Securing a full time paid job has been an important rite of passage in our culture.

The central value of work relates to the person who works, for whose benefit work is done. The pay (if any) that the work attracts, and the thing or service actually produced by the work are of secondary importance (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.2428, LE, n.6). This is what John Paul II means when he speaks of the primary meaning of work being its subjective dimension. The dignity of work comes from the fact that it is done by persons who are free and conscious subjects. It follows that work is for the person rather than the person for work.

If people are more important than things, then labour is more important than capital, and workers are to be considered before technology. It follows that the organisation of work, and of employment opportunities should be structured around human needs and that the whole economy should be harnessed to the service of the human person.


Work should be structured so that it does in fact provide opportunities for self-expression and growth rather than being mindless, soul- destroying drudgery, pure boredom. To put the demands of the economy before people is to fundamentally confuse means and ends.

Catholics also understand work as a way of participating with God in the on-going work of creation. This is beautifully illustrated by husband and wife who co-create with God. By our work we share, within the limits of our capabilities, in the activity of the Creator. This is the vocation of the human person outlined in the book of Genesis: being made in the image of an active and creative God, we are also active and creative, and are mandated to care for and exercise stewardship over the earth. Work is not only a right, it is also a duty and a vocation. Traditionally the Church has proclaimed the value of work as a continuation of the work of God in creating and redeeming the world. Workers help impose an order on the inanimate world, and by their sweat, stress or pain, share in the suffering of Christ to redeem the world. Thus their work is dedicated to a higher purpose.

A spirituality of work along these lines was developed by the late Cardinal Cardijn, founder of the Young Christian Worker movement, who enriched the lives of so many young workers around the world by teaching them that their working lives have an eternal value; that their lathes or work stations are an extension of the altar in the Church, and that their sacrifices are linked to the Sacrifice of Christ. St Joseph's example teaches that man's work is never extraneous to God's plan. Sanctification comes when the person works in harmony with the Creator, as did Joseph, the silent worker in the home of Nazareth.

An important contribution of the "worker pope" John Paul II has been the beautiful spirituality of work, based in his own experience, that makes up Part V of "On Human Work."

Work is not just an individual thing, it is also communal. This is true in two ways. Firstly, work is an important means by which people contribute to the common good of the community. It is something we do not only for ourselves and those with whom we are most closely connected, such as our families; it is also for the benefit of the whole community.

Secondly, work brings us into relationship with one another. Most people's social circles centre on family and workmates and so the loss of employment can bring with it acute social isolation.

Unemployment can prevent people from contributing to the best of their abilities to the well-being of the community in which they live and denies the community the benefit of that particular contribution. At present employment remains the key to economic and social participation in Australian society. Being unemployed limits people's opportunities to participate in an important sphere of activity and can limit their social interaction and connections quite dramatically.

Work is a service undertaken together with others and for others. Unemployment then cannot be considered simply a private problem.

Catholic social teaching defends the right to work, and the right to adequate sustenance. It follows that workers should be paid a just wage, and that unemployed people have a right to be supported by the community.

The Catholic human rights tradition does not consider income support a privilege, but rather a basic human right. It holds that all people have the right to the things they need to live in a dignified manner simply because of their unique dignity as human persons created in the image and likeness of God (P.T., n.11- 24, LE, n.19, Solicitudo Rei Socialis, n.31, Centesimus Annus, n.34). As Pope John Paul II has clearly said: "It is a duty of justice and truth not to allow fundamental human needs to remain unsatisfied, and not to allow those burdened by such needs to perish." (CA, n.34)

The Australian Bishops echoed this teaching in their Statement Common Wealth for the Common Good when they recommended that "governments give adequate income and other support to those for whom there are no jobs, in all age groups" (CWFCG, p. 98).

Catholic thinking both in Australia and internationally can not accept the idea that some level of unemployment is "good for the economy," or simply to be accepted (CWFCG, p.9). The Australian Catholic Bishops advocate the creation of jobs rather than strategies to produce a lower NAIRU, ("non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment"). They recommended that governments and employers pursue policies that would lead to the creation of jobs especially for long-term unemployed. The Bishops' Committee for Justice, Development and Peace considers full employment as a situation in which there are job opportunities for all who choose to engage in paid employment.

Some commentators believe that full employment is unattainable because of the impact of the technological revolution and the increased participation of women in paid work. Whether or not technology, on balance, will create more employment than it destroys is a moot point, research to date being inconclusive. It is clear, however, that attempts to force women out of the paid workforce would only be futile. Women have as much right to be in paid employment as men.

Because it is the particular role of governments to foster and protect human rights and to promote and organise the common good, governments must act to combat unemployment "which in all cases is an evil and which, when it reaches a certain level, can become a real social disaster," (LE, n.18) and to protect the right to work and to adequate income. A particularly grave responsibility exists to intervene on behalf of the most vulnerable members of the community.

In the first instance responsibility to act to combat unemployment rests with individuals and groups in society. The principle of subsidiarity suggests that government action should supplement, support and co-ordinate such initiatives.

While all have a duty to contribute to the common good according to their capacity, governments have a special role (CWFCG, p.98). It is the government that has the capacity and primary responsibility to set macroeconomic policy, direct industry policy, plan regional development strat- egies, raise revenue through taxes, and to distribute transfer payments (LE, n.16-18). This is why the Australian Bishops in CWFCG called on governments as well as individuals and groups in society to act against injustice in the economic sphere.

In 1991 John Paul II published his social encyclical, Centesimus Annus. In this letter he once again stressed the responsibility of all, not just governments, to find solutions to the problem of unemployment, and to reject a narrowly economistic view of work. He explained further his understanding of the legitimate role of profit, which is not to be placed before persons. "The Church," he writes, "acknowledges the legitimate role of profit as an indication that a business is functioning well ... But profitability is not the only indication of a firm's condition ... the purpose of a business firm is not simply to make a profit, but it is to be found in its very existence as a community of persons who in various ways are endeavouring to satisfy their basic needs, and who form a particular group at the service of the whole of society" (CA, n.35).


Options regarding a Catholic policy on employment that could be explored:

  • Unemployed people have a right to be treated with respect, and to be heard on those matters that most immediately affect them.
  • The most immediate need of unemployed people is for adequate income support. They have a right to such support because every member of the community has a right to an appropriate share in the benefits of society. Income support alone is not a sufficient response to the problem of unemployment because the income- generating function of work is not its only or its most important aspect.
  • Unemployment is an evil because it demeans the human person in a number of ways, as our discussion of the meaning and nature of work indicated. If the economy really is to serve people, then the elimination of unemployment must be a high priority target for active policy. The needs of those who have suffered the most, such as long-term unemployed people, should be specifically targeted.
  • Since work is a right, a duty and a vocation, full employment should be a high priority policy objective. The only acceptable rate of unemployment is that associated with the frictional unemployment that happens as people move from one job to another. Everyone's contribution to the community is needed - there should be no 'surplus labour.'
  • It is not sufficient to hope that economic growth might eventually solve the problem of unemployment. It must be tackled directly.
  • Catholic thinking does not support an "end of work" scenario. It does support reclaiming a broader understanding of what work is.
  • Work is a broader concept than employment. We must learn again to truly value non-market work. It is not payment that makes work valuable. Payment is only one reason that people want to work. Nonetheless, appropriate ways of ensuring adequate independent access to income for those who do not do work in a market context are needed. A more integrated approach to welfare and wages policies could be explored.
  • Labour should not be treated as a commodity, as one more input to the production process, but rather as something that people do. People are more important than things or technology. Care must be taken that efforts to promote labour force "flexibility" not translate into openings for the exploitation of the least powerful workers and polarisation in a dual labour market.
  • Unemployment is not a private problem, but rather a concern for the whole community. Everyone has both the right and the obligation to participate in the shaping of public policy. Unemployed people, workers organisations, employers, governments and community groups must all work together to eliminate the curse of unemployment.

The Most Rev Kevin Manning is Bishop of Parramatta and Chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council. The above article is the shortened text of his talk to the Thomas More Centre's Sydney Spring School on 11 October 1998, compiled in consultation with Ms Sandy Cornish, CEO, ACSJC.

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