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‘Laborem Exercens,’ 40 Years Later

Do technological advances make life more human?

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Following in the tradition of his predecessors, St. John Paul II wrote two social encyclicals on anniversaries of the publication of the first social encyclical, Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. This year marks 40 years since the publication of John Paul’s Laborem Exercens, written to commemorate Rerum Novarum’s 90th anniversary. While Laborem Exercens might stand in the shadows of John Paul’s other commemorative social encyclical, Centesimus Annus, there are many ways in which its insights are relevant for the situation of human labor today.

John Paul begins his encyclical by returning to the Second Vatican Council’s observation in Gaudium et Spes that Christ is at work in the hearts of men, “purifying and strengthening those noble longings too by which the human family makes its life more human” (No. 38). It is, in fact, by work, which is authentically human, that man can realize his full potential and live in God’s image and likeness. This is one of the essential problems of the “social question,” the modern alienation of man.

Leo XIII’s launch of the social magisterium responded in part to this alienation that began under the Industrial Revolution, in which men’s work was changed from a vital connection with the rest of nature through primarily agrarian societies to repetitive tasks in the operation of machinery in which pride in one’s work and a sense of dignity derived therefrom became very difficult when one’s daily task involved little more than a simple, repetitive process.

Technologization of Man

Much of the world today faces a new source of alienation through unhuman work. For most of us, priests included, the risk is not so much the automation of work performed in 19th-century industry, but the technologization of man taking place in the modern workplace. Endless hours spent on Zoom meetings — in which most people are minimally attentive and are replying to an unending barrage of emails while pretending to collaborate with colleagues — not only causes spasms in one’s eyes and drains one’s mental energy but is essentially dehumanizing. The human person is not virtual reality, and work that enforces the myth that technology can take the place of the human soul vitiates the effort to “make life more human.”

In Laborem Exercens, John Paul writes that “an immense development of technological means … is an advantageous and positive phenomenon, on condition that the objective dimension of work does not gain the upper hand over the subjective dimension, depriving man of his dignity and inalienable rights or reducing them” (No. 10). In technological development, the object of work — the product produced — tends to become more important than the subject of work. Work is noble and imparts dignity to the worker, not because of the quality of the product produced, but because of the way that it makes the worker a better person. With regards to technology in 2021, especially in the context of parish apostolates and priestly ministry, the question could be, “Does the use of technology facilitate a personal encounter, or is it undertaken simply for its own sake?” Many times, we assume the value of technology (especially social media) uncritically without asking: “Is it making those of us who use it more human?”

Work Makes Us More Human

Work, John Paul argues, is essentially incarnational. By performing work that makes us more human, we are more able to live according to God’s image. Work that makes us less human is incapable of making us Godlike. It would be fascinating to see how the saintly pontiff — so concerned with proper anthropology — would analyze our contemporary technological work situation. Only 16 years have passed since his death, but the world is already a very different place.

Work, for John Paul, finds its dignity not only in the way it makes man more human but in the way it enables him to participate in God’s creation. “In every phase of the development of his work, man comes up against the leading role of the gift made by ‘nature,’ that is to say, in the final analysis, by the Creator. At the beginning of man’s work is the mystery of creation” (No. 12).

Man over Things

For the modern worker, though, it becomes more and more difficult to identify the beginning or end of his work with anything involving nature and creation. Writing in 1981, John Paul already encountered a post-industrial world, the outcome of whose labor was frequently intangible. Forty years later, this process has accelerated and radicalized, not just in terms of the number of people working in the technosphere, but in the increasingly abstract nature of the product produced. “Influence” is poised to become the product of our age, just as “influencer” becomes the fastest growing and most important career.

Moreover, as many have already observed, the product being sold by the biggest and most influential technology firms is not a service they provide but the very people who would seem to be their clients. The future of work in the contemporary tech economy seems bound up in selling information about one another and the ability to make insights based on that data. This is in many ways a challenge to the distinction between labor and capital upon which Rerum Novarum was based and that still forms the intellectual backbone of John Paul’s thinking about the “social question.”

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Pope Francis on the Importance of Work

“Work is exactly the continuation of the work of God. Human labor is the vocation that mankind received from God ever since the creation of the universe. It is work that makes us similar to God, because, through work, men and women act as creators, and are capable of creating many things, even of creating a family.”

— Mass at Casa Santa Marta, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, May 1, 2020

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This is not a deficiency in the thought of the saintly pope, though, but rather a deficiency in our modern trafficking in human persons. John Paul is right when he asserts: “We must emphasize and give prominence to the primacy of man in the production process, the primacy of man over things. Everything contained in the concept of capital in the strict sense is only a collection of things. Man, as the subject of work, and independently of the work that he does — man alone is a person. This truth has important and decisive consequences” (No. 12).

The technosphere in which so much of contemporary humanity is forced to live and move and have its being not only inverted the right order of the primacy of man over things but turns the subject into an object, man into a thing to be sold. The victim of this inversion of the right order of industry is not just the one whose search habits are tracked and sold by Google, but also the ones who labor in this sordid system, which has made the rest of us its inescapable prisoners.

Organization of Labor

Similarly, John Paul asserts that labor instruments can condition man’s work but can never constitute the “subject” of work — the one doing the work (cf. No. 13). What would he make, then, of algorithms that replace human ingenuity and choice, which seem, at times, to excel human reasoning in arriving at the best outcomes? Or artificial intelligence and computing technology that many predict will become self-programming and perhaps even autonomous? That man is the one working, and not the machine, is harder and harder to see in 2021.

Writing 10 years before the final collapse of the USSR, and himself deeply affected by the legacy of Soviet communism, John Paul addresses the impact of state supervision and organization of labor. The worker, he says, has the right “to be able to know that in his work, even on something that is owned in common, he is working ‘for himself.’ This awareness is extinguished within him in a system of excessive bureaucratic centralization, which makes the worker feel that he is just a cog in a huge machine moved from above, that he is for more reasons than one a mere production instrument rather than a true subject of work with an initiative of his own” (No. 15).

This insight, though, is far from irrelevant even after the demise of the Soviet Union. What John Paul has to say about the worker feeling like a “cog in a huge machine” can only be increased by the sensation of the nameless, faceless forces that move the modern economy. The goal of an entrepreneur is no longer to establish a firm in which he can be accountable to himself but to catch the attention of Google, Apple or Amazon and cash out when his start-up is swallowed up Big Tech.

The relevance of the insights in Laborem Exercens is not limited to the denizens of our new virtual villages. What about the question of just wages and humane working conditions? John Paul’s answer: “There should never be overlooked the right to a working environment and to manufacturing processes which are not harmful to the workers’ physical health or to their moral integrity” (No. 19).

Those Excluded

While some workers bear the brunt of the side effects of the technologization of work, others are excluded from the benefits that come from the ability of technology to supplement physical presence. Blue-collar workers — especially those earning low wages and already vulnerable to social instability — are those most likely to have risky working environments during the pandemic. They have paid a significantly higher price in terms of illness and even death. No “essential worker bonuses” seem able to compensate for that.

Nevertheless, in the mysteries of God’s providence, they have largely been saved from the moral injury of the dehumanized work brought on by virtual technology. They may be the ones most equipped to engage in the future in work that makes us more human.

Reading Laborem Exercens in 2021 ought to remind us of the importance of authentically human work. Men and women were not made to be “a cog in a huge machine” nor to perform work that monetizes their fellow man’s internet-use patterns. Forty years after the encyclical’s publication, the wisdom of St. John Paul II’s insights continues to illuminate our contemporary situation. Laborem Exercens then is yet more evidence of the prescient insights of St. John Paul and of why his magisterium continues to be so important in our own day, and assuredly long into the future as well.

FATHER ROYCE GREGERSON is a priest of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and pastor of St. John the Evangelist in Goshen, Indiana.

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Pope Francis to Technology Experts

Pope Francis
Pope Francis addresses participants attending the conference “The Common Good in the Digital Age” at the Vatican on Sept. 27, 2019. The Vatican-sponsored conference brought together Silicon Valley CEOs and technology specialists. CNS photo/Vatican Media

Addressing participants in the seminar “The Common Good in the Digital Age,” on Sept. 27, 2019, Pope Francis told experts in various fields of applied science, including technology, economics, robotics, sociology, communications and cyber-security, as well as philosophy, ethics and moral theology:

“If technological advancement became the cause of increasingly evident inequalities, it would not be true and real progress. If mankind’s so-called technological progress were to become an enemy of the common good, this would lead to an unfortunate regression to a form of barbarism dictated by the law of the strongest. Dear friends, I thank you, therefore, because by your work you are engaged in efforts to promote civilization, whose goal includes the attenuation of economic, educational, technological, social and cultural inequalities.

“You have laid a strong ethical foundation for the task of defending the dignity of every human person, convinced that the common good cannot be separated from the specific good of each individual. Your work will continue until no one remains the victim of a system, however advanced and efficient, that fails to value the intrinsic dignity and contribution of each person.

“A better world is possible thanks to technological progress, if this is accompanied by an ethic inspired by a vision of the common good, an ethic of freedom, responsibility and fraternity, capable of fostering the full development of people in relation to others and to the whole of creation.”

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