The rights and duties of workers are woven throughout modern Catholic doctrine.  In the very first social encyclical Rerum Novarum[1] (1891), Pope Leo XIII drew a connection between labor and human dignity, insisting that work is never just a market commodity to be bought and sold without regard to the subjective wellbeing of workers themselves. Leo went so far as to articulate a number of specific workers’ rights.  These include: freedom to receive and spend wages;[2] integrity of family life, including support of children;[3] wages sufficient to support “thrifty and upright” workers and, by implication, their families.[4]  Leo also enunciated the right to form workers’ associations (unions) and even to strike.[5]

Leo underscored rights to reasonable hours, rest periods, health safeguards, safe working conditions, and special provisions for women and children;[6] freedom to attend to religious obligations;[7] and to be free from the expectation of working on Sundays or Holydays.[8]  For their part, workers also must work well and conscientiously, not injure employers or their property, refrain from violence, and be thrifty and prudent.[9]

As it closed in 1965, Vatican II underscored the dignity of human labor in supporting workers and families and as a way in which humans “are a partner in bringing God’s creation to fruition” and are “associated with the redemptive work itself of Jesus Christ, who conferred an eminent dignity on labor when at Nazareth He worked with His own hands.”[10]  The council confirmed a “family wage” in these words:

Finally, payment for labor must be such as to furnish a man with the means to cultivate his own material, social, cultural, and spiritual life worthily, and that of his dependents.[11]

Despite the lack of inclusive gender language in this passage, this Council document made a real contribution by highlighting the continued relevance of safeguarding worker justice, which has persisted as a priority in Catholic social thought to this day. In his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens[12] John Paul II focused again on workers. In an unprecedented papal document that resembles a philosophical and theological treatise focusing squarely on the theme of human labor, Saint John Paul identified work as “the essential key, to the whole social question”.[13] The Polish pope argued that through the Genesis work-mandate “to subdue the earth” humans image their Creator and share God’s creative action.  This makes people the “subjects of work,” and labor is neither a tool in the productive process nor a commodity. All other facets of the economic system belong to the “objective” order and are intended to serve humanity and our calling to be persons.[14]

Besides providing numerous resources for the burgeoning development of a theology of labor, the pontiff clarified the status and significance of many claims drawn from Catholic teaching on human rights. First was “suitable employment for all who are capable of it,” and, when unavailable, provision of unemployment benefits by employers or, upon their failure, the state.[15] Just remuneration for work by a head of family must “suffice for establishing and properly maintaining a family and for providing security for its future”.[16] This affirms the moral necessity of providing a family wage or other measures such as family allowances for child-raising parents.

John Paul insisted that there must be no age or gender discrimination.  Work-related benefits must include health care, coverage of work accidents, affordable or even free medical assistance for workers and families, old age pensions and insurance, and appropriate vacations and holidays.[17] Trade and professional unions retain the right to organize, act politically, and to strike “within just limits”.[18]  The pope affirmed the dignity of agricultural labor,[19] rights of disabled persons to appropriate training and work,[20] and the right to emigrate to find suitable work.[21]

Three decades later in Caritas in Veritate,[22] Pope Benedict underscored workers’ centrality in the economy: “…the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity…[23]  Further, work must be freely chosen, workers respected without discrimination, workers’ organizations (unions) allowed, and child labor prohibited.  Work must allow family needs to be met, including education, provide “enough room” for personal and spiritual development, and guarantee a decent retirement.[24]

Pope Francis, for his part, has continued the trajectory of expressing the Catholic Church’s advocacy for worker rights, especially in the series of three “World Meetings of Popular Movements,” at which he has delivered substantial addresses challenging all players in the global economy to advance the wellbeing of workers, and especially of the unemployed as they struggle for human dignity. By giving voice to theological elements deeply embedded in the everyday practice of human labor, all the popes mentioned above have contributed to a growing spirituality of work that invites and enables every person to reflect profoundly on the spiritual significance of work, and especially on how human labor constitutes co-creation with God and forges fellowship with our fellow humans.

[1] Pope Leo XIII. (1891) Rerum Novarum: On the Condition of Labor, 1891.

[2] Ibid., Paragraph 9.

[3] Ibid., Paragraphs 19-20.

[4] Ibid., Paragraph 63.

[5] Ibid., Paragraphs 69-72.

[6] Ibid., Paragraphs 59, 60, and 64.

[7] Ibid., Paragraph 31.

[8] Ibid., Paragraph 58.

[9] Ibid., Paragraphs 30 and 65.

[10] Vatican Council II. (1965) Gaudium et Spes: The Church in the Modern World, 67.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Pope John Paul II. (1981) Laborem Exercens: On Human Work.

[13] Ibid., Paragraph 3.

[14] Ibid., Paragraph 6.

[15] Ibid., Paragraph 18.

[16] Ibid., Paragraph 19.

[17] Ibid., Paragraph 19.

[18] Ibid., Paragraph 20.

[19] Ibid., Paragraph 21.

[20] Ibid., Paragraph 22.

[21] Ibid., Paragraph 23.

[22] Pope Benedict. (2009) Caritas in Veritate: Charity in Truth.

[23] Ibid., Paragraph 25.

[24] Ibid., Paragraph 63.