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Toward a Global Common Good

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin Marks "Laborem Exercens" Anniversary

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania, OCT. 9, 2006 (Zenit) - Here is the text of the keynote address given by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin at Villanova University on Sept. 25, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the encyclical "Laborem Exercens."

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Catholic Social Teaching and Human Work
By Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin

Work is at the center of the Church's reflection on human identity and activity. When the dignity of the person fades from its central position in the realities of work, then upheavals and insecurity inevitably emerge in society. Each generation then must address the challenge of how the centrality the human person in the world of work is respected within the changing and ever complex situation of its time.

This applies also to us in our era of globalization. Globalization, one can say, faces us with "new developments in industry, new techniques striking out new paths, changed relations of employer and employee, abounding wealth among a very small number and destitution among the masses."[1] These are appropriate words, but you may be surprised that I take them from the very first paragraph of "Rerum Novarum." They were written in 1891 in the context of the industrial revolution. They serve to remind us that each generation is faced with a similar challenge in its efforts to evaluate how developments in industry and technology affect "the condition of workers."

When we celebrate the anniversary of "Laborem Exercens" we are celebrating also the anniversary of "Rerum Novarum" and of that series of great social encyclicals which have been written to commemorate the groundbreaking encyclical of Leo XIII which gave rise to the modern era of Catholic social teaching.

The centrality of work

"Laborem Exercens" was the first of three social encyclicals of Pope John Paul II. It was written at a crucial time in modern history, at the beginnings of a process which would eventually lead to the fall of the Eastern European communist systems. Ten years later, Pope John Paul in his later encyclical "Centesimus Annus" could say: "the fundamental crisis of the systems claiming to express the rule and even the dictatorship of the working classes began with the great upheavals which took place in Poland in the name of solidarity. It was the throngs of working people which foreswore the ideology which presumed to speak in their name."[2]

The context in which "Laborem Exercens" was written then was that of the emerging crisis of the Communist systems in Central and Eastern Europe and the foresight of Pope John Paul II who more than most understood just how that system had failed to recognize the dignity of work. From concrete experience he was acutely aware that any form of materialism or economic system that tries to reduce the worker to being a mere instrument of production, a simple labor force with an exclusively material value, inevitably ends up distorting the essence of work and the social fabric itself.

Catholic social teaching has always stressed the fact that "work, because of its subjective or personal character, is superior to every other factor connected with productivity; this principle applies, in particular, with regard to capital."[3]

A key tenet of "Laborem Exercens"[4] in its analysis of the priority of labor over capital is its affirmation that human work has a twofold significance: objective and subjective.

In the objective sense, work is the sum of activities, resources, instruments and technologies used by persons to produce things, to exercise responsible dominion over the earth, in the words of the Book of Genesis.

In the subjective sense, work is the activity of the human person as a dynamic being capable of acting in ways which correspond to the specific vocation of the human person. "Laborem Exercens" notes that "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."[5]

According to Pope John Paul, work in the objective sense constitutes the contingent aspect of human activity, which constantly varies in its expressions according to the changing technological, cultural, social and political conditions. On the other hand, work in the subjective sense represents its stable dimension, since it does not depend on what people produce or on the type of activity they undertake, but only and exclusively on their dignity as human beings.

The Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church stresses then that "This subjectivity gives to work its particular dignity, which does not allow that it be ...

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