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May 4, 2015

St. John Paul II's encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work) was the late pope's most hard-driving social encyclical, one that identified fairly specific goals in order to create a more human economy. The encyclical – which would have been issued at this time in 1981 had the pope not been shot – has not been forgotten, but it has often been pushed to the side, having made many people uncomfortable.

Right-wing economists saw On Human Work as a socialist manifesto – which it wasn't – while left-wing academics were perhaps uncomfortable with the clear spiritual foundation of the document.

The genius of Pope John Paul's approach was that his views, while anything but Marxist, were formed in a dialogue with Karl Marx's theory of the alienation of labour.

For Marx, alienation meant first that the worker lost part of the value of what he had produced because the means of production were controlled by someone else, that is, the bourgeoisie. Alienation also meant that the human person, who Marx saw as essentially a maker of things, loses his ability as an autonomous creator under capitalism. His very personhood is alienated.

Pope John Paul also saw objective and subjective dimensions to work. Objectively, work is how humanity, created in the image of God, shares in God's work of creation. Subjectively, work is to be one expression of the individual's personhood; it is a means of human fulfillment.

For the pope, the subjective dimension must take priority over the objective. When the objective dimension of creating products comes first, work can become enslavement.

The goal, however, is not personal autonomy, but a realization of work's social dimension. To be human is to be in solidarity with others, not only in terms of the products we make, but also through strengthening the family and in forming personal bonds with others. At its best, work is a means to growth in holiness.

After emphasizing the personal and spiritual dimensions of work, Pope John Paul drew practical consequences. Economies should be oriented to full employment, and they should ensure all people receive an equitable share of the available resources. Workers have a right to a wage that will support their families.

Further, workers have rights to form unions and, when other means fail to protect their dignity, to go on strike. They have a right not only to work, but also to rest. Forced labour is a great evil.

Women should be able to enter the workforce and receive the same fair treatment as men. Disabled people also have the right to work. Innovative means of enterprise, such as worker co-ops, should be developed and nurtured.

None of this is socialism. But Pope John Paul recognized the possibility of worker exploitation under capitalism. Those who own the means of production should not use their power against their workers.

The pope emphasized two principles. First, labour must have priority over capital. Second, people are more important than things. If these sound like motherhood statements, reflect on how things operate in many workplaces. Profit is often the highest value; productivity is often more important than meeting the needs of both workers and the people they serve.

With Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul breathed new life into Catholic social teaching. It became more concrete, less abstract. Yet the legacy he left has not yet been fulfilled. A new generation of Catholic leaders need to be formed in the encyclical's principles . . . and in implementing its recommendations.