The Church and the world of labour

70th anniversary of Rerum Novarum

Cardijn wrote this paper in April 1960 at the request of Saint (Pope) John XXIII for the preparation of an encyclical he had suggested to the pope to mark the 70th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, which was due in 1961. The outcome was the publication of Mater et Magistra.

The 70th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, by recalling for us the Charter of Labour that Pope Leo XIII published at the end of the last century on “the Condition of the workers”, offers an extremely precious opportunity to proclaim again to the whole world the doctrine and attitude of the Church with respect to the world of labour.

Over the last 70 years, the face of the world of labour has completely changed. And even the attitude of society and public opinion with respect to the worker problem has completely changed: an attitude of fear and defiance among some, an attitude of confidence and hope among others, an attitude of seriousness and responsibility among all those with responsibilities.

Never has the worker problem experienced the dimension, significance or gravity that it has today. All the more so since its present dimensions do not signify the ultimate end point; on the contrary this is merely the beginning of a vertiginous transformation, both concerning work itself and all the actors who are engaged in it, and concerning the unheard of repercussions of this transformation on all aspects of the life of the whole of humanity. Not only the manner and life of work have been and are continuing to be transformed from day to day, but labour is in the process of turning the whole world on its head, creating an increasingly technological world, changing the very regime of work as well as the various aspects of human life – personal, family, social, cultural and recreational, political, national and international.


While the history of labour, since its far off origins, reveals the power of the genius of man who has learnt how to discover and then use the forces and wealth of nature for the growth and progress of the human race, it also recalls all the vicissitudes, the suffering, and the abuses that accompanied these discoveries and progress.

No-one can doubt that the invention of the steam engine and its application to the work of man (together with the generalisation of the employed worker regime which was its consequence at the end of the 18th century and during the whole 19th century) was the origin of the gigantic progress achieved since then. However, by this very fact, it also gave birth to a proletariat, condemned to inhuman conditions of work and life. It was these facts which caused a cry of alarm to spring from the heart of Pope Leo XIII in which he described the condition of the worker in the last century as “undeserved misery”.

It was the birth of this proletariat, united in opposition to the injustice of working life, which rapidly provoked the class struggle. This would stigmatise and even bloody the new economic regime. Western Europe which was its birthplace was also the birthplace of a materialist conception of life and the world. Whereas the workers aspired to more justice and more security, economic liberalism was to become the torch that would attract discord and already threaten to divide the world of labour into two enemy camps committed to the destruction of one by the victory and dictatorship of the other.


In Europe and in North America, the Church was not a spectator in the drama of the birth of the world of labour. Bishops, sociologists, philanthropists and workers were not content simply to fight the doctrine of materialism with Christian doctrine; on the contrary, they were in the vanguard of the professional and social organisation of wage workers.

In order to solemnly consecrate these efforts with the Church taking a position, on 15 May 1891, Leo XIII gave Christians a famous encyclical Rerum Novarum. Nor was the encyclical content to condemn materialist errors; rather it proclaimed the principles which would become the basis of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which alone was capable of providing a positive solution to the problem posed.

The publication of this encyclical was a genuine revolution. However, Leo XIII was not followed as one might have hoped – with some remarkable exceptions – by those who at the time were leaders of the new economic regime.

Since then, Christian workers have celebrated the memory of the workers’ Pope and the anniversary of Rerum Novarum with public demonstrations. After the First World War, the Washington Conference drew inspiration from it in drafting the Charter of Labour which served as the basis for the International Labour Organisation.

Before, during and between the two world wars, Pius X, Benedict XV, then Pius XI from the beginning of his mandate, never ceased to recall the urgency of the social apostolate and the demands of the Church’s doctrine. On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the promulgation of Rerum Novarum, Pius XI published the encyclical Rerum Novarum, which would renew, clarify and adopt the teaching of Leo XIII. It aimed to provide a pressing appeal to all Christians as well as to all governments to accomplish their social duty; it treated not only the condition of workers but all the aspects of the problem of economic and social life.

Since then, Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno have become inseparable. The clear affirmations of the two Popes cannot mislead anyone with respect to the Church’s concern for the needs and the life of workers. How many incisive phrases we could indicate! Moreover one cannot separate Quadragesimo Anno from Divini Redemptoris in which, even while condemning communism, Pius XI insisted on the doctrine of the Church, on its positive and educative action among workers as among the members of the clergy.

Although Pius XII did not publish a particular encyclical on work, nevertheless one can say that there was not one year – during the war and right until his death – during which the late Pope did not return to the place of work in contemporary society, on the difficult situation of workers, on the necessity for all to collaborate for the improvement of their condition, on the importance of their irreplaceable apostolate for resolving the problem of the world of labour. On radio and television, in so many audiences that he held for workers organisations, both youth and adult, how many times did the Pope not move, comfort and sometimes anguish all the leaders of private and public institutions with respect to the various aspects of a problem that he regarded as of decisive importance for the Church and the world.



Today, the future of work has become a global problem, the No. 1 problem, one might say. It is increasingly becoming so: through the perfecting of new labour processes, which have spread rapidly in every country and among all races; through the growing number of wage workers, both young and adult – and particularly women and young girls – in all sectors of professional life (production, trade, finance, administration, teaching, transport, publicity); through the power of new technologies which overcome all obstacles and thus transform the face of continents as well as the life of peoples; through scientific, social and ultimately philosophical problems that have led to this evolution, through which man increasingly masters matter at the risk of allowing himself to become dominated by it.

Some may say that these elements of vertiginous transformation only concern a minority and in practice only apply to a few western countries that are particularly developed from the technological point of view. Let no-one minimise, however, the legitimate ambitions of the new nations, which are becoming conscious of the role that they will have to play in the concert of peoples, on condition of ensuring – for themselves and for all so-called under-developed countries – the most scientific, technical, commercial and economic equipment.


Henceforth, one can get an idea of the results of this technological evolution on persons, on social groups as well as on institutions and structures.

It is technology with its applications in every aspect of life – which enables the most primitive peoples to move without any transition to the most modern conditions of life; it is also technology which multiplies the tentacles of urban and industrial agglomerations, which are also the source of deep-seated uprootedness; it is also technology which responds with irresistible advertising for the most unhealthy products, the most upsetting processes and aspirations, the most sensational news.

In the frenzied race to conquer the world and the insatiable search for immediate profit, work, expenses and the labour regime, the growing number of workers are all dragged into a world that is divided into two economic groups: the under-developed and the over-developed, and into two ideological groups: the communist world and the capitalist world. This economic, social, cultural and ideological transformation is unfolding under our very eyes at a time when so many new peoples, and especially in Africa, which are achieving independence and are seeking capital, technicians, political alliances which will assist them to achieve their destiny.

And then there are the conferences and colloquies, the economic agreements and political federations, the meetings of government heads and parties; there are the most sensational promises of loans, opening up of markets, political, economic and even ideological alliances.

Such a spectacular overturning, and such a whirlpool of international influences cannot hide the perhaps less obvious problems, apparently more anonymous but deeply felt by the popular masses, namely those which affect the worker himself. For most, these are sufferings of uprootedness, illiteracy, undernourishment, sickness, unemployment, poor or even no housing. For others there are problems of fatigue and psychic usury, morbid laws, mental and moral change, insecurity, criminality, promiscuity and fatalism. For a great number there is also the absence of personal and collective responsibility. For all, there is the crushing weight of social pressure where the worker sinks more and more into anonymity; there is the feeling of powerlessness and frustration in the face of the most flagrant or the most subtle injustice.

The world of labour, which is simply becoming the whole world, is today placed before an alternative which will decide its future: on one side the possibilities and hopes that no-one could have foreseen; on the other, threats and dangers that one cannot exaggerate. Isn’t this alternative the cause of unease, disarray and worry in the present world?



In the present conditions of the world transformed by work, the anniversary of Rerum Novarum presses the Church to proclaim more solemnly still the TRUTHS which must be the base of a world regime for truly human and Christian labour. It has received a divine mandate to spread the knowledge of it.

Truths of (human) reason and revealed truths: It is by respecting them and ensuring that they pass into life that all the discoveries and scientific, technical, economic, social and cultural progress will be able to serve the true perfection of man; for the promotion of his personal, family and social dignity in the pursuit of his temporal and eternal destiny; for the respect for the union and peace between peoples and races; for the Reign of God, his glorification and the realisation of his Plan of Love, in the work of creation and Redemption.

Among these truths one can cite several which would need to be particularly deepened and spread among Christians.

1. The end of work is the transformation of the wealth of nature for the service of people and for the glory of God.

Work is not a punishment for sin, a kind of condemnation. Nor is it the supreme end for those who work; one cannot turn it into an absolute, a god.

Human work is a privilege, an honour, because it demands the collaboration of man in the divine work of Creation and Redemption in order to satisfy in an increasingly adequate way the needs of the community. Without work, there is no genuine humanity, no genuine civilisation. The fatigues and abuses that accompany work are the consequences of sin.

Therefore workers are not “the wretched of the earth”, machines or slaves; they are not objects, instruments of toys; they are the sons and daughters of God; they are the very end of work.

Every milieu of work, as with every labour regime, must tend to promote and to distribute this conception of work among the people, thus also giving the lie to the painful observation of Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno: “Inert comes forth from the factory ennobled, while the people there are corrupted and degraded”. The milieu of work cannot be a cell, nor a prison. It must, together with the family and the whole of creation, be a temple and a sanctuary where work itself sings the praise of the Creator: “Laudete Dominum, omnis opera ejus!”

2. This is why the Church, as divine Providence itself, desires, encourages and recognises the value and the legitimacy of all progress in science and technology. It wants them, not for the benefit of a tiny minority, but so that they will enable the needs, both spiritual and material, of the whole of humanity to be satisfied. No progress – either in production, commerce, or in the distribution of the processes of fabrication, nor in the advertising of the products fabricated – can serve to deceive, degrade, enslave individuals and collectivities; ever perfecting in and through work must serve to enlighten, to raise and to free them from error and oppression.

3. Technological and economic progress demands an increasingly sophisticated organisation of labour, within which various interests must be reconciled for the good of all.

The world of work will always be composed of actors associated in various capacities: capital, management, implementation, etc. It is together – in the scrupulous respect for persons, with a clear understanding of the rights and duties of each one, in a loyal desire for reciprocal justice – that they must build the community of work. While the regime and forms of labour have changed over the last century and although the conditions of working life have improved, it nevertheless remains true that the defence of the worker remains an overriding objective. On the other hand, the union of employers on the professional level must continue to find its way, while seeking a dialogue of fraternal collaboration with those who allow the valuing of capital and the constant progress of ongoing new technological discoveries. Trade unionism remains a necessity and a right and it is unceasingly necessary to rediscover the healthy forms in which it can develop freely and effectively.

The vertiginous evolution of the world under the pressure of the progress of science and technology also demands that the ensemble of relations between people and peoples be organised to the ultimate degree: on the political and cultural level, in institutions and world bodies both private and public, which ensure the participation of all in progress. The reign of individualism, promoted to the maximum by economic liberalism, is terminated.

However this global coordination and planning for the sharing of all the wealth, fruits of labour, between all people, far from impairing the freedom, conscience and responsibility of people and families, should on the contrary assist them to ensure and safeguard their inalienable rights to full development. Man can never be considered as a number or a product; he is not a robot and even less a guinea pig. He is a person associated to the divine persons for whom Creation serves for the development and the salvation of the whole human community.

4. The more the world of labour becomes an international complex, either in the sourcing and use of new products, or in the search for new manufacturing processes, or in the distribution of products manufactured on a market that has become global, the more the sense of responsibility and international justice must inspire a collaboration and a solidarity, that ensures the access of all in justice – not the privileged few but the innumerable mass of the most humble – in all the material and spiritual progress of civilisation.

The disappearance of under-development, as a corollary of economic and social progress applied in all the domains of life, alone can create the understanding, union, confidence and peace between peoples and races. And the scientific and technological discoveries, and the forces and resources of labour, could be devoted to fairly satisfying human needs instead of being absorbed in large part by the invention, fabrication and handling of arms and means of destruction, a great step would be made on the way to the liberation of humanity, which would finally shake off the yoke of the great social evils: hunger, illness, illiteracy, insecurity.

5. However no form of economic, social or cultural organisation – as perfect as one could conceive of it and implement it – will be able alone to transform man (individual human life, family life and social life), neither to satisfy all the needs, whether secular or religious.

One can only arrive there by spreading, inculcating a new conception of the world, a unified and solidary world; and in changing the mentalities on the basis of mutual understanding and assistance; and to say it all by changing people in line with the teaching of the Gospel.

This transformation of man from the inside must be the object of an ongoing education: that of the child, that of the young man and of the young girl, that of the adult. And it will be all the more necessary in the future, since personal and social life will be more influenced by technology and by the complexity of human problems to resolve.

An integral human education supposes and demands a climate of freedom and unconditional support which alone can guarantee its effectiveness. Religion must play a fundamental role in the whole effort of social and international education. Also the Church has the right to respect and consideration all the more necessary since its task in this field will be increasingly urgent and more difficult. In such a manner that its action powerfully helps to give a real value to technological progress: far from enslaving or downgrading man, it must serve to raise and save him, in order to finally result in a totally solidary humanity.



The Church’s mission is not to realise itself the transformations which have just been mentioned, nor to create scientific, technological, economic, social and political institutions responsible for the world of labour. The means for achieving these objectives forms part of the immediate responsibility and initiative of people themselves, both governments and private associations.

However, as has been said, the Church has the duty to spread the eternal truths that must guide both individuals and collectivities in the search and use of technologies and institutions, which all must be at the service of man, his temporal vocation and his eternal destiny. Teaching these truths, integrating them into the whole of human and Christian life, forms an integral part of its evangelising mission, in which the hierarchy, the priesthood and the laity have their distinct but essential roles in the expansion of the Reign of God on earth.

And while it wants to achieve the full dimensions of this task, the Church cannot allow itself to be enclosed in the community of the faithful which constitute it; it must open out to all people of good will. This is why it wishes to collaborate with all the human institutions, both private and public, national and international, which seek in the respect of their reciprocal mission, the means to ensure the happiness of peoples and the Reign of God.


To the bishops and priests (secular and religious), to all religious men and women, the Church asks more than ever that they spread its social doctrine, of which one cannot separate the properly religious truths, without deforming the face of Christianity. It is enough to reread the social encyclicals and the allocutions of the recent popes to observe the growing insistence with which they underline the necessity to form priests and religious in this sense, in seminaries and novitiates; from the manner in which they in their turn form the faithful, not only in the knowledge of the social doctrine of the Church but its diffusion among all people of good will.

However, priests and religious cannot be content with this effort, they must bring lay people to implement this doctrine, to be witnesses to it, both in their personal lives as well as in the institutions and bodies created to this effect. Thus, Christians will be in the avant garde of an involvement that will enable them to transform their milieu of immediate life, their own country and the world. This must be the characteristic of the formation and Catholic spirit that excludes all personal, family or national egoism and which opens all hearts to the responsibilities, to the efforts and generosity required for the salvation of the ensemble of nations.


The Church cannot make known and incarnate a social doctrine without a well-formed and organised laity. It is indispensable to provide a maximum effort in all the countries of the world. One can easily say, paraphrasing the famous passage in Quadragesimo Anno: “The first apostles, the immediate apostles of lay people in daily life, in the milieux of daily life, will be lay people themselves” duly formed for this apostolate. And in particular for all the problems of the world of labour.

This formation is not accessory; it is essential and fundamental. The time necessary must be provided and all the means must be employed to ensure it. This formation cannot simply be theoretical; it must be accompanied by a methodical training in action; and this in its turn, in order to be truly effective in the current regime of work, requires an organisation that meets the needs and conditions of life itself. As long as formation – action – organisation are not an integral part of the life and behaviour of Christian adults, the struggle against errors, false ideologies, dangerous influences will not be effective. It is based on such formation that the Church will be able to ensure its presence and its active collaboration in all the national and international organisations; it is thus that it will provide a witness and exercise an ongoing influence in the life and milieux of life. Thanks to this formation, the Christian will learn apostolic contact with “others” in integral fidelity to the Gospel and to the hierarchy, as in the respect and sympathy with respect to persons who are attached in good faith to error and among whom it must always be a witness or charity in order to become the messenger of the truth.


Although it starts in the family and the school and it continues into the whole of adult life, apostolic formation is however decisive during the age of youth, during the entry into working life: between 14 and 25 years.

Human formation, Christian formation, apostolic formation.

Teaching and technical apprenticeships – school, extra-curricular or post-school – cannot be separated from human and Christian formation which enlightens the aim and gives complete meaning to the whole of technology as well as to all human work. However it is above all from this moment that young people enter into life and the milieu of work that this formation must be continued, intensified in order to inculcate in all pride in their collaboration and the sense of their responsibility with the community of work. Still more, they require a formation that will be an apprenticeship for an active, courageous, persevering influence, which suggests a mission, a vocation in the milieu of work.

Formation and action, which inspire among young workers an organisation where they will find themselves fraternally but among their comrades, from the milieu of work, the neighbourhood, the parish right up to the international level. This organisation must be simultaneously and for all a school, a service, a representative body, and they learn to collaborate with all the adult workers and all institutions in the world of work.

Pius XII has admirably specified this problem of the young worker to form and to save

“The YCW,” he told the World Assembly of the YCW in 1957, “takes up the problem of worker life at its most delicate point perhaps, namely at the moment where it starts to present itself to the young worker. When these leave school to go to work, they are normally proud to assume in their turn an active role in society and they often burst with confidence in themselves. However very soon, cruel disappointments crash down over them, harshness, bad example; they slowly absorb the poison of materialist doctrines, attitudes falsified by the opposition of classes and hatred; they thus quickly and sometimes irreversibly lose their freshness, their joy, their most legitimate aspirations and soon they become embittered and revolt.

This is the disaster that the YCW absolutely wants to prevent.”


The methodical apprenticeship in the meaning of collaboration within the world of labour, which leads logically to an international, intercontinental, interracial, interreligious collaboration is the surest means to make it penetrate the consciences and the customs, the sense of concern for justice, mutual aid, confidence and friendship; conquering individual and collective egoisms that are at the base of oppositions, attitudes of violence and terrorism; to create a spirit, a will and an organisation of understanding and union which alone can ensure peace between peoples and individuals.

If they achieve this climate, for a positive search for collaboration and union in private initiative, official institutions, both national and international, will be able to describe themselves as true representatives of public opinion. The international aid organisations that are being established will acquire a real effectiveness and will promote healthy example because they base themselves on spontaneous initiatives coming from the persons concerned themselves, from valuable pilot projects, at the same time that they will be ensured of the technical and financial means on the scale of the problems which today go beyond nations and even continents.

In this immense effort of cooperation that needs to be undertaken or developed, who will not recognise the imperious necessity of ensuring respect for the freedom of conscience, among families, communities at the moment where the world will be able to let itself be dominated by technology and by economic organisation? The Church and all spiritualist religions are the best guarantors, the ultimate defenders of these fundamental values. This is why it is necessary that they are able to enjoy freedom of action and influence that will enable them to reveal to individuals and communities the consciousness of their visible and invisible unity.

70th Anniversary Rerum Novarum

Complement page 8


1. The first truth that is the source and the principle of all the others is: work is the necessary and primordial act of the human person. No work without workers. It is by this necessary and primordial act that the human person provides and must provide for the needs of his person and of his family; needs that are increasingly developed and elevated, that human work itself develops in its production and its extension.

2. One cannot deform the link between work and the worker; the worker does not exist for work, but work for the worker, for himself, for his family, for his development and his elevation,and this not for a minority but for the whole of humanity.

3. This truth is at the base not only of the person, of the family taken individually, but of the person as a social person, but of the national and international community.

4. It is in this sense that we say that the worker by and in his work is the necessary and irreplaceable collaborator of God in the execution of his plan of love in the work of Creation; and after original and actual sin in the work of Redemption. The worker, conscious of the meaning and of the purpose of work collaborates with the redeemer in restoring the divine order in the world of work and in the world quite simply; the worker by his collaboration participates in the earthly and eternal glorification of God Creator and Redeemer.

(Cardijn, handwriting Marguérite Fiévez)

70th Anniversary Rerum Novarum (Complement)

This formation for the life of work cannot be separated from the formation for all other aspects of earthly life: family life, leisure life, cultural life, and above all formation for spiritual and religious life. All these aspects are inseparable and complementary. Man is one in his whole personal life, within the family, the profession, society, the world and the Church. And this unity of the person is entirely dominated and oriented by its divine origin and by its divine, unique and eternal destiny. There is no separation, there cannot be any separation between all the aspects of his temporal life and his spiritual and religious life, his faith and all the sources and expressions of his faith, prayer, sacraments, liturgy and his submission to the Hierarchy. Although he is a member of social body that comprises the human community, he is first of all a member of the mystical body of Christ, visible and invisible, which gives him the light and strength to develop in him and to help to develop in others the plenitude of divine life, sole guarantee of the integrity of his human life and sole guarantee of his eternal life.

Cardijn (Handwriting Marguérite Fiévez)


Joseph Cardijn, The Church and the World of Labour, Paper for Pope John XXIII, April 1961 (Stefan Gigacz, Translator) (Archives Cardijn, No. 1807) (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)