Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Work Ownership Implications of Recent Papal Social Thought

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Work Ownership Implications of Recent Papal Social Thought

Article excerpt


This paper examines a particular employment inference of recent Papal social thought, for a Western developed economy context. The Papal documents studied are Centesimus Annus (1991), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), and Laborem Exercens (1981). The first and shortest section of the paper outlines a number of principles from the encyclicals aiming to guide employment organisation and policy relevant to Western and all economies. To permit their full consideration, an illustration is given how implications affecting forms of employment organization might be drawn from just one of the principles--the right to private property ownership. Private property ownership rights are argued to be constrained in specific ways, to relate instrinsically to employment organization, and to underpin other principles emphasized in the encyclicals, such as the priority of labor over capital. A selection of recent non-official-Church Catholic Social Thought is compared with the approach here. Since the encyclicals deal with issue s only at the level of principle, the paper notes cases where attempts have been made to apply some of the employment organizational implications in practice.

Keywords: Catholic social thought, employment, private ownership, worker participation, ESOPs, cooperatives.


Work ownership implications of recent Catholic Social Thought (CST) are explored for a Western developed economy context. Three encyclicals of the present Pope, John Paul II, Centesimus Annus (CA) (1991), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (SRS)(1987), and Laborem Exercens (LE) (1981) are discussed. These continue the rich and long tradition of CST, and especially that loosely termed "modern Catholic social teaching" (Kammer 1991: 6). This earlier teaching is taken usually to have originated with Pope Leo XIII's 1891 social encyclical, Rerum Novarumn, (The Condition of the Working Class). It is not possible to consider John Paul II's writing on work without acknowledging its dependence on earlier CST. Nevertheless, no previous Pope of the twentieth century has written as much about work and employment as John Paul II. According to one commentator, John Paul II's views on work "constitute the most modern and progressive stance expressed by the Church since its early years" (Wisman 1998: 1663).

Implications for policy toward employment can be derived from the three encyclicals. Until recently, limited attention has been given to these topics in commentaries by clergy, academics and other supportive church writers. These reactions from outside the official Church are designated here as non-Church CST response. (Official Church statements by Conferences of National Bishops and the like are not considered in this paper). Non-Church CST (e.g., Baum 1982; Houck and Williams 1983; Gaburro and Cressotti 1998, Tondini 1998) has explored employment-related matters but has not been strongly oriented to drawing policy conclusions. In this paper, employment-related principles are argued to be dominant in the three encyclicals, and employment policy deductions can be drawn from them. The paper focuses on the example of work ownership and control in companies, taken here to include other forms of business organization as well.

According to John Paul II, "there is something wrong with the organization of work and employment" (LE 1981: 77). In common with Biblical teaching and Christian tradition, John Paul II holds "that there can be no genuine solution of the 'social question' apart from the Gospel" (CA 1991: 12; all emphases are original). In CST, work and employment as they are meant to organised in Gospel terms play a crucial role in resolving social problems. In keeping with CST and much Christian writing, the approach of the paper is to pursue the principles for employment as guidelines (SRS 1987: 89), rather than as blueprints or technical solutions applicable to contemporary Western society. …

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