Even before he became Pope John Paul II, work was a major theme in Karol Wojtyla’s life, a theme that weaves through his poetry. Wojtyla wrote poems about quarry workers, factory workers, actors, typists, and others, revealing his personal understanding of the tasks and struggles of modern workers. In a poem called “The Armaments Factory Worker,” for instance, he imagines the mindset of a factory worker wondering about the conflict between his identity and his work:

I only turn screws, weld together

parts of destruction,

never grasping the whole,

or the human lot….

… Though what I create is all wrong,

the world’s evil is none of my doing.

But is that enough?

Can you relate to this conflict between the small, routine actions that work demands and the development of your moral identity? While the first section of St. John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens explores work and man, especially the objective and subjective elements of work, the next section looks at the historical conflict between labor and capital. Let’s examine what insights St. John Paul II offers us on this topic.

Labor and Capital: Conflict

St. John Paul II begins the second portion of Laborem Exercens by reaffirming that work, while hard, is good for us, and an integral part of our experience of personhood on earth. Muddying our view of the goodness of work, however, is the conflict throughout history between labor and capital.

As workers put more and more power into the hands of their employers, St. John Paul II explains, employers worked on the principle of creating the maximum profit while paying the lowest wage.  Thus conflict increased and festered between workers and employers, and the modern economy is marked by a tension between labor and capital, as we’ll discuss in more detail later on.

People Over Things

The Catholic Church fervently affirms the priority of labor over capital, of people over things. The means of production, St. John Paul II explains, are instruments or tools. Work can never be reduced to mere technology. These tools are worth nothing without people, the primary efficient cause of work.

In fact, the very beginning of work lies in a mystery: the mystery of creation, of gift! There is a mystery to the reality that we are given the resources of the earth and entrusted by God to “subdue” those resources. The collection of things (machines, technology, etc.) by which man uses natural resources is the result of labor. Man’s hard work and use of intellectual and other resources have created the iPhone, the spaceships, the conveyor belts, and so on. Capital is created by and at the service of labor.

Work can’t be reduced to technology; there is a mystery to the reality that we are given the resources of the earth and entrusted by God to “subdue” those resources.   Click To Tweet

The point is that instruments are only instruments! Capital is always subordinate to people, who are called to use the resources of capital well. We must always give primacy to man over things, because man alone is a person and each person has an incomparable value and intrinsic rights.

Business Connection

This reality is the reason Starbuck International’s former president Howard Behar titled his leadership book, It’s Not about the Coffee. His driving message in the book is that a coffee shop exists by and for people, not vice-versa. “Without people, we have nothing,” Behar wrote. “With people, we have something even bigger than coffee.” This is true not just for coffee shops, but for all businesses.

Economism and Materialism

In his leadership book, Howard Behar recounts walking into a Starbucks’ back room and seeing a sign that read, “Be Nice. Be Fast. Be Clean.” His response was to say sarcastically, “Well that’s really motivational! What about a sign that says, “Be Human?” As Behar’s anecdote hints at, there often seems to be a tense relationship between labor and capital, between treating persons with respect and holding them to high standards of efficiency. In reality, these two are not opposing forces. So, how did the tension arise?

St. John Paul II explains that at some point in history, a break accorded between labor and capital, and the two became set against each other in an “economistic perspective” error. Such an error considers human labor for its economic purpose only. This ideology intentionally or inadvertently prioritizes the material over the spiritual needs of man and meaning of work. It is a kind of materialism, brought on in part by the upheaval of industrialization, and fails to put man first as the subject of work.

The tension between labor and capital that we experience can be eased by keeping in mind the priority of labor. Overcoming materialism requires change in theory and practice, says St. John Paul II, fueled by conviction of the primacy of the person and of human labor over capital. Through a view of work that accounts for more than matter, St. John Paul II says, man enters into and recognizes the wealth of two inheritances: the resources of nature (the inheritance given to all men by God) and the labor of others (the inheritance passed on by others).

Ownership of Property

What about ownership of capital and property? There is a real right to private property, St. John Paul II acknowledges, but it is not absolute. It is subordinate to the truth that goods are ultimately meant for everyone.  So, we must be willing to continually revise capitalism in view of human rights and this universal destination of goods. One possibility for setting up work structures that respect the rights of workers and employers, for example,  is joint-ownership proposals. We should be brainstorming other ideas!  

As we look for practical methods to apply, let’s turn to St. John Paul II’s own words about how to aim for the goal of a just ownership relationship between a worker and his work:

…A way towards that goal could be found by associating labour with the ownership of capital, as far as possible, and by producing a wide range of intermediate bodies with economic, social and cultural purposes; they would be bodies enjoying real autonomy with regard to the public powers, pursuing their specific aims in honest collaboration with each other and in subordination to the demands of the common good, and they would be living communities both in form and in substance, in the sense that the members of each body would be looked upon and treated as persons and encouraged to take an active part in the life of the body.

Work and Personalism

Not too long ago, The New York Times published a great little article on personalism. “Our culture does a pretty good job of ignoring the uniqueness and depth of each person,” it acknowledged, “…evolutionary psychology reduces people to biological drives, capitalism reduces people to economic self-interest, modern Marxism to their class position and multiculturalism to their racial one.” This reductionism modern ideologies tend toward makes it difficult for workers to feel that their personhood is respected.

In Laborem Exercens, St.John Paul II makes an incredibly insightful point about the nature of personhood when he talks about what the worker desires. He desires to be paid fairly, yes, but he also desires something more: to know that, even as he works for something owned in common, “he is working ‘for himself.’

Bureaucracy’s excesses can make a person feel like a mere cog in a machine rather than a creative being endowed with rights and responsibilities to take initiative. This makes it incredibly tough to view other workers in terms of their essential worth as people. The New York Times article put it:

As we go through our busy days it’s normal to want to establish I-It relationships — with the security guard in your building or the office worker down the hall. Life is busy, and sometimes we just need to reduce people to their superficial function… But personalism asks, as much as possible, for I-Thou encounters: that you just don’t regard people as a data point, but as emerging out of the full narrative, and that you try, when you can, to get to know their stories…

The personalistic norm challenges us to reevaluate our societal structures and respect that innate urge in man to work for himself and be free to give himself to others. Finding ways to live personalism in the modern workplace is the most effective way to change the apparent conflict between labor and capital.

Work and Poetry

It is quite apropos that work, which we so often mistakenly dismiss as the bane of existence, has intrigued poets, who have caught glimpses of its deeper meaning. While we began with a poem by Karol Wojityla on work, let’s conclude with W. H. Auden’s “Horae Canonicae:”

You need not see what someone is doing

to know if it is his vocation,

you have only to watch his eyes:
a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon

making a primary incision,
a clerk completing a bill of lading,

wear the same rapt expression,
forgetting themselves in a function.

How beautiful it is,
that eye-on-the-object look.