by Anthony Cooney
Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum was a courageous and radical document precisely because it confronted the conventional wisdom of the nineteenth century – the growing intellectual fact of collectivism and the dominant fact of liberal capitalism. Rerum Novarum made explicit for the first time the alternative of Christendom’s ideal – the free and lawful man living from his own property. This is the core doctrine of Rerum Novarum. “The Church has her negative standards, to fall below which is to fall into sin…but she also has her positive standards, which are very different…therefore, hours of employment, the living wage and housing…have no necessary relations to a discussion of the type of society which the church wants. For nothing is more certain than whatever such a society resembles, it will not resemble tolerability and transition which have been emphasized almost exclusively by commentators and publicists. The very terms of Rerum Novarum make it clear that the Pope envisaged something very much like the ultimate meaning. The encyclical teems with such indications. Thus: ‘A yoke little better than slavery itself…’ Therefore he cannot be alluding chiefly to low wages, but to the essential yoke of capitalism.” [Harold Robbins – ‘The Sun of Justice’ in The Cross and the Plough published by the Catholic Land League].
Forty years after Rerum Novarum Pope Pius XI issued a second social encyclical. Quadragesimo Anno reaffirmed in trenchant terms the Church’s doctrine of private property and repudiated the claims that they were ‘impractical’. The encyclical then discussed developments since Rerum Novarum. In doing so repeating the condemnation of socialism which, following its own internal logic where it led, had regurgitated Marx-Leninism, and of capitalism from which the Managerial Revolution was emerging: “This domination is most powerfully exercised by those who, because they hold and control money, also govern credit and determine its allotment…so that no one can breathe against their will, [para. 106]…a no less noxious and detestable internationalism…in financial affairs, [para 109]”. Quadragesimo Anno also dealt briefly with and warned against the new phenomenon of fascism.
Such is the authority of Rerum Novarum that popes since its publication have felt obliged to follow its pattern of enunciating doctrine and proposing ‘points of tolerability and transition.’ Quadragesimo Anno, although a necessary response to twentieth century developments, also gave rise to the idea that there was a necessity periodically to ‘update’ Rerum Novarum. Such updating can only result in a dilution of the core teaching of Rerum Novarum by an appeasement of current conventional wisdom. This then is the background of Laborem Exercens and it is necessary to understand the background to understand its hybrid character; part thesis enunciating a doctrine, part directive, stating the tolerable minimum conditions of social life. A genuine criticism must being with the fact that it disappoints in its treatment of its titular theme – human work. It disappoints because of an incredible confusion of two concepts, work and employment. If it were not evident that the encyclical is the result of long consideration it might be supposed that this confusion arises from hasty and ill-considered thought. The only explanation for it is that the failure to distinguish between these two things is an appeasement of the conventional wisdom of ‘full employment.’
Now it is true that a more profound and philosophical examination of the mystery of human creativity than was possible at the time of Rerum Novarum is vitally necessary today when the science of cybernetics has outdated the economic concept of ‘employment.’ Here indeed, was a field where it was opportune to update Rerum Novarum and it is tragic that so important a document as Laborem Exercens has fudged the issue. The encyclical starts from the great mystery of human creativity as participation in the Divine activity of creation, which being outside the limitations of time and space, is both complete and continuing: “My Father worketh until now, and I work.” This participation of Man in the activity of creation is ordained by the Divine command “Subdue the earth.’ Since wasps, bees, ants and spiders manifestly ‘work’ the Divine decree must refer to Work of a different order, to the creative work by which Man’s purpose, the focus of his becoming, is incarnated, first in a body, and then in the artifacts and processes by which he extends his purpose through matter and time in the ordering, (subduing) of his environment. This is a sublime concept, loftier than Rerum Novarum’s insistence upon dignity of work. However, the Pope also appeals to the words “By the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat thy bread” to justify the arguments that subsistence work is imposed upon man by Divine decree. This indeed may be the case, but it is not a case which is evident from the texts appealed to. The command to “subdue the earth” is given before the Fall and is part of a blessing. The words “By the sweat of thy brow…” are spoken after the Fall and is part of a curse. Now it so happens that Pope Pius XII has illumined our understanding of this curse. In commending the work in the field of painless childbirth of Grantly Dick Ried, Pope Pius XII made clear that the words “in sorrow and in pain…” were not a malediction but a prophesy – God was saying that this would be the result of sin. But the words “in sorrow and in pain…” are part of the same utterance as “By the sweat of thy brow…” and therefore these words must also be prophetic and not maledictory – it is the fruits of sin, human avarice and greed which impose greater than necessary subsistence work upon man. As the encyclical closely relates subsistence work (“by the sweat of thy brow”) with the Fall, it is valid to draw a comparison between the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin as a flaw in human nature and the Calvinist doctrine of Original Sin as the total depravity of Man. In the same way a Catholic doctrine of work must distinguish between the sufficient penalty – “the sweat of thy brow” – imposed by nature upon fallen man in return for subsistence, and the Protestant “work ethic” which is a contributory source of capitalism. This the encyclical does not appear to do.
The confusion of these two sorts of work, work as spiritual expression, whether in the building of a house, the cultivation of a garden or the making of a song, and work for subsistence, is the source of the appeasement of the conventional wisdom of ‘full employment.’ However, we must at this point remember what was remarked about Rerum Novarum that it states negative as well as positive standards. Laborem Exercens does, in fact, make the point that ‘employment’ is the conventional means by which men exercise work and restore subsistence: it is concerned therefore to deal with the tolerable and immediate conditions thus created. Unfortunately, as with Rerum Novarum, it is this aspect which has already been seized upon by ecelesial publicists, both clerical and lay. An outstanding example of this is the press misrepresentation of the encyclical as citing ‘Christ the Worker.’ The phrase ‘the workers’ has gathered accredtions of Marxist meaning which make it mean something utterly different to ‘working men.’ Yet it is precisely the latter phrase which the encyclical uses in teaching a ‘spirituality of work’ – “Therefore this was also the gospel of work because He who proclaimed it was Himself a man of work, a craftsman like Joseph of Nazareth.” Christ worked, yes, but as a master-craftsman, a proprietor. If Christ is to be taken as a social model, He is the model of Rerum Novarum’s ideal – the skilled craftsman, master of his own work through ownership of small property.
Considered from a materialist point of view – and the concept of ‘employment’ is purely and entirely materialist – there is nothing dignified about such industrial work. Only the ‘spirituality of work’ called for in the encyclical, can in fact dignify subsistence work, but it is the work which is dignified by the person, not the toil which dignifies. ‘Employment’ in contrast is a social convention, not a Divine decree. If we were to use short words we would not be deceived for a moment: when we speak of employment we in fact mean wage service. Employment is simply a constraint to toil: to do that which we would not do if we had a choice. In a cybernetic economy it has almost nothing to do with Man as ‘the subject of work,’ it is simply a political device for distributing purchasing power.
Pope John Paul II emphasizes that Laborem Exercens is not intended to touch upon all the aspects of social doctrine covered in Rerum Novarum, but to highlight the doctrine of work as “A key, possibly the essential key, to the whole social question.” This response has, therefore, concentrated only upon what the encyclical teaches about the nature of work and upon the unfortunate confusion of work with ‘employment.’ Because of the limitations of space, what may be thought as of as the encyclical’s treatment of exigencies - migrant workers, socialization, etc. – has been left aside, though not because there is not an abundance of comparative material to be set against them. Part of the problem in responding to the encyclical is meaning derived from Phenomenology, a new school of philosophy to those whose acquaintance is with Scholasticism. This is especially contrast to the false notions of Marxism and Economism of man as the “object of work.” A matter of particular regret is that the Pope leaves out altogether any consideration of the nature and origin of money; yet surely the monetary system is the key to the “exigencies” the Pope deals with exist solely in monetary unreality. When, however, the exigencies have been distinguished and the phenomenological terms translated, what indeed emerges is a re-affirmation with development, of the Catholic doctrine familiar to any distributist, which might be summarised as follows:
1. The making of things is not solely an economic activity, but a human activity; that there exists an organic relationship between the maker and the object, and the organization of production must be based upon this fact.
2. That men are socialised by their family and national community into their human identity, and the nation therefore constitutes the natural unit of mankind.