In this article, I would like to explore briefly the contribution, both practical and theoretical, that religious tradition and a philosophy of the person can make as we attempt to address the enormous social problems of our time. There are many, of course, who would think that neither has much of value to contribute here. Religious traditions and a philosophy of the person have their roots in an earlier culture, one that had little in common with our age and its problems. In the opinion of many, moreover, social problems in our time should be approached from a pragmatic and procedural point of view, not from a perspective of religion or meta physics. For many people concerned with the problems of our time, then, the view I am suggesting may have little initial plausibility.

Nonetheless, we can all agree that one of the most important problems of our time, perhaps the most important, is the building of genuine communities in which the rights of individuals are recognized. Of all the areas where this problem exists, the world of w ork is among the most seriously in need. Profound problems concerning the meaning and organization of work disturb and divide our societies and our world. Can philosophy be looked to for reflections that may contribute to the solution of these problems? Might our religious traditions have things to say which could be of help in grappling with such complex problems?

I suggest that as we address these questions we attempt a brief analysis of one recent attempt to use a religious tradition and a philosophy of the person to explore the meaning and organization of work. I refer to Pope John Paul II's encyclical Laborem Exercens, (On Human Work) .1 In citing this document in a community of philosophers, I treat it not as an authoritative religious statement for the Catholic Church, but simply as a notable effort to use the resources of a religious tradition and a philosophy of the person to reflect on work in a way that invites the attention of philosophers and calls for evaluation by them. I can say confidently that in this document John Paul speaks for many who do not share his Ca tholic or even his Chr istian faith; he draws on many resources available equally to those of other faiths and different cultures. We may be led to conclude that there is a quality and richness in these resources of value in illuminating the meaning of work and in giving us some norms for its organization. In this brief analysis, I will (1) indicate the context of the document, (2) demonstrate the recourse that John Paul II has to the two sources mentioned and show how he understands them, (3) give several ways in which he uses these resources to help us understand and organize work in our time, (4) reflect on the legitimacy of his use of these resources, and conclude by asking how other religious resources may be so used.


John Paul II grew up in Poland and, while becoming a priest and later a bishop, was also a student of philo sophy, in which he received a doctorate and was later to be a teacher. He lived in a communist-controlled country and contested the official interpretation and organization of work on both philosophical and religious grounds. After being elected Pope, he wrote Laborem Exercens in 1981, thus commemorating the 90th anniversary of his predecessor Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum , the first papal encyclical to treat of modern social problems. Appropriately, therefore, he looks at the issues involved in the context of a succession of papal documents on these questions.

John Paul reviews, as a context for the document, some of the basic conflicts that have characterized the world of work in the last few centuries. We would do well, ourselves, to glance briefly at this history. In early industrialization, there was conflict between ent repreneurs, owners or administrators of productive property , and the mass of people who shared in the product ion process by their labor (11). Entrepreneurs sought to maximize their profits; they considered labor purely within an economic perspective as one among many factors in production, and therefore they offered the lowest possible wages and most inexpensive working conditions to their employees. This led to great injustices and to a reaction by many who thought that the root of these evils was in the very system of productive property.

Marxists interpreted the problem in terms of class conflict; they presented themselves as the spokesmen for the proletariat, and sought by various means, including revolution, to seize control in countries which they would then proceed to reorganize along collectivist lines. This however did not assure justice. Rather it led, among other evils, to a bureaucratization of work in which the individual found himself no more than a cog in an immense machine.

Another response to the injustices consequent to industrialization was the establishment of unions of laborers who fought for just wages, decent working conditions, insurance, and other benefits. The practices that had prevailed in early capitalism were significantly changed in the process, but problems remain, although they have undergone a certain metamorphosis.

Today there are widespread une mployment, hunger and homelessness, and the conflict between capital and labor which previously had been primarily a problem within particular countries has now become global in scope. Moreover, recent technological developments, a new realization of the limits of the world's resources and a concern for the damage to the environment that already has resulted from industrial pollut ion, pose new problems in the meaning and organization of work. This, then, is the context in which John Paul II wrote Laborem Exercens .



John Paul does not attempt to give technical answers to the problems of the workplace in our time, but rather to uncover the basic human meaning of work and to reflect on this meaning from a perspective of morality. He writes that the purpose of his document is:

to highlight . . . the fact 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. And if the solution or rather the gradual solution of the social question . . . must be sought in the direction of `making life more human', then the key, namely human work, acquires fundamental and decisive importance(3).

To explore the meaning of work he turns to the resources of religious tradition and to a philosophy of the person. As I here and in the next section accept the interpretation he adopts, in the interests of clarity I will express his views directly rather than reverting to indirect discourse.

In seeking to shed light upon human problems, the Church turns to what it understands to be God's revelatio n mediated in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. These Scriptures can, in the same fashion as the sacred writings of other religions in the world, be appreciated by men and women of quite different traditions as a kind of sedimentation of human wis dom. Here we will evaluate them from this perspective. In literary forms appropriate to its time and to the purposes of its author the first book of the Bible gives us an account of the beginnings of the world and of man, and it does so in a way that leaves no doubt that there is meaning in human persons and in human life. It tells us that "God created man in his image: in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them, saying: `Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it'."2 And God gave them dominion over all the earth. One way in which man images God is precisely by the dominion he exercises over the earth, and, although the text refers to much more than man's work, it includes in the gift of dominion the commission to work. This human dominion is a share in that which God exercises over creation; in their work human beings share in the work and purposes of the creator. The range of what God has committed to man's dominion is indeed vast. It includes all the resources of the physical world, and can be taken to extend into the indefinite future, for this commission to the first couple is meant for all mankind. No future development of the resources of the world lies outside the embrace of this commission. In principle, therefore, the physical world is subordinate to mankind and is placed within its dominion to serve the human good.

As we inquire into the meaning of work, let us distinguish its objective from its subjective meaning. Any wo rk, because of its specific nature, has internal goals. Agriculture, for example, has as its goal the production of food; industry is for the manufacture of goods for human use. Goals specific to a certain form of work constitute its objective meaning. Technological developments have enormously increased the scope and, at times, the quality of human work as it fulfills these goals. Tec hnology is thus man's ally, though at times it can seem to be his enemy.

Work can also, however, be considered subjectively, or in relation to man as its agent and goal. As John Paul writes:

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 of work. . . . Various actions belonging to the work process . . . must all serve to realize his humanity, to fulfill the calling to be a person that is his by reason of his very humanity(6).

The divine commission to dominate the world is realized not only in relation to the things of the world, but also to the work itself, i.e., through maintaining the priority whereby man is served by his work, rather than allowing himself to be subordinated to its service. "This dimension conditions the very ethical nature of work"(6). It has an ethical dimension because it is the act of a person, "a conscious and free subject, that is to say, a subject who decides about himself"(6). The basis for deciding the value of work is not primarily its objective meaning, but its subjective meaning. There can be varied degrees of objective meaning to work, but the primary basis for the dignity and value of w ork is "man himself, who is its subject"(6). As John Paul writes:

This leads immediately to a very important conclusion of an ethical nature: However true it may be that man is destined for work and called to it, in the first place work is `for man' and not man `for work'(6).

The objective purpose of any kind of work cannot carry a definitive meaning in and of itself, for "in the final analysis it is always man who is the purpose of work, whatever work it is that is done"(6).



Religious tradition and a ph ilosophy of the p erson reinforce one another in the light they cast on the meaning and organization of work. We will show several implications that John Paul draws from the topic thus illuminated.

The Priority of Labor. A central principle for the organization of work that flows from both religious tradition and a philosophy of the person is the priority of lab or. To be given the commission to subdue the earth means that man is to dominate all the resources of the world. These resources are not created by man; they are given to him by nature and so ultimately by the creator. Man can modify these resources, as he does in successive stages of techn ological sophistication in pro duction through history, thereby providing himself more ingenious and effective `workbenches', as it were. Through the domestication of animals, through agri culture, through indus trialization and through the sophisticated technology of our time, man establishes increasingly effective instruments to aid him in his labor. All that goes by the name of productive property, or capital, is really reducible to a collection of such instruments. No matter how sophisticated such an instrument is, it came from resources which God implanted in nature for man to discover and modify. It is the historical product as well of the generations of labor that honed and developed the instruments of production we now have. Further, it is still fruitful because of the work of many people at the present time. Man remains superior to all technology, no matter how impressive it may be; he is to dominate the whole of this order, because he alone is a person, and he was given the commission to subdue the earth.

Thus an opposition between capital and labor does not derive from the production process itself. The opposition comes from a practically materialistic culture, one that tends to view the whole process of production from a perspective of material consequences, of products and money. In this `economism' man and capital both are considered as `forces of production'. La bor is considered as a `merchandise' that the laborers sell to the employers who own and organize productive property. The error of this perspective and the injustices to which it has led come from considering labor and capital as on the same level and as simple parts of an economic equation. Man is treated as an ins trument of production, and not as the effective sub ject of work. In the process of production, however, "labor is always a primary efficient cause, while capital . . . remains a mere instrument or instrumental cause"(12). This instrument conditions man's work, but it does not constitute "an impersonal `subject' putting man and man's work into a position of dependence"(13). "As the subject of work and independent of the work he does--man alone is a person"(12). The practice and theory of work has to accord with the primacy of the person.

Private Property. John Paul applies his two principles to yet another question, that of the possession of private property. The resolution of the conflict between capital and labor does not lie in a denial of the right to private possession of property, even of productive property. In accord with a continuous Christian tradition, the Pope reaffirms the right to such ownership. Moreover, he asserts, the expropriation of productive property and the transferral of its administration to a collectivity or to the state in no way assures that the human rights of the workers will be respected. Such organization easily can lead to bureaucratization, with the result that the worker feels himself simply a cog in an immense machine who has no sense that he is genuinely furthering his own good through his work. There may be instances when there are sufficient reasons to socialize some productive property, but the basic solution to the conflict between capital and labor is to be found in recognizing that owners of property are not morally free simply to use their property as they wish.

The resources of the world were given to serve the needs of all mankind. Privately owned instruments that facilitate pro duction are in fact the products of work by generations of laborers through the ages. As they are the fruit of many people's work, so their present fruit is in turn indebted to the labor of many. Owners must make use of their property within this context.3 They are to use their pro perty not in a way that obstructs the initial and abiding purpose of the resources of the world, namely, to serve the needs of all, but in a way harmonious with that purpose. Moreover, property-owners should seek ways to give labo rers a more active voice in the productive process and a more substantial share in its fruits. The worker "wishes to be able to take part in the very work process as a sharer in responsibility and creativity at the workbench to which he applies himself"(15).

Work as Humanization. Pope John Paul draws on his fundamental principles for a third application. Through sin man turned away from God, and this turning away is reflected in a certain resistance he encounters within his very work. Scripture says that God told man after his sin: "In the sweat of your face shall you eat bread".4 Human work, physical, intellectual, administrative, or parental, usually involves effort or difficulty. Wo rk nonetheless continues to be a good for man. Though work may well, despite its difficulty, be enjoyable, "it is also good as being something worthy, that is to say, something that corresponds to man's dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it"(9). It is good to transform the world and make it more adapted to human needs.

Through work man also transforms himself and, in a sense, "becomes `more a human being'"(9). Work calls him to exercise such virtues as industriousness, patience and creativity. Work can, it is true, be used to degrade man as when he is exploited or subjected to forced labor; but this is counter to the inherent meaning of work. Moreover, through work man not only shapes himself; through it he is enabled to build a family, for it is work that gives him the means to found a family and raise children. Through work man can contribute to the common good of his society, to the development of a culture and a civilization. By work, indeed, human beings share in God's creative activity. They further his creative plan and continue his work (25). The Pope enlarges on this theme, noting that through their toil men and women can share in the redemptive work that Christians associate with Ch rist. They thereby contribute to the building of the `Kingdom of God '; it is through human labor that "`human dignity, brotherhood and freedom' must increase on earth"(27). This whole theme merits, of course, a deeper analysis, but what we have said will have to suffice for our purposes.

In this document John Paul also offers us thoughts on the rights of the worker, on the duties of the employer and of what he calls the `indirect employer', i.e. the laws of the political community and the international economic order as they affect the conditions of work and thus the rights of workers. But without exploring these further applications of his principles, let us now turn to the basic principles themselves and reflect briefly on his use of them.


John Paul II in effect combines these two sources in the use he makes of them, but it is appropriate for us to reflect briefly on each in turn.


John Paul's use of religious tradition is, I submit, in line with the work of Hans Georg Ga damer and others who contend, against the philosophers of the Enlig htenment and those whom they have influenced, that the resources of our traditions can legitimately and fruitfully be brought to bear upon the present. In my remarks on this topic, I make use of a paper of George M cLean.5 Rather than relying on a notion of human knowledge modeled on the physical sciences or on mathematical models that discount the auth ority of tra dition, should we not rather acknowledge the central importance of knowledge which has been passed on as the heritage of a community, and hence as having an authority based on the community's experience of living through time? Our access to this sort of heritage comes through being born into a family which mediates the language and symbol systems of a people whose interpretation of reality we share. This interpretation has been gained from an experience in history and has been handed down to our generation embodied in a variety of traditional forms.

Such an interpretation of reality affords a vision of the goals of human life which possesses an intrinsic authority and a normative quality for a people--one that contains in germ that people's notion of human excellence as exemplified in its great men and women viewed as paradigms or `archetypes' of human excellence. The authority of such a past is not so much a limiting as an enabling one. If it is not unnatural to recognize our dependence on others with knowledge and competence such as, for example, a medical doctor, it should surely not be below our dignity to recognize our dependence on "the contribution of extended historical experience" in our cultural heritage. Such recognition can lead us to acknowledge a normative "vision which both transcends its own time and stands as directive for time to come" for our own communities. The active and formative influence of tradition makes it a living influence in our own time, one that enables us "today to determine the specific direction of our lives and mobilize a community of consensus and commitment". It can, as well, enable us to recognize those deformations specific to our own time.

Such a heritage can have particular relevance to new issues that a people faces in the present, particularly in its social life. John Paul's use of tradition is one illustration that our heritage can promote a creative exercise of freedom in our day. To act freely in the present one must know one's identity, which is impossible without an active appreciation of one's heritage. A purely abstract knowledge of humanity will not be adequate. There is, as it were, a dialectic over time in our interpretations of our past. Time can open up new possibilities of understanding our past, and such dialogic engagement with the past can give us access to fruitful possibilities for the revision of meaning.

John Paul finds in Scripture also an important resource for a social critique in our time. Critique is carried on in the context of interests when these are placed within a larger context of such values as u nity, good ness and tr uth. A critique of ideologies presupposes the development of communicative action by free persons. For this to happen in a world controlled as ours is by technology, we have first to search within our own heritage for resources of emancipation. Some modern social critiques look back for these resources to the period of the Enli ghtenment, but the Western heritage has deeper roots--roots in the Biblical tradition. To recall and to celebrate this heritage is to reopen a channel of inspiration and guidance for social change that speaks directly to the liberation of the poor and the alienated.

The Person

Let us look for a moment at John Paul's philosophy of the person. To what extent will it hold up under, and reward, our scrutiny? Not all philosophers of our time would accept the understanding of the person conveyed in Laborem Exercens. Nevertheless, before he was Pope, John Paul wrote a book entitled The Acting Person in which he used a phenomenology of the person to argue for the need of a metaphysics of the person.6 A number of other contemporary philosophers would also hold that nothing less than such a metaphysics can do justice to our experience of being persons.

To take one philosopher as an example, let us refer to Thomas Tr acy's book, God, Action and Embodiment.7 In it, he seeks to mediate between a classical Thomistic theology and a Whitehead ian theology, noting that we understand person through intentional agency. That is, we know a person through his or her character traits, the ways in which the person orients himself or herself to action, to self, and to others. This differs from the way we know other things in our environment. It is proper to a person to initiate activity, and thus we know a person not so much by what happens to him or her as by what he or she does and by the intentionality which this action expresses. Unlike behav iorism, Tracy's approach would define as personal action not simply the external event or happening, but that event in relation to intentionality. Far from being seen dualistically, the human person in his or her bodily action is a psychophysical unit. Further, that we are an enduring reality through time is shown by our `story' and by the responsibility we take for past acts.

Incidentally, the concept of the person as embracing that which is uniquely human in men and women is not confined to a western cultural context. Without implying complete cross-cultural agreement on the understanding of man as person, we may cite Keiji Nishit ani, of the Kyoto school of philosophy, who writes: "There is no doubt that the idea of man as a personal being is the highest idea of man which has thus far appeared. The same may be said as regards the idea of God as a personal being".8

The distinctiveness of the human being when compared with all other material reality, a distinctiveness expressed by the term `person', gives grounds for considering man superior to all else in the material order. This distinctiveness constitutes the grounds for our sense of a special dignity that is intrinsic to the individual human being and that deserves the respect of the individual himself or herself, of other individuals, and of those who hold economic and political power. Here we have the crux of John Paul's argument that work is for man and not man for work, and that man and technology cannot be considered as of equivalent moral weight nor man reduced to the status of a tool within his technology. This human distinctiveness underlies John Paul's conviction--one he is far from alone in affirming--that the worker must be considered as a person, and the organization of the social and economic order must be made to accommodate that value.

We may well ask why the results of a hermeneutical reflection on Scripture and the conclusions drawn from a philosophy of the human person coincide to such an extent. Both, it must be pointed out, are grounded in, and reflect, experience. Much that is seen as divine revelation within the religious tradition has been recognized as such precisely because the great depth of human reflection from which it flows has endowed it with wisdom of a calibre hard to encompass within the range of the purely human. At the same time it must be granted that a philosophy will always reflect the culture in which it was born. In the West, philosophical understandings of what it means to be a person could not have escaped the influence of the Judaeo-Christian experience of divinity as personal, and the imprint of the specifically personal names of Father, Son and Holy Spirit ascribed to God in the Christian doctrine of the Tri nity. But religious tradition and the insights of philosophy will, if the depth of their understanding of the human condition is great enough, have relevance for times and places other than those in which they were first elaborated.

In conclusion, let us note that other religious traditions have their own resources both for the humanization of the world of work and as a line of defense against the domination over men that frequently are so readily conceded to technology and science. Vincent S hen makes this quite clear in the case of Con fucianism when he writes:

On the theoretical level, Confucianism emphasizes the priority of human subjectivity and intersubjectivity over logical and technological systems. In other words, according to Confucianism, man has to be master and not slave of sc ience and tech nology. All development of the latter must be in service of the unfolding and the realization of human potentiality.9

DeSales School of Theology

Washington, D.C.


1. Pope John Paul II , On Human Work (Laborem Exercens), Sept. 14, 1981. The translation used is that of the U.S. National Catholic News Service (Washington, D. C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1981). The numbers in the text refer to numeration of the sections of that edition.

2. Gen esis 1:27-28.

3. Pope John Paul cites here St. Thomas Aqui nas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, 66, 2 and 6.

4. Genesis 3:19.

5. George F. Mc Lean, "Hermeneutics and Heritage," in his Man and Nature (Washington: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy and The University Press of America, l989).

6. Karol Wojtyl a, The Acting Person (Boston: Reidel, 1979).

7. Thomas Tra cy, God, Action and Embodiment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984).

8. Quoted in Hans Wal denfels, Absolute Nothingness. Foundations for a Buddhist-Christian Dialogue (New York Paulist, 1980), p. 80.

9. Vincent S hen, "Confucianism, Science and Technology. A Philosophical Evaluation," The Asian Journal of Philosophy, 1 (1987), 75.