On Human Work (New Year’s Resolution, Book Fifteen)

$(KGrHqR,!p!E-1L86h)cBP6sI!wBFw~~_35This is the official translation of Blessed John Paul II’s Encyclical Letter, On Human Work. As someone who works in the labor movement (and especially as someone who is working to help adjuncts at a well known Catholic university form a union), you can well imagine this might interest me.

Also, I bought it at Pauline Books and Media, a little Catholic bookstore in Old Town Alexandria, run by the Daughters of Saint Paul who, so far as I can tell, model themselves after Paul the Evangelist in focusing heavily on communication and evangelization. I’m guessing they have the most active twitter account of any order of nuns. But I’m just guessing.

It’s a very comfortable and contrary to images in movies, I have always found nuns to be very friendly and welcoming. It’s got a selection of devotional stuff, similar to what you might find at any Christian bookstore, but, this being a Catholic establishment, it also has a great many volumes of scholarly and intellectual interest. And a rack devoted to papal letters and other Vatican documents.

I like to go there when I play D&D on the weekends, but since we often play on Sunday, I can’t always (the store is, naturally, closed on Sunday). The other week, we met on a Saturday.

On Human Work, as one would expect of a document by the notably anti-Communist, Blessed John Paul II, speaks out strongly against ‘historical materialism.’

But reading this critique, one can’t help but notice that it is arguing for remedies for what can only be described as man’s alienation from his labor. In other words, it is the same problem as that illuminated by Marx.

Derrida wrote a book called Spectres of Marx, about Marx’s writing’s relationship to ghosts and spirit. I mention that because, the way I see it, this alienation is only an issue if it is also a spiritual alienation.

Implicitly, both Marx and Blessed John Paul are concerned with how changing attitudes and treatment of labor injures the soul.

The language used could also have come from a socialist workers conference: ‘capital,’ ‘solidarity,’ ‘technology,’ etc.

Since Marx wasn’t terribly prescriptive, I guess I am mostly referring to later Marxian thought. Both Marxian thinkers and Catholic social teaching is looking at the same issue when it comes to much of work. How the fruits of labor are unevenly and, in many cases, unfairly distributed. How technology leads to dislocation that is traumatic the dislocated (and their families and communities). And how human workers become alienated from their the fruit of their labor and how this alienation is both material (someone on an assembly lines very often does not physically see the completed product emerge, further down the line) and spiritual (though atheist Marxians may resist that terminology; but whether you call it spiritual or psychology, it is something within the worker that is suffering).

On Human Work writes about work as something uniquely human – and therefore connected to our uniqueness amongst creation on Earth, and by implication as being connected to the fact that we are made in God’s image, that, through work, we share ‘in the activity of the Creator.’

When looking at work, Blessed John Paul writes, it is important to remember the guiding view of the church is that labor has priority over capital.

Let quote that:

In view of this situation we must first recall a principle that has always been taught by the Church:

Did you get that? Reading that in these days following the economic collapse and the unequal and unjust recovery that rubbed our noses in the failures of rampant, runaway, unfettered (and unchristian) free market capitalism… well, it’s a reminder that the questions raised aren’t new and that figures ranging from Karl Marx to anti-communist Popes have thundered about them.

There’s lot to love in this if you’re a labor activist. Exhortations for the state to fulfill a moral obligation to protect worker’s rights and also to work towards ‘suitable employment for all who are capable of it.’ Unions are called ‘mouthpiece[s] for the struggle for social justice.’ Good stuff. Good stuff, indeed.



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