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 | By Eric Scorsone

The Dignity of Work: A Catholic Social Teaching Perspective

The dignity of work is an important principle from a Catholic social teaching perspective. Catholic social teaching must always be read with several principles in mind that often balance each other. With this caveat in mind, this short essay addresses the specific principle of the dignity of work. The dignity of work consists of provisions that are universal and timeless and other provisions that will vary according to specific circumstances.

Before discussing the dignity of work, we should discuss the overall concept of human dignity in Catholic social teaching. Several popes across time have addressed the question of the principle of human dignity. Pope St. John XXIII emphasized this basic principle of Catholic social teaching is the dignity of the individual person. The dictionary defines dignity as “worthy of respect or honor.” Here, we may expand on that definition and state that the dignity of persons means that society should be oriented toward protecting and ensuring the perfection of every individual person.

In that context, we can understand work that should be oriented toward developing and perfecting the person. A specific discussion of the dignity of work itself may have been first emphasized by Pope Pius XII in the 1940s. He wrote that work had an inherent dignity and provided an important role in uplifting the individual person. Pope St. John Paul II also emphasized the dignity of work in his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens. A key statement in this encyclical is that work should serve the person and that work should not control the person or the person simply become a commodity. This can mean that the workplace should be structured to emphasize the dignity of individual self-worth of each person. 

Most recently, Pope Francis has also discussed the dignity of work. In his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis wrote, “Work is an essential dimension of social life, for it is not only a means of earning one’s daily bread, but also of personal growth, the building of healthy relationships, self-expression and the exchange of gifts.”

In a practical sense, the dignified worker should have the right to productive work, decent and just wages, the ability to join a union, adequate time for leisure, family and church and the ability to become a property owner. Besides the inherent nature of the dignity of work, popes have offered other connected reasons for supporting the dignity of work. Workers who are accorded a degree of honor, respect and a just wage are more likely to be at peace with their employers and fellow persons, a more spiritually engaged person as examples. All these rights and the dignity of work itself must be read in conjunction with other catholic social teaching principles such as subsidiarity and the common good.

The dignity of work is an important principle that can be derived from the basic principles of Catholic social teaching for almost 100 years. This principle has important implications for Catholics in their role as persons, employers, and employees and in conjunction with the other basic principles of Catholic social teaching.

Eric Scorsone is a member of the Diocese of Lansing’s Catholic Social Teaching Commission and associate professor and founding director, MSU Extension Center for Local Government Finance and Policy.