ROME — For more than 130 years, popes have considered work, the treatment of workers and the creation of jobs to be a religious and moral issue.
And while Pope Francis has not written an encyclical dedicated to labor like Pope Leo XIII did in 1891 and St. John Paul II did in 1981, he has ensured that workers and their jobs stay at the center of the church’s concern.
At his weekly general audience Jan. 12, Pope Francis asked visitors and pilgrims to join him in a moment of silent prayer for men and women who are “desperate because they cannot find work.”
While headlines in the United States continue to look at how some businesses are scrambling to find new hires and how the COVID-19 pandemic led many people to reduce their hours in search of a better work-life balance or gave them the power to demand better pay and working conditions, the experience is far from universal, and Pope Francis knows that.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Jan. 7 that the unemployment rate in the United States was 3.9 percent. In contrast, the Italian government’s National Statistical Institute reported Jan. 10 that Italy had an employment rate of 9.2 percent. The same day, Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics office, reported an unemployment rate across the EU of 7.2 percent, but noted that in Spain the rate was 14.1 percent and Greece was experiencing a 13.4 percent unemployment rate. Italy had the third-highest percentage of people ready to work and actively seeking a job, but without success.
In his series of general audience talks about St. Joseph, Pope Francis gave a quick primer on why work itself is a religious topic and why the church’s concern extends beyond charity for those without work.
“Work is an essential component of human life, and even of the path of sanctification,” the pope said Jan. 12. “Work is not only a means of earning a living, it is also a place where we express ourselves, feel useful and learn the great lesson of concreteness, which helps keep the spiritual life from becoming spiritualism.”
Work, he said, “is a way of expressing our personality, which is relational by its nature. And, too, work is a way to express our creativity; each one of us works in our own way, with our own style: the same work but with different styles.
And that was not the pope’s only comment about the dignity and importance of work that day.
The Vatican COVID-19 Commission and Deloitte, a multinational professional services network, gathered academics and leaders in the fields of business, finance and development economics Jan. 12 to discuss “Preparing the future, building a sustainable, inclusive, regenerative economy.”
In a message to participants, Pope Francis asked them to bypass “declarations of intent or messages about grand principles,” and instead “to make concrete commitments, to do your part so that the economy and finance are at the service of people and our Mother Earth.”
“May your measures of success not be profits, expansion and short-term and shortest-term returns,” he said. “Instead, may the measure be the number of people who move out of extreme poverty, who can work decently. Is it so difficult to assure the conditions whereby everyone can contribute to transforming the world with their work?”
His words illustrated a point made by Anna Rowlands, professor of Catholic social thought and practice at the University of Durham, England, in her new book on Catholic social teaching, “Towards a Politics of Communion.”
St. John Paul’s 1981 encyclical on work, “Laborem Exercens,” Rowlands wrote, “extended rather than simply repeated” the teaching of Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical on labor and capital, particularly on the fundamental points that “work is made for the human person and not the human person for work, and that labor always has a value and priority over capital.”
One of the ways Pope Francis builds on the teaching of his predecessors, she said, is in developing the relationship between work and “social dialogue.” In other words, “work is the key to how we become involved in a meaningful social dialogue. The absence of work is therefore not merely an affront to dignity and self-determination as well as creativity but also frustrates social dialogue and exchange.”
“Work is a religious issue because we are social creatures, hard-wired to communicate, exchange, labor and shape the world around us,” Rowlands told Catholic News Service Jan. 13.
“In an important sense, we become who we are through what we do,” she said. “We seek ways to contribute, plan for the future and encounter those who are not ourselves. We also live in a world where, for many, paid work is simply a necessity, therefore the condition of that work — that it is meaningful, dignified, fairly paid, non-exploitative — is vital.”
In his encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis had insisted: “In a genuinely developed society, work is an essential dimension of social life, for it is not only a means of earning one’s daily bread, but also of personal growth, the building of healthy relationships, self-expression and the exchange of gifts. Work gives us a sense of shared responsibility for the development of the world, and ultimately, for our life as a people.”
Work brings people together.