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Chapter 10: Work, Subhuman Realities, and Property

Question A: What Are One’s Responsibilities with Respect to Work?

Some good human activities are done for their own sakes: worship, play, friendly conversation, and so on. Most others develop those who engage in them while bringing about some ulterior good result. Work here refers to any human activity—paid or unpaid, in the home or outside it, manual or intellectual—chosen and carried out at least partly for the sake of some good result beyond the activity itself. Thus, work includes the activity of civil servants, soldiers, priests, and educators; of property owners improving and maintaining property, homemakers, and parents caring for children; of Peace Corps volunteers helping people in less developed nations; as well as of people making their living. But work does not include recreational activities insofar as these are done for their own sake, nor does it include physical exercise done solely for self-development rather than partly or wholly for some good result beyond the acting person.

Much work is done as a contribution to a community’s cooperative pursuit of some common good. Family members do some or most of their work not only for the family but within the household. In contemporary society, most people do much of their work in some kind of voluntary association, that is, as contractors with customers, as professionals with clients, or as employees of a business, a nonprofit organization, a governmental unit (which forms a voluntary association with its employees), or some other employer. Of course, all the responsibilities pertaining to activities in voluntary associations (treated in 7.D.1–2) apply to work done in such a context.

Here it remains to treat a few specific responsibilities which apply to work in general and a number of others applying to work done for remuneration: the responsibilities of workers to employers and others, of employers to employees, and of associations of workers. To understand these responsibilities adequately, however, the nature and ultimate significance of work must first be considered.

1. Responsibilities in Respect to Work Have a Theological Basis

The book of Genesis provides the theological foundation of all human responsibilities regarding work. Since God creates humans in his own image and likeness (Gn 1.27), they are to share in his own creative work by procreating offspring and ruling subpersonal creation: “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’ ” (Gn 1.28; cf. Ps 8.5–8, Sir 17.1–4). Therefore, human persons should work because they are called to share in God’s activity and continue his work of creation (see GS 34).2

All specific responsibilities in respect to work are grounded in the several basic human goods for which persons act in response to God’s calling to take dominion over material creation and cooperate with him in carrying on his creative and redemptive work.3 The relevant goods are not only human persons’ very survival and well-being, mutual service, and service to God, but their self-realization as acting persons, which includes both the fulfillment through good work of the skillful and careful worker and the moral goodness of the person who works justly and lovingly.

Despite the intrinsic value of work and its importance in human life as a whole, persons unable to work nevertheless retain their dignity and can live worthy and holy lives.

a) Work is a basic human good. Many people, especially those whose lives are dominated by consumerism or whose work is onerous, regard work as a necessary evil, something which must be done to get the money required either to obtain what they want or to meet genuine needs (genuine needs is clarified in E.1.b, below). Those who take this view of work empty a large part of their lives—the whole part devoted to work—of its intrinsic meaning. Even though most people rightly work to earn a living, nobody should regard work as a necessary evil, because work and play together constitute a category of basic human good (see CMP, 5.D). Work, therefore, need not be a mere means to other ends; in and of itself, it can and should fulfill the worker.

It is easy to see that play activities, which often are chosen for their own sake, in and of themselves fulfill persons. One might suppose that play is intrinsically fulfilling because immediately gratifying, but that misses the point: authentic play is enjoyable because it employs a person’s or a group’s capacities and skills in doing something which meets some standard of execution and accomplishment. But because work always is directed at least in part to some result beyond the activity itself, people less easily see that in and of itself work fulfills persons. However, it can do that insofar as it realizes the human capacities, special gifts, and acquired skills of persons in performances meeting standards. Workers intend this good when they seek to be good at what they do; sharing in this good, they take satisfaction in their work.

b) In working, people should realize themselves as acting persons. Since work is a basic human good, people also realize themselves while they carry out God’s command to subdue the earth (see GS 35). Therefore, quite apart from the economic and other objective values of its product or service, all work should be recognized by workers and others as having a personal good as its intrinsic and most immediate value, and in that sense its primary value:

The primary basis of the value of work is man himself, who is its subject. This leads immediately to a very important conclusion of an ethical nature: However true it may be that man is destined for work and called to it, in the first place work is “for man” and not man “for work.” Through this conclusion one rightly comes to recognize the pre-eminence of the subjective meaning of work over the objective one. Given this way of understanding things and presupposing that different sorts of work that people do can have greater or lesser objective value, let us try nevertheless to show that each sort is judged above all by the measure of the dignity of the subject of work, that is to say, the person, the individual who carries it out.4
Most people do not hold prestigious jobs, and many take little or no satisfaction in their work. But every worker should appreciate the value of his or her own work and take satisfaction in it, since “the basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done, but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person.”5

c) One should work for survival and mutual service. Of course, Christians also should work because work generally is necessary for survival and well-being, and one should do what one can to take care of oneself (see 1 Thes 4.10–12, 2 Thes 3.10, Ti 3.14; cf. S.t., 2–2, q. 187, a. 3). Moreover, most workers support or contribute to the support of others, and one also should work in order to have something to share with the needy (see Acts 20.34–35). Furthermore, in a complex and highly organized economy, much work provides goods and services to others in exchange for payment. Justice and love therefore require that people shape their work in view of others’ true goods.6

d) Christians should work to carry on Jesus’ redemptive work. A Christian should undertake work as an important part of his or her personal vocation (see 2.E.2.a). Integrated with the commitment of faith and implementing the responsibility of apostolate, work thus becomes cooperation in Jesus’ redemptive work, to be offered to God as an important part of one’s self-oblation in communion with Jesus. By working, Christians in many ways both sanctify themselves and make amends for sin. Engrossing work forestalls temptations arising from idleness; hard work chastises the flesh; cooperating with others and meeting their requirements develop meekness and obedience; problems with work and unemployment are occasions for humility, prayer, and trust in God’s providence.

Although work not only serves other basic human goods but is self-realizing, in the fallen human condition it often is burdensome: it tends to become toil. This is true not only of hard labor, but of much other work, for example, jobs reluctantly accepted, boring jobs, work which must satisfy an overly demanding employer or client, and work done under adverse conditions. Without negating work’s inherent value, its toilsome character often makes it repugnant. Nevertheless, considered in the perspective of the redemptive significance of all work carried out in accord with one’s Christian vocation, this toilsome aspect takes on the meaning of Jesus’ cross.7 And someone who shares in Jesus’ cross by his or her work also will share by it in his resurrection, since work and its good results are materials for the heavenly kingdom, in which all the good fruits of human nature and of the efforts of those who are faithful will be found again, purified and glorified (see GS 38–39).8

e) Those who cannot work can live worthwhile lives. There are so many kinds of work that most people, however handicapped or debilitated, can make some good use of their limited gifts or residual powers. Still, some people—very small children, the severely retarded and demented, those suffering from grave illnesses, the elderly at some point—are unable to work. Because work is so important a part of life, people easily overvalue its significance, and so fail to appreciate the inherent dignity of those who cannot work, while overlooking the ways in which they still can carry on personally fulfilling and socially valuable activities.

Work is for persons, not persons for work; and people who simply cannot work, fully retain their personal dignity. Those temporarily or permanently unable to work should not feel worthless, but should accept this element of their vocation with resignation. By prayer and by showing their appreciation for the care they receive from others, they still can grow in holiness and benefit others.

2. Workers Have Responsibilities toward Employers and Others

Whether employed by others or not, Christians should regard work as an important part of their apostolate, and all workers should try to do good work. Employers are due obedience and loyalty, and workers should treat their co-workers fairly and mercifully. Fairness also sets a limit to how much pay a worker may demand, while mercy can call for doing unpaid work.

a) One’s work should be a major part of one’s apostolate. Since work is an important element of personal vocation, all the responsibilities in respect to personal vocation (treated in 3.E) come to bear on one’s working life.9 Thus, people have apostolic responsibilities toward the wider community and their fellow workers not only when deciding what kind of work to do or whether to accept a particular job, but also in their conduct as workers. A Christian should strive always to work and to act in work situations in a way which manifests God’s truth and love revealed in Jesus; when occasion offers, he or she should bear explicit witness to faith.

Above all, it should be kept in mind that ultimately work can provide good material for the heavenly kingdom (see GS 38–39). People who fail to regard their work as part of their vocation lose an important opportunity to give this dimension of life its richest meaning.

b) Workers always should try to do good work. Various motives sometimes lead workers purposely to do poor work or, at least, not to try to do their best. They may dislike their jobs because they are inherently hard or boring, or not fully suited to their abilities and interests, or involve difficult working conditions. Sometimes, too, they dislike their employers, superiors, or clients, who are unfair, too exacting, or personally disagreeable. Despite all such adverse motives, there are several reasons why workers should set and try to meet high standards for themselves.

In the first place, because work pertains to one’s vocation, faithfulness in doing it is service to God. Every Christian worker should apply to himself or herself the New Testament’s catechesis to slaves: “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ” (Col 3.23–24; cf. Eph 6.7–8).

Besides, since all work not only brings about some valuable result beyond itself but realizes the capacities of those who do it, workers harm themselves by not trying to do good work. They should cultivate their skills and be industrious for the sake of their own self-realization as acting persons. Work also can be offered as penance, especially if it is good work done despite motives for not doing it or not doing it so well. Sharing in this way in Jesus’ cross, workers can integrate their working lives with faith and love, and so grow in holiness.

Moreover, since almost all work provides products or services for other people, fairness requires that workers serve others as everyone wishes to be served. Despite contrary motives, they should try to provide a good product or service. For example, a teacher harried by an incompetent principal should try to do a good job for the students’ sake; an automobile assembly-line worker bored with the job should try to do it well for the eventual drivers’ sake. Christian mercy, furthermore, requires that workers try to do good work for the sake of others even if they suffer serious injustices.

c) Workers should work steadily during working hours. Many people, whether employees or not, commit themselves to a certain schedule for work but fail to fulfill it. They begin late and quit early, take extra time off for rest periods and meals, socialize excessively during working hours, purposely work more slowly than is reasonable, shirk the work to which they have committed themselves while occupying themselves with other work, and so on. Such practices are a serious waste of time for any worker, and for employees, they usually are a serious injustice to the employer.

While this matter admits of parvity, employees should not gauge their responsibility by any lax standard set by what their co-workers do, but by the reasons, already stated, why workers should strive to meet high standards for their personal performance as well as by putting themselves in the employer’s place and applying the Golden Rule.

d) Workers should obey and be loyal to employers. Workers should respect the authority of employers and obey them—of course, within the usual limits of the responsibility to obey (see 7.E.3–4). Obedience does not mean grudgingly doing the minimum required, but trying to understand and carry out the employer’s or supervisor’s intentions and plans for the work to be done.

Employees also should take care to fulfill their responsibilities with respect to keeping promises and secrets. Insofar as employers are generous, going beyond the requirements of justice in their dealings with employees, employees should show gratitude, especially by loyally supporting their employers in hard times. Workers hired, trained, and treated well by a conscientious employer should not change jobs for the sake of the advantages which another employer is able to provide by evading responsibilities toward other actual and potential workers.

e) Workers should treat their fellow workers fairly and mercifully. The responsibilities which fellow members of a voluntary association have toward one another apply when people work together. Each should do his or her part, not shirk it and impose added burdens on others. People should take credit only for their own work and accept responsibility for their mistakes, rather than claiming credit for others’ work and blaming them for their own mistakes. Of course, disputes about such matters are nearly inevitable, and Christians should act mercifully, making concessions when possible and not being fussy about their rights.

Moreover, when opportunities for work are limited, mercy favors generosity in sharing them with others—co-workers or potential employees—who otherwise will suffer from lack of work. For example, workers who do not need more money but whose seniority gives them priority for working overtime rightly forgo the extra work if needier workers will benefit. Again, when their jobs are needed by others, workers who can afford it should consider taking early retirement and using their talents, time, and energy in response to some other, perhaps entirely new, element of their vocation.

f) Workers should support co-workers’ just demands. Since individual workers often are vulnerable to injustice, workers’ solidarity is important. Workers who benefit from worker solidarity but selfishly refuse to contribute to it do grave injustice to their fellows. Therefore, workers should join—or, if necessary, help to establish—a sound union or other workers’ association and actively participate in it. They also have a special obligation to stand by others who are unjustly treated and to support their struggle for justice. Thus, workers usually should respect picket lines and not replace others who are on strike.

Two situations, however, justify making an exception.

(i) While workers should begin by presuming that others’ strikes are just—a presumption usually hard to overcome due to the complexity of most situations in which a strike occurs—they should not support a particular strike if careful examination of the issues convinces them that it is more likely unjust than just. Under the same condition, those in need of work may accept an offer to replace the strikers.

(ii) When solidarity with presumably justly striking workers would impose very great burdens on an individual because of his or her extreme and urgent need, the Golden Rule can permit the individual to cross the picket line (for example, to obtain a vital product or service otherwise unavailable) or even to replace a striking worker (for example, to obtain the means necessary for survival, when the strikers have other alternatives).

The responsibilities of worker solidarity extend not only to fellow workers in one’s own country, but to those in less affluent nations.

g) Workers should not seek unfairly high payment for their work. Just as workers sometimes are compelled by their needs to accept inadequate wages and other unfair terms, so they sometimes take advantage of others’ needs and seek excessive payment for their work. Sometimes the unfairness is obvious—for example, when a disaster occurs and people with needed tools and/or skills overcharge for their desperately needed work—but often it is more subtle.

With work bought and sold like any other commodity and some salaries and fees driven up by market rigging and monopolistic structures, some people (for example, some executives, physicians, and lawyers) whose work is intrinsically rewarding are paid many times more than others (for example, clerks and typists, food-service and sanitation workers, police officers and taxi drivers) whose socially necessary work is boring, onerous, or even dangerous. The difference may in part have legitimate bases, such as costs of education, career uncertainties, and business expenses; but much of it plainly results from the working of employment markets, often within a framework of structural injustices, such as arbitrary limits on access to professional training and discrimination which excludes some able individuals from competing for certain positions. Professionals and others with high earnings might argue that their incomes are not excessive by comparison with the incomes of certain other people whose work yields little or nothing of real human worth. But the compensation lavished on these latter hardly sets a just standard.10

Thus, workers should seek only fair remuneration. They deserve compensation proportionate to the economic contribution their work makes, provided that contribution is evaluated by a just standard: the furthering of true human goods through cooperation in a justly structured economy.11 By this standard, workers rightly seek payment sufficient to support themselves and their families (see 3.f–g, below), and are entitled to compensation for overhead, costs of employment, investment in education or training, use of their own tools and supplies, and so on. Moreover, those whose work is unusually onerous or dangerous deserve correspondingly high compensation.

h) Free service to the needy does not justify overcharging others. In some cases, structural injustices set a scale of fees or salaries above the level which would obtain in a just economic order. Individuals then may accept the usual and customary payment for their service or product from employers, clients, or customers entirely able and willing to pay; but they should redress the balance toward those adversely affected by the structural injustices, for example, by working without charge for those who cannot pay or transferring excess income to people who are in need.

But when some employers, clients, or customers are able and willing to pay only what is just, people charging unjustly high rates for their services or products may not justify that by pointing to the “charity” (or “pro bono”) work they also do. Granting (for the sake of argument) that they are doing many works of mercy, those works do not justify charging others rates higher than otherwise justified, since nobody can be charitable at the expense of others.

i) Christians sometimes should do work for those who cannot pay. People who can earn an adequate income without using all the time and energy which might reasonably be devoted to work have the capacity to do additional work, either of the same kind or some other kind. Justice or mercy can then require that they use their surplus capacity for work by serving without charge those in need who cannot pay. Leo XIII teaches:

Whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and material, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ them, as the steward of God’s providence, for the benefit of others. “He that hath a talent,” said St. Gregory the Great, “let him see that he hide it not; he that hath abundance, let him quicken himself to mercy and generosity; he that hath art and skill, let him do his best to share the use and the utility hereof with his neighbor.”12
Of course, the specification of this responsibility is complex. Having conscientiously considered whether one has surplus capacity with which to meet real need, one sometimes may correctly judge that one’s Christian responsibility lies elsewhere (see S.t., 2–2, q. 71, a. 1). But if the conclusion is that one has a responsibility to do work for someone who cannot pay, doing so is not merely optional. Even if it is a call of mercy rather than a demand of strict justice, one should respond, since mercy is the justice of the kingdom (see 6.F.4).

3. Employers Have Responsibilities toward Workers

Employers here refers not only to those who put others to work for wages or salary but those who engage professionals for their services or arrange with independent contractors to obtain their work or products. Moreover, those who substantially influence the conditions of employment in the interests of anyone other than employees share in an employer’s responsibilities; they can be called “indirect employers.”13

a) Employers should recognize the priority of work over capital. John Paul II teaches that work has priority over capital, that is, the whole collection of means of production, including the natural resources provided by God’s gift as well as the processed materials and tools provided by previous human work. For work has personal dignity, while capital, considered as such (rather than as the embodiment of previous work), has only the value of material things. Moreover, work is the principal efficient cause of valuable results, while capital is only an instrumental and material cause. Thus, employers should not regard work as a mere part of their capital resources, another instrument which they purchase or rent, and use for their own purpose.14

Failure to recognize the priority of work leads to the practical error of evaluating it solely by the economic value of its results, an error John Paul II calls “economism.”15 Common to both laissez faire capitalism and socialism, economism at least implicitly includes a practical materialism: the belief that material realities may be given priority and superiority over spiritual and personal ones. This error leads employers who own or control the material means of production to treat work as a mere commodity, to be purchased at the lowest possible price, and to deal with employees as mere means to the employers’ own ends: increasing profits by maximizing production and minimizing costs, and/or expanding a nation’s economy. Plainly, this prevents employees from being associates in a common effort, and it frequently leads employers to the systematic abuse of their authority, to low wages, long hours, and bad working conditions.

b) Employers’ authority is to be used for the common good. The common good of employers and employees is justice in their relationship and the value of the work done. The value of the work is divided and shared. The employer’s share and proper good is the work’s result: the thing produced or service rendered. The employee’s share is self-realization in the work and just compensation for it. Since the work must be ordered to its result, which is the employer’s proper good, he or she has authority to choose the result to be sought. Moreover, if employers are capable of it, they have the right to choose among the morally acceptable and technically feasible means available for bringing about the result they seek, and to direct the employee in using those means. But, like all authority (as distinct from mere power over others), the authority of employers is limited by its purpose and should be exercised for the common good: the value for all concerned of the work to be done and justice in the relationship.

c) Employers should treat employees as associates. Since employers and employees enjoy equal personal dignity, employers should care about their employees as persons and not treat them merely as means of obtaining the results of their work. Specifically, since the authority of employers is limited and exists to serve the common good, they should not treat employees like part-time slaves or mere means to the production of goods and services. Insofar as possible, they should help employees understand the significance of their work, the result they are to bring about, and the reasons for using particular means, so that, to the degree practicable, employees can direct their own work. Since self-directing workers are likely to be more energetic and efficient, employers taking this approach also usually benefit.

Moreover, employers should provide employees with appropriate ways of sharing in the management of the common enterprise:

 In economic enterprises it is persons who work together, that is, free and independent human beings created to the image of God. Therefore, with due regard to the functions of each—owner, contractor, manager, or worker—and while maintaining the necessary unity of direction, the active participation of everyone in the running of an enterprise should be promoted [note omitted]. (GS 68).16
At a minimum, employers should welcome employees’ suggestions, especially about problems connected with their work, and consult them before making decisions affecting the common enterprise. In treating employees as true associates in the common effort, employers act not only in accord with employees’ dignity, but with the value which work should have for them insofar as it is self-realizing. Employees whose dignity is fully respected also are more likely to do good work and less likely to be tempted to evade their responsibilities, with obvious benefits not only to the employer but to others whom the work serves.

d) Employers can abuse their authority in various ways. While employers always have the right to determine the result to be brought about by work, and sometimes to choose among technically feasible means and direct their use, they never should demand that workers compromise sound and relevant standards for doing good work. The temptation does arise. For example, the manager of an automobile service department might order the mechanics to finish jobs so quickly that they cannot be done well. Apart from the injustice to customers, the manager’s order is a grave abuse of managerial authority inasmuch as it requires the mechanics to compromise their standards, thus depriving them of part of their proper good as employees: their fulfillment in doing good work.

Employers can take a legitimate interest in employees’ activities outside working hours insofar as these significantly impact on performance at work or otherwise tend to harm the employer. Sometimes, though, employers exceed their authority by demanding that employees entirely subordinate their other activities to their work or by paternalistic meddling in employees’ personal affairs, for example, their family life, recreational activities, and so on. Again, employers can abuse their authority by using employees’ need for work and/or hope of advancement to manipulate them into doing more than was agreed upon, providing personal services or favors, and so on.

e) Employers should provide appropriate working conditions. Since work is for people, not people for work, employers should provide suitable employee benefits and should arrange work schedules with a view to employees’ need for rest and vacation, while organizing and adapting the working situation itself to their needs. Insofar as possible, this involves excluding occasions of sin from the workplace and protecting employees’ health and safety.17 If work is repetitive and tiring—for example, the work of assemblers on a production line in a factory— assignments should be arranged and the pace of production set in such a way as to safeguard the physical and psychological health of every employee, not just in the short run, but against the cumulative bad effects of such work.

Different workers and groups of workers have additional, special needs, perhaps arising from personal limitations or from responsibilities in other areas of their lives. All workers also need—in a less strict sense—arrangements to make their work interesting and pleasant. Employers should take all these needs into account and, insofar as possible, provide for them in ways fair to everyone concerned.

f) Employers should provide just remuneration for work. Because of urgent need, ignorance, or other factors, workers sometimes freely agree to terms of remuneration which are not fair. This often happens during periods of high general unemployment, but it also regularly happens to certain classes of workers. For example, migrant workers and illegal immigrants often are exploited, and women with skill, seniority, and other qualifications equal to those of men often have been paid less for doing the very same work.18 Treating work merely as a commodity to be purchased at minimum cost, the employer in all such cases takes advantage of the employee’s need for work, sometimes paying even less than a living wage.

People who think of justice simply as the fulfilling of contractual duties see no injustice in such arrangements; but they are unjust, because the terms of remuneration should be governed by the Golden Rule, which plainly excludes taking advantage of either party’s special needs.19 The Golden Rule requires that the needs of both parties be considered, as well as the kind and amount of work done, working conditions, and the wider common good of society (see GS 67).

In applying the Golden Rule to determine fair terms of remuneration, the parties should use the market as a standard while recognizing its possible inadequacies. On the one hand, there is no justification for an employment contract which falls short of the standard because the employer is taking advantage of characteristics of the employee and his or her situation which are irrelevant to the value of the work. On the other hand, structural injustices which distort the employment market must be considered (see 6.B.4.b); and where these adversely affect both parties, fairness between them requires that they share the burden.

g) Justice requires a family wage or adequate social measures. Vatican II affirms the Church’s teaching that payment for work must be such as to provide workers with the means for worthily cultivating their own and their dependents’ material, social, cultural, and spiritual life (see GS 67).20 Thus, if a full-time employee is responsible for a family, his or her personal and family needs are an especially important consideration in determining just remuneration.

The underlying reason is that an economic system’s most basic purpose is to provide for everyone’s needs, and so all who contribute their fair share should receive enough to meet their needs. But since children, especially when small, require constant parental attention and nurture (see 9.D.6.a, 9.F.2.h), it is not good for both parents to be forced to work, and so a worker’s needs often are those of an entire family, while the worker’s fair contribution is his or her full-time work. Therefore, fairness requires either a family wage—that is, “a single salary given to the head of a family for his work, sufficient for the needs of the family without the other spouse having to take up gainful employment outside the home”21—or, failing that, social measures adequate to provide every family with income equivalent to a family wage.

It is easy to see why this requirement of justice is complex. Besides trying to meet the needs of their workers, employers must avoid discriminating among their employees and should compensate every worker in proportion to the value of the work he or she does. Since the value of the work of different workers does not vary with their states of life and degrees of family responsibility, justice requires employers who can afford it to pay at least a minimally adequate family wage to all full-time adult employees, whether or not they have family responsibilities or are the sole wage earners in their families. If employers cannot do so, however, the principle of subsidiarity (see 6.E.5.c) indicates that the larger society should adopt some method—for example, tax advantages for workers supporting families, grants to women working full time as mothers and homemakers, family allowances, and/or public subsidies to poor families—of making up the difference between a family wage and an adequate individual wage.22

Of course, like other specific affirmative norms of justice, those which require a living wage and family wage are defeasible. If, under disastrous economic conditions, employers cannot pay a living wage and/or the larger society cannot provide the supplement required for a family wage, fairness requires wages and supplements sufficient that the deprivation suffered by workers and their families will be no greater than that suffered by employers, government officials, and so on, and their families.

h) Employers should respond fairly to their employees’ merit. Employees differ in how well they do their work and, therefore, how much they contribute to the common good of their employer and themselves. Since excellent work is more valuable, those who do it deserve special recognition and compensation. This can take various forms: an expression of gratitude, some token of appreciation, an increase in autonomy in planning and carrying out the work, an increase in pay, promotion to a more desirable job, and so on.

Often, however, employers fail to recognize merit. If only one person is employed to do a specific kind of work, the employer may ignore the responsibility to reward this individual according to his or her merit, assuming instead that excellent work is the employer’s right. Again, those who employ two or more people to do the same kind of work may fail to respond to their merit, either to avoid the difficulties of carefully judging and fairly rewarding each, or in the mistaken belief that fairness requires no more than fulfilling the contractual conditions to which employees agreed—conditions which often make no allowance for differences in merit.

Since work should fulfill the worker and excellent work usually is a sign that an employee acts with that motive, an employee generally experiences an employer’s or manager’s failure to recognize and fairly respond to merit as a serious disregard of his or her personal worth. While injustices of this sort could be slight, an instance clearly identifiable as such is likely to be a grave matter. Moreover, since failure by an employer or manager to recognize and respond fairly to merit diminishes the employee’s sense of self-worth and takes away an important motivation for doing excellent work, it very often happens that this wrong sooner or later results in serious detriment to the employer.

i) Employers should treat both women and men fairly. If the requirement for a family wage is met, the family’s economic needs never compel a married woman with children requiring care to work outside her home. Moreover, since making a home and raising children are at least as important and self-realizing as any other work available to either men or women, women who are full-time homemakers and mothers do work which is both valuable in itself and personally fulfilling.23 However, not all women are homemakers and mothers, and even some who are—for various reasons, good or bad—seek employment outside the home.

Employers should not exclude women from any job for which they are qualified and should not discriminate against them; nor should they yield to unjust pressures to discriminate in their favor. Fairness in employment opportunities and in pay means sameness of treatment for women and men, just as it does for persons in any other categories which divide them by criteria unrelated to the work to be done and its value. Nevertheless, members of either sex sometimes have physical or other limitations seldom experienced by members of the other sex. If such factors limit a particular individual’s suitability for a certain job or his or her productivity in it, employers may fairly take the facts into account and either prefer another person for that job or make fair adjustments in compensation.

Moreover, since it is unlikely that a woman’s plan of life as a whole will be exactly the same as a man’s, fairness toward a woman sometimes requires that she be treated differently from men, so that requirements structured to accommodate men will not compel her, especially if she is a mother, to abandon other responsibilities in society at large and in her family.24

j) Employers should make special, fair provisions for the disabled. Most disabled people are capable of working, and work has the same importance for them as for anyone else. But their range of opportunities always is limited by their disability and sometimes also by discrimination. It is especially important that employers not exclude the disabled from any job for which they are qualified. Fairness also sometimes requires special attention to their working conditions and an effort to overcome various obstacles to their satisfactory job performance.25

k) Indirect employers share in all the preceding responsibilities. Those who manage businesses are direct employers, but investors in a business’s securities and customers who purchase its products or services sometimes can exercise significant influence on policies and practices affecting workers. In this way, almost everyone sometimes acts as an indirect employer and shares in the employer’s responsibilities toward workers. Still, the responsibilities of investors and customers, as indirect employers, are limited by their knowledge of a business’s activities and their power to affect them. In some cases they fulfill their responsibilities by being alert to the possibility of injustice to employees and urging management to rectify injustices when they arise. But sometimes more direct action is called for; for example, when the workers have a just cause, customers should cooperate in boycotts of products, in just strikes (see 4.b, below) by respecting picket lines, and so on.

4. Workers’ Associations Have Special Responsibilities

A workers’ association is a structured voluntary association—a trade union, a professional association, or the like—directed to the common good of some group of workers. The Church teaches that workers have a right to form and participate in such associations (see GS 68). A member of a workers’ association has all the responsibilities common to members of any structured voluntary association (see 7.D.1–2): to participate actively, to promote the association’s true common good, and so on.

Participants in workers’ associations should resist the temptation of group egoism. They should try to promote their own interests only insofar as these are just, not seek their own benefit at the expense of others’ legitimate interests, for example, by demanding pay increases which are likely to lead to significant inflation and harm the economy as a whole.26 Through their associations, workers should promote and support policies and actions which meet this wider requirement of justice.

a) Workers’ associations should not unfairly limit access to work. Some workers’ associations have the power to limit how many exercise a certain skill or practice a certain trade or profession. This power can be used legitimately—for example, to evaluate those seeking admission to the same field and screen out the unqualified—or it can be used to protect the interests of association members against the legitimate interests of others potentially capable of doing the same work and of consumers who wish to obtain fairly priced products or services. Members should consider whether an association’s exclusionary power is being used fairly; if they judge it is not, they should promote or support its elimination or reform. For example, those in a profession which exercises strict control on entry and charges high fees should consider whether the entry limitations really are necessary to maintain professional standards—as is claimed—or are an abuse intended to maintain unjustly high fees; members of a trade union which limits the number of apprentices accepted should consider whether that is justified by the amount of work available or is merely a method of preventing others who, with or without union membership, will work in the same trade, from fairly competing for work and benefits.

b) Within narrow limits, a strike can be justified. Just as individual workers can legitimately enforce their demands for fair pay or working conditions by refusing to work, so associations of workers can legitimately conduct organized work stoppages—strikes. On the other hand, even if the cause is just, not every refusal to work is justified (see GS 68). An individual’s refusal or an association’s strike is justified only if four conditions are met: (i) the cause is just; (ii) methods of communication and/or mediation have failed to settle the issue; (iii) the side effects of refusing to work or striking can be accepted fairly; and (iv) some serious responsibility requires overcoming the injustice rather than patiently suffering it.27

i) An employer’s unwillingness to remedy unnecessarily dangerous working conditions or maintain just wages during a period of inflation would constitute a just cause; but not the desire of well-paid workers to stay ahead of inflation or of workers with a rather light schedule to obtain still shorter hours, more vacation time, and additional holidays.

ii) Generally, people should settle disagreements by using cooperative methods of communication: reasoning and persuasion, perhaps with the help of a suitable mediator. These should be given a serious chance to work before resorting to the unilateral method of refusing to work or striking.

iii) A refusal to work or a strike has bad side effects: cooperative effort within the business or enterprise comes to a halt, and the goods to which it is directed will not be realized; relationships are likely to be strained and may be permanently damaged; sometimes there is a risk of violence against persons and property; and innocent third parties, such as consumers, often are harmed. In the absence of reasonable hope of remedying an injustice, these side effects cannot be accepted fairly. But even if there is reasonable hope, the fairness of accepting the side effects must be evaluated, as always, taking into account the points of view of all who will be affected. Moreover, certain sorts of side effects never can be fairly accepted, for example, the very grave harm to large numbers of people resulting from disruption of essential community services, the injury inflicted on society at large by paralyzing the whole economy.28

iv) Even if the three previous conditions are met, unless some other grave responsibility requires that the injustice be resisted, Christian mercy calls for patiently suffering it rather than using a method which disrupts community and has bad side effects. For example, workers seeking a just wage in order to meet family responsibilities have a grave reason to resist injustice; but perhaps workers denied the degree of participation in management to which they are entitled should patiently suffer injustice in order to maintain and build up the imperfect community which exists.

c) Workers’ associations should promote genuine work. Sometimes members of workers’ associations are no longer able or willing to do their work yet wish to keep their jobs. Not infrequently, technological changes eliminate the need for certain kinds of work or reduced economic activity also reduces the work to be done. Whatever the cause of the problem, workers’ associations should do what they can to help their members resume or continue using their abilities in a genuinely fruitful way.

Workers who are disabled, alcoholic, or have other problems should be helped to overcome their difficulties or to work to their full capacity despite them. Those whose jobs have been lost to technological change should be assisted in qualifying for other work. Those without enough to do because of reduced economic activity should be encouraged to devote their free time to something useful, and perhaps an association can provide opportunities for doing so.

Sometimes, however, workers’ associations misuse their power by seeking to maintain the jobs of members no longer able or willing to do them, retain job categories which no longer involve real work (so-called featherbedding), or keep workers idle rather than allowing them to be assigned to work outside their usual job description.

Economically wasteful practices like these are unfair to employers and degrading to workers. Members of workers’ associations should oppose them and support constructive alternatives.

2. See John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 4 and 25, AAS 73 (1981) 584–85 and 638–41, PE, 280.13 and 112–17. A useful commentary on John Paul II’s theology of work: José Luis Illanes, “Trabajo, historia y persona: Elementos para una teología del trabajo en la ‘Laborem exercens’,” Scripta theologica 15 (1983): 205–31; a helpful scriptural study: Göran Agrell, Work, Toil and Sustenance: An Examination of the View of Work in the New Testament (Lund: Verbum—Hakan Ohlssons, 1976).

3. On the basic human goods, see CMP, 5.D.

4. John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 6, AAS 73 (1981) 591, PE, 280.27.

5. John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 6, AAS 73 (1981) 591, PE, 280.26. John XXIII, Mater et magistra, AAS 53 (1961) 422, PE, 267.84, quotes from a message of Pius XII (AAS 36 [1944] 254) an implication, important for structuring the economy, of the principle that people need to realize themselves in their work: “The small and average sized undertakings in agriculture, in the arts and crafts, in commerce and industry, should be safeguarded and fostered. Moreover, they should join together in co-operative associations to gain for themselves the benefits and advantages that usually can be gained only from large organizations. In the large concerns themselves there should be the possibility of moderating the contract of work by one of partnership.”

6. John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 16, AAS 73 (1981) 619, PE, 280.73, teaches: “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.”

7. John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 27, AAS 73 (1981) 645–46, PE, 280.127, teaches: “Sweat and toil, which work necessarily involves in the present condition of the human race, present the Christian and everyone who is called to follow Christ with the possibility of sharing lovingly in the work that Christ came to do (cf. Jn 17.4). This work of salvation came about through suffering and death on a cross. By enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, man in a way collaborates with the Son of God for the redemption of humanity. He shows himself a true disciple of Christ by carrying the cross in his turn every day (cf. Lk 9.23) in the activity that he is called upon to perform.”

8. See John XXIII, Mater et magistra, AAS 53 (1961) 462, PE, 267.259; John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 27, AAS 73 (1981) 646–47, PE, 280.129–30.

9. A valuable treatment of work as a central element of personal vocation, together with a rich theology of work: José Luis Illanes, On the Theology of Work: Aspects of the Teaching of the Founder of Opus Dei (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Scepter, 1982).

10. John XXIII, Mater et magistra, AAS 53 (1961) 418–19, PE, 267.70, points out: “In economically developed countries, relatively unimportant services, and services of doubtful value, frequently carry a disproportionately high rate of remuneration, while the diligent and profitable work of whole classes of honest, hard-working men gets scant reward.”

11. John XXIII, Mater et magistra, AAS 53 (1961) 419, PE, 267.71, after treating the requirement of a living wage, teaches: “Other factors too enter into the assessment of a just wage: namely, the effective contribution which each individual makes to the economic effort, the financial state of the company for which he works, the requirements of the general good of the particular country—having regard especially to the repercussions on the overall employment of the working force in the country as a whole—and finally the requirements of the common good of the universal family of nations of every kind, both large and small.”

12. Leo XIII, Rerum novarum, ASS 23 (1890–91) 652, PE, 115.22; the internal reference is to St. Gregory the Great: Hom. in Evang. 9.7, PL, 76:1109.

13. See John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 17, AAS 73 (1981) 620–22, PE, 280.77–81. In speaking of “indirect employers,” the Pope is mainly concerned with governments, international organizations, and multinational corporations. However, the concept is broad enough to have important implications for the responsibilities of most Christians as consumers and/or investors.

14. See John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 12, AAS 73 (1981) 605–8, PE, 280.52–57.

15. See John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 13, AAS 73 (1981) 608–12, PE, 280.28–31, 58–62.

16. John XXIII, Mater et magistra, AAS 53 (1961) 423, PE, 267.91, teaches that “employees are justified in wishing to participate in the activity of the industrial concern for which they work. It is not, of course, possible to lay down hard and fast rules regarding the manner of such participation, for this must depend upon prevailing conditions, which vary from firm to firm and are frequently subject to rapid and substantial alteration. But We have no doubt as to the need for giving workers an active part in the business of the company for which they work—be it a private or a public one. Every effort must be made to ensure that the enterprise is indeed a true human community, concerned about the needs, the activities and the standing of each of its members.”

17. See Leo XIII, Rerum novarum, ASS 23 (1890–91) 649, PE, 115.20; John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 19, AAS 73 (1981) 628–29, PE, 280.93.

18. On migrant workers, see GS 66. Pius XII, Address to Catholic Associations of Working Women (15 Aug. 1945), AAS 37 (1945) 214, Papal Teachings: The Woman in the Modern Church, ed. Benedictine Monks of Solesmes (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1959), 126, states: “We need not remind you, with your wide experience of social affairs, how the Church has always supported the principle that to the working woman is owed, for the same amount of work and production, a salary equal to that of the working man; that it would be an injustice, and contrary to common good, to profit without consideration from the work of the woman, only because it is available at a lower price. This would harm not only the working woman, but also the man, who would thus be exposed to the danger of unemployment.”

19. See John XXIII, Mater et magistra, AAS 53 (1961) 405–6, PE, 267.18.

20. See also teachings cited in GS 67, n. 6 (n. 217 in Abbott). CIC, c. 231, §2, prescribes that lay people who work for the Church “have a right to a decent remuneration suited to their condition; by such remuneration they should be able to provide decently for their own needs and for those of their family with due regard for the prescriptions of civil law; they likewise have a right that their pension, social security and health benefits be duly provided.”

21. John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 19, AAS 73 (1981) 627, PE, 280.90. Also, John Paul II, Address to Residents of Barrios (Bogotá), 5, Inseg. 9.1 (1986) 100–101, OR, 4 Aug. 1986, 6, points out that the Church’s “social doctrine teaches that there must be no creation of hateful distinctions in respect to the work that men and women can carry out, and in respect to their just remuneration. It also teaches, however, that a just salary for the family must permit the woman who is a mother to dedicate herself to her inalienable duties of the care and upbringing of her children, without finding herself obliged to seek outside the home a complementary payment which would be at the cost of her maternal functions: due value must be attributed to these in society for the good of the family and of society.”

22. See John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 19, AAS 73 (1981) 627, PE, 280.90.

23. John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, 23, AAS 74 (1982) 108–9, OR, 21–28 Dec. 1981, 5, teaches: “While it must be recognized that women have the same right as men to perform various public functions, society must be structured in such a way that wives and mothers are not in practice compelled to work outside the home, and that their families can live and prosper in a dignified way even when they themselves devote their full time to their own family. Furthermore, the mentality which honours women more for their work outside the home than for their work within the family must be overcome. This requires that men should truly esteem and love women with total respect for their personal dignity, and that society should create and develop conditions favouring work in the home.” On the personal fulfillment available to the full-time mother and homemaker: Connie Fourré Zimney, In Praise of Homemaking: Affirming the Choice to Be a Mother-at-Home (Notre Dame, Ind.: Ave Maria Press, 1984).

24. See John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 19, AAS 73 (1981) 628, PE, 280.92. While the Pope does not indicate how this requirement should be fulfilled in concrete social and economic conditions—no doubt because they are too diverse and rapidly changing—one can easily think of arrangements in accord with it. For example, employers who can do so should offer women with school-age children jobs with work schedules corresponding to those of the schools, not as part-time employment with reduced rates of pay and few or no added benefits, but as a new type of employment with pay and benefits proportioned to that of full-time employees.

25. See John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 22, AAS 73 (1981) 634–35, PE, 280.105–6.

26. Pius XII, Sertum laetitiae, AAS 31 (1939) 643 and 685, PE, 223.40, lays down the relevant norm with respect to associations of producers, workers, and farmers: “Let them act in such a manner that in their care for the interests of their class they violate no one’s rights; let them continue to strive for harmony and respect the common weal of civil society.” John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 20, AAS 73 (1981) 631, PE, 280.97, explains: “Union demands cannot be turned into a kind of group or class ‘egoism,’ although they can and should also aim at correcting—with a view to the common good of the whole of society—everything defective in the system of ownership of the means of production or in the way these are managed.”

27.  Leo XIII, Rerum novarum, ASS 23 (1890–91) 659, PE, 115.39, deplored strikes and taught that public authority should forestall them, but he did not condemn them. The magisterium has not articulated fully the conditions for a just strike. However, the four conditions stated here are implied by the teachings of Leo, GS 68, and John Paul II (see the next note), when these teachings are considered in the light of general requirements of justice and Christian mercy.

28. John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 20, AAS 73 (1981) 632, PE, 280.100, affirms that a strike or work stoppage “is recognized by Catholic social teaching as legitimate in the proper conditions and within just limits,” but warns: “While admitting that it is a legitimate means, we must at the same time emphasize that a strike remains, in a sense, an extreme means. It must not be abused; it must not be abused especially for ‘political’ purposes.” He then mentions the need to ensure essential services and to protect the common good.