In this and the next few blog posts, we will be looking at St. John Paul II’s encyclical Laborem Exercens, honing in on some of the saint’s key insights and relating them to our business life today. The first major point St. John Paul II focuses on is how work is subordinate to man, a truth we’ll explore with a little help from classic lines from the 1987 The Princess Bridemovie.

Laborem Exercens: Origins of Work

Everyone remembers The Princess Bride’s Spanish fencer and henchman, Inigo Montoya, for instance. In justifying his dubious career choices in the movie, Inigo Montoya quips, “I just work for Vizzini to pay the bills. There’s not a lot of money in revenge.”

Bills may be the first thing that comes to our mind when we think of work too. But Scripture proposes a different starting point for a vision of work. That work is a fundamental component of human life is a message of the very first pages of the Bible, St. John Paul II points out in Laborem Exercens. The simple six-word commandment, “Fill the earth and subdue it,” calls us to imitate the Creator. The notion of subduing the earth may seem simple, but it takes in an all the diverse ways we can use the resources of the earth through work.

Some things never change: machines may have accelerated and changed work processes, culture may seem a swirl of “progress,” but the ancient truth remains the same: Man is called to organize, to work, and to reflect God in that. He’s called to work for more than paying the bills.

Angles of Work to Consider

There are two main angles from which we can examine the question of work, St. John Paul II points out: the objective and the subjective perspectives on work.

Work in the Objective Sense

The objective sense of work considers the various ways in which work is manifested, from physical therapy to construction work to accounting. The meaning of work in this objective sense “finds expression in various cultures,” St. John Paul II says. The call to subdue the earth can be manifested in farming, drilling for oil, or production of clothes, for instance.

When we consider the objective nature of work, one thing that stands out is how machines are increasingly used in most manifestations of work, from industry to agriculture. It might seem like man is no longer the one working; it might seem like the machine is “working” and persons are becoming mere supervisors. But this is not the case!

Even as machines become an increasing asset for work, keep in mind that the technology is always a product of human thought. Man is still the ultimate subject of work. Technology “facilitates his work, perfects, accelerates, and augments it,” according to St. John Paul II in Laborem Exercens. Yet it can also “become almost his enemy, as when the mechanization of work ‘supplants’ him, taking away all personal satisfaction and the incentive to creativity and responsibility.”

Work in the Subjective Sense

There’s also a subjective element of work, which has to do with how work affects the person working. One reason man “has” to subdue the earth is because he is a person, capable of rational, organized activity. Work helps him fulfill his call to be a person— to use his reason and will to plan, order, and transform. As we transform materials and resources, work transforms us. This truth is hinted at near the end of The Princess Bride, when Inigo Montoya says, “It is very strange. I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.” Switching careers or work can be tumultuous because our work is a major way we express our personhood.

Human work has an undeniable ethical value because it is a person, a free and rational being, who works. While many ancient cultures categorized and defined people into classes based on the type of labor that they did, Christianity poses a different order: The value of human work is found not so much in the nature of the work as in the nature— the personhood— of the one who is working. After all, Christ Himself chose manual labor— carpentry— not some high intellectual work.

This doesn’t mean that all kinds of human work are exactly equal. But it does mean that work is for man and not vice-versa. As St. John Paul II says, the answer to the question, “what is the purpose of work?” is always “Man.”

Threats & Response

Do you remember the scene in The Princess Bride whenMiracle Max says, “Sonny, true love is the greatest thing, in the world…” He quickly kills the mood of sincerity by adding, “except for a nice MLT – mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe. They’re so perky, I love that.”

Miracle Max’s line is ridiculous because it turns the order of things on end, he suggests that a mutton sandwich might be more valuable than true love. A similar, but much more subtle and dangerous upsetting of the right order of values takes place in strains of materialistic and economistic thought.

St. John Paul II points out that even our language, such as the term “workforce,” can play into treating work as an impersonal force, a kind of merchandise that the worker can sell and the employer can own, rather than an important source of dignity.

While a materialistic view sees people as mere instruments or tools of production, solidarity efforts say that the subject of work is always the person, regardless of how work is manifested. The Church has a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, so those whose dignity is being violated by an inhuman view of work are among those the Church especially seeks to serve.

Work and Personal Dignity

Asserting that work is a source of dignity and self-realization is not a denial that work is hard and often painful. Recall the scene in The Princess Bride when Buttercup says to the Man in Black, “You mock my pain!” He responds, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” This line hints at how we share a universal experience that work, whether it is on a farm, in the surgery room, or in the office, is hard, and can be a painful burden.

Still, work is good for man. Despite being hard, it expresses and increases human dignity. St. John Paul II powerfully explains in this take-away sentence: “Through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being.’”

Work and Society

Finally, work isn’t just good for us; it also builds up our family and societal structures. John Paul mentions how, while work has a personal dimension, there is also a family life dimension of work, as well as a cultural dimension. Work enables man to form and support a family, which is a natural right and something most people are called to do. Moreover, the work of individual persons adds up to contribute to the heritage of the larger cultural family that each person belongs to.

One of the greatest taglines of The Princess Bride is Vizzini’s use of “Inconceivable!”  At one point, Inigo Montoya responds, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Modern man might have the attitude that the Catholic understanding that work is good for us is “inconceivable.” But, as Laborem Exercens reveals, work might not mean what he thinks it means.