The Dignity of Labor

The Catholic Church released the first papal encyclical in 1891 called “Rerum Novarum” meaning “Of New Things,” subtitled “On Conditions of Labor.” Working conditions of the time were difficult- low pay, a surplus of workers for the amount of unskilled labor jobs meant workers were easily replaced. All of this made competition for jobs fierce and life oppressive. For many families all members worked in industrial factories, on the docks, and as domestic servants. In the encyclical Pope Leo XIII articulated the Catholic Church’s response to the intense social conflict that had risen in the wake of capitalism and industrialization and that had led to the rise of socialism and communism as ideologies. Since then the Church has consistently raised her voice to defend and stand up for her children. The following are pieces of the Church’s wisdom for the world about the dignity of man and dignity of the work he does.

Rerum Novarum (Leo XIII)

” The following duties bind the wealthy owner and the employer: not to look upon their work people as their bondsmen, but to respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character…according to natural reason and Christian philosophy, working for gain is creditable, not shameful, to a man, since it enables him to earn an honorable livelihood but to misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain, or to value them solely for their physical powers – that is truly shameful and inhuman. Again justice demands that, in dealing with the working man, religion and the good of his soul must be kept in mind. Hence, the employer is bound to see that the worker has time for his religious duties; that he be not exposed to corrupting influences and dangerous occasions; and that he be not led away to neglect his home and family, or to squander his earnings. ” #20

Octogesima Adveniens (Paul VI)

(An encyclical on the 80th anniversary of Rerum Novarum).

“As the Church solemnly reaffirmed in the  recent Council, “the beginning, the subject and the goal of all social  institutions is and must be the human person.”   All people have the  right to work, to a chance to develop their qualities and their personalities in  the exercise of their professions, to equitable remuneration which will enable  them and their families “to lead a worthy life on the material, social,  cultural and spiritual level” and to assistance in case of need arising from sickness or age.” #14

Laborem Exercens (John Paul II)

“Work is, as has been said, an obligation, that is  to say, a duty, on the part of man. . . Man must work, both because the  Creator has commanded it and because of his own humanity, which requires work  in order to be maintained and developed. Man must work out of regard for  others, especially his own family, but also for the society he belongs to, the  country of which he is a child, and the whole human family of which he is a  member, since he is the heir to the work of generations and at the same time a  sharer in building the future of those who will come after him in the  succession of history.” #16

Centesimus Annus (John Paul II)

“The  obligation to earn one’s bread by the sweat of one’s brow also presumes the  right to do so. A society in which this right is systematically denied, in  which economic policies do not allow workers to reach satisfactory levels of  employment, cannot be justified from an ethical point of view, nor can that  society attain social peace.” #43

Caritas in Veritate (Benedict XVI)

“The economic sphere is neither  ethically neutral, or inherently inhuman or opposed to society. It is part and  parcel of human activity and precisely because it is human, it must be  structured and governed in an ethical manner.” #36

Laudato Si (Francis)

“Work should be the setting for this rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, giving glory to God. It follows that, in the reality of today’s global society, it is essential that “we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone,” no matter the limited interests of business and dubious economic reasoning. We were created with a vocation to work. The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work.” #127-128


Edsaille, R. (n.d.). 2,000 Years of Catholic Ethics . Retrieved from

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