Pope St John Paul II published his encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work), on the ninetieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum (1891). He defined work as “any activity by man, whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances.” Work, then, has two dimensions: the subjective dimension, that is, those who engage in work; and the objective dimension, which is the type of work in which people engage. Pope St John Paul II outlines in his letter the principles by which the dignity of the worker is celebrated. One key principle is “the concrete reality of the worker, takes precedence over the objective dimension” (LE, 10). One aspect of the reality of the worker is the dominance of the objective dimension of work, thereby “depriving man of his dignity and inalienable rights or reducing them”.
Fr Joseph Cardijn was a priest and a sociologist. He gathered evidence of the imbalance between the subjective and objective dimensions of work. The romantic in me wants to create an image of Cardijn and Wojtyla swapping notes on this aspect of the mission of the Church in the shadows of Vatican II. Cardijn gave a series of lectures in 1948 around the theme of “the hour of the working class” and in his second lecture, he gives the theological justification for the development of a movement to promote the dignity and rights of all workers. He said: “We cannot respect God, if we do not respect the working men and women who are made in His image, because they are sacred like God Himself. Woe to those who misuse a working man or woman: They are misusing God.” So from his perspective, and also from St John Paul II’s perspective, the Church needs people working together – the Pope called them “movements of solidarity” (LE, 8) – to help workers recognise, accept and celebrate their reality as children of God.
It is clear from the problems in society that there is an imbalance between the first and second dimensions of work. It is as if people no longer believe in the divine mission of all workers. The movement founded by Cardijn, which many refer to as the YCW, existed to lead workers to a realisation of their divine mission. The Gospel reading for Friday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time is pertinent to this reflection. Mark gives an account of Jesus summoning those he wanted to help him with his mission to preach and to heal (Mark 3:13-19). Mark tells us that “he appointed twelve; they were to be his companions …” We know these twelve as the apostles, the ones who were sent out into the world (with the exception of Judas who betrayed Jesus). In the twentieth century, Cardijn referred to the leaders in the movement he founded for young workers as “working-class apostles.” What is there to stop us from thinking of young workers today as potentially apostles to those who work.
The work of preparing for the coming of God’s kingdom, involves restoring the balance between the subjective dimension and the objective dimension of work. There are so many areas of work in society where the imbalance exists, that choosing an action towards bringing about change seems overwhelming. But God does not accept that the change is impossible, because the change represents the triumph of good over evil. Therefore, to ensure that even the smallest action towards restoring the balance needs to be carried out with the support of others.
Greg Lopez and Pat Branson
Joseph Cardijn, The hour of the working class – Lecture 2 – The Church and the workers. Joseph Cardijn Digital Library.
Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) Poverty in Australia (2022)
Mass Readings 20 January 2023 (USCCB)