Today is Labor Day in the United States, a federal holiday and a day of rest for the workers in this nation. There is a spiritual and religious significance to labor—the Church teaches that work is integral to the human experience. It is the means whereby people can support a families, save for the future, utilize their skills and talents, and even find dignity. As the Catechism teaches, “In work, the person exercises and fulfills in part the potential inscribed in his nature. The primordial value of labor stems from man himself, its author and its beneficiary. Work is for man, not man for work” (CCC 2428).
This is a social teaching, meaning that the protecting people’s right to dignified work is a responsibility of all people, especially employers, governments, and labor leaders. Leaders are responsible for putting people first, rather than profits. Too often today we see the inverse. Profit-driven companies focus on the bottom line while neglecting their obligations towards those who work for them. St. John Paul II decried this disparity as “morally inadmissible” in his Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, saying, “It is possible for the financial accounts to be in order, and yet for the people — who make up the firm’s most valuable asset — to be humiliated and their dignity offended” (35).
It all results in what Francis calls an “economy that kills.”
This is an extremely important concern to Pope Francis, who returns over and over again to our need for a just economic system that provides dignified work, a living wage, and treats workers justly. In recognition of today’s holiday, I have compiled an anthology of some of Pope Francis’s statements on themes related to work, labor, employment, and human rights and dignity. Have a blessed Labor Day!
“Let us pray for all workers. For all of them. May no-one be without employment, and may all be fairly paid, that they might earn both the dignity of their work and the beauty of rest.”
“Work makes the human person similar to God, because with work man is a creator, capable of creating, of creating many things; also of creating a family to raise. The human person is a creator, and creates through work. This is his vocation, and it says in the Bible that ‘God saw all He had made, and indeed it was very good’ (Gen 1:31). That is, work had goodness within itself and creates the harmony of things – beauty, goodness – and involves man in everything: in his thought, his actions, everything. Man is involved in work. It is man’s first vocation: to work. And this gives dignity to man. The dignity that makes him resemble God. The dignity of work.”
— Pope Francis, Homily, Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, “Work is the vocation of man,” Friday, 1st May 2020
“Today we wish to thank God first of all for the gift of work. Work is extremely important, both for the actual person who works and for his or her family. As we give thanks, let us pray for the people and the families, in Italy and throughout the world, who have no work, or else, often, who do work that is undignified, poorly paid, or harmful to health…. We must always thank God for work. And we must be committed, each one with his or her own responsibility, to ensuring that work is dignified, respectful of the person and of the family, and just.”
— Pope Francis, Meeting with the personnel of the Holy See and of the Vatican City State with their families, Thursday, 22 December 2016
“A threat is posed by theories that consider profit and consumption as independent elements or as autonomous variables of economic life, excluding workers and determining their unbalanced standard of living: ‘Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 53).”
— Video message of His Holiness Pope Francis on the occasion of the 109th Meeting of the International Labour Organization (ILO), 17 June 2021
“Your territory has a longstanding experience of cooperation borne from the fundamental value of solidarity. It still has much to offer today, also in aiding the many people in difficulty and in need of that ‘social lift,’ which according to some, is completely disregarded. Let us never bend solidarity to the logic of financial profit, also because in this way, we take it away from — I could say rob — the weaker ones who are in great need of it. Seeking a society that is more just is not a dream of the past, but rather a commitment, a task that requires everyone’s contribution today.
The situation of youth unemployment and that of the many who have lost their jobs and are not able to re-integrate, are realities to which we cannot become accustomed, treating them as mere statistics. And this is the temptation.
Hospitality and the battle against poverty are largely related to employment. One cannot offer effective help to the poor without also giving them the opportunity to find employment and dignity.”
— Pope Francis, Encounter with the world of work, unemployed, representatives of Unindustria, trade unions, the National Confederation of Cooperatives and Legacoop, Address of the Holy Father, Piazza Maggiore (Bologna), Sunday, 1 October 2017
“There is an urgent need to find new forms of work truly capable of fulfilling our human potential and affirming our dignity. In order to ensure dignified employment, there must be a change in the prevailing economic paradigm, which seeks only to expand companies’ profits. Offering jobs to more people should be one of the main objectives of every business, one of the criteria for the success of productive activity. Technological progress is valuable and necessary, provided that it serves to make people’s work more dignified and safe, less burdensome and stressful.”
— Pope Francis, Video Message of His Holiness Pope Francis to the Seventy-fifth Meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations (25 September 2020)
“It is a form of suffering, the shortage of work — that leads you — excuse me if I am coming over a little strong but I am telling the truth — to feel that you are deprived of dignity! Where there is no work there is no dignity! And this is not only a problem in Sardinia — but it is serious here! — it is not only a problem in Italy or in certain European countries, it is the result of a global decision, of an economic system which leads to this tragedy; an economic system centred on an idol called ‘money.’
God did not want an idol to be at the centre of the world but man, men and women who would keep the world going with their work. Yet now, in this system devoid of ethics, at the centre there is an idol and the world has become an idolater of this ‘god-money.’”
— Pope Francis, Meeting with Workers, Address of Holy Father Francis, Largo Carlo Felice, Cagliari, Sunday, 22 September 2013
“‘Our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people, people often overlooked. People who do not appear in newspaper and magazine headlines, or on the latest television show, yet in these very days are surely shaping the decisive events of our history. Doctors, nurses, storekeepers and supermarket workers, cleaning personnel, caregivers, transport workers, men and women working to provide essential services and public safety, volunteers, priests, men and women religious, and so very many others. They understood that no one is saved alone… How many people daily exercise patience and offer hope, taking care to spread not panic, but shared responsibility. How many fathers, mothers, grandparents and teachers are showing our children, in small everyday ways, how to accept and deal with a crisis by adjusting their routines, looking ahead and encouraging the practice of prayer. How many are praying, making sacrifices and interceding for the good of all.’ Each of us can discover in Joseph – the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence – an intercessor, a support and a guide in times of trouble. Saint Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation. A word of recognition and of gratitude is due to them all.”
— Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter Patris Corde, December 8, 2020
“And then that same day, Jesus did something ‘worse,’ something that irritated even more the hypocrites and the prideful who were watching him, looking for some excuse to trap him. He cured a man’s withered hand. The hand, that powerful symbol of work, of labour. Jesus restored that man’s ability to work, and thereby restored his dignity. How many withered hands are there, how many persons deprived of the dignity of work, because the hypocrites, in order to defend unjust systems, are opposed to their being healed. Sometimes I think that when you, the organized poor, create your own work – establishing a cooperative, restoring a ruined factory, recycling the refuse of the consumer society, braving the elements in order to sell your wares in a public square, reclaiming a parcel of farm land to feed the hungry – whenever you do these things, you are imitating Jesus, because you are trying to heal, even if minimally and provisionally, that atrophy of the dominant socio-economic system, which is unemployment. I am not surprised that at times you find yourselves being watched or persecuted, nor am I surprised that the proud have no interest in what you are saying.”
— Pope Francis, Address to participants in the World Meeting of Popular Movements, 5 November 2016
“Here today there are various workers’ organizations and representatives of the Chamber of Commerce and business associations. At first sight they could be considered as adversaries, but they are united by the same responsibility: seeking to create employment opportunities which are dignified and truly beneficial for society and especially for the young people of this land.”
— Pope Francis, Apostolic Journey to Mexico: Meeting with the world of labour at the Bachilleres College in the state of Chihuahua, Ciudad Juárez, 17 February 2016
“Commitment to work and the spiritual life, in the Christian conception, are not at all at odds with one another. It is important to understand this properly! Prayer and work can and must be in harmony, as St Benedict teaches. The absence of work damages the spirit, just as the absence of prayer damages practical activity.
Work — I repeat, in its many forms — is proper to the human person. It expresses the dignity of being created in the image of God. Thus, it is said that work is sacred.”
— Pope Francis, General Audience of 19 August 2015
“The primary value of work is the good of the human person since it fulfills him as such, with his inner talents and his intellectual, creative and physical abilities. Hence the scope of work is not only profit and economics; its purpose above all regards man and his dignity. Man’s dignity is tied to work. I listened to several young workers who are unemployed, and this is what they told me: ‘Father, we at home — my wife, my children — we eat every day because they give us something to eat at the parish, or the club, or the Red Cross. But Father, I don’t know what it means to earn bread for the table, and I need to eat, but I need to know the dignity of being a breadwinner.’ And work means this! This dignity is wounded where work is lacking! Anyone who is unemployed or underemployed is likely, in fact, to be placed on the margins of society, becoming a victim of social exclusion. Many times it happens that people without work — I am thinking especially of the many unemployed young people today — slip into chronic discouragement, or worse, into apathy.”
— Pope Francis receives in audience the managers and workers of the Terni steel mill and the faithful of the Diocese of Terni-Narnia-Amelia, Italy, 20 March 2014
“The sacredness of every human being demands respect, acceptance and dignified work for each one. Dignified work! Allow me here to recall the five men and two women of Chinese citizenship who died two years ago because of a fire in the industrial district of Prato. They were living and sleeping in the same factory in which they worked; small sleeping quarters had been put together from cardboard and plasterboard, using bunk beds to capitalize on the building’s height. It was a tragedy of exploitation and inhuman living conditions. And this is not dignified work! The life of every community requires that the cancer of corruption, the cancer of exploiting humans and labour, and the poison of lawlessness be fought to the very end. Within ourselves and together with others let us never tire of fighting for truth and justice.”
— Pope Francis, Pastoral Visit – Prato: Meeting with the world of labour in the square in front of the Cathedral, 10 November 2015
“Today, many people tend to shy away from certain jobs because they seem physically demanding and unprofitable, forgetting how indispensable they are for human development. Where would we be without the efforts of those whose work contributes daily to putting food on our tables? Where would we be without the patient and creative labour of those who produce the clothes we wear or build the houses in which we live? Many essential professions are now looked down upon. Yet they are essential both for society and, above all, for the satisfaction that they give to those who realize that they are being useful in themselves and for others, thanks to their daily work.”
— To the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, 28 October 2017
“Throughout the world, the G20 countries included, there are far too many women and men suffering from severe malnutrition, a rise in the number of the unemployed, an extremely high percentage of young people without work and an increase in social exclusion which can lead to criminal activity and even the recruitment of terrorists.”
— Letter of the Holy Father to the Prime Minister of Australia on the occasion of the G20 Summit, Brisbane, 15-16 November 2014, 6 November 2014
“Person and work are two words that can and must stand together. Because if we think and talk about ‘work’ without the ‘person’, work ends up becoming something inhuman which, in forgetting people, also forgets and loses itself. But if we think of a person without work, we are talking about something partial, incomplete, because a person is fully realized when he or she becomes a worker; because the individual becomes a person when he or she opens up to others, to social life, when he or she flourishes in work. A person flourishes in work. Work is the most common form of cooperation that humanity has generated in its history. Every day, millions of people cooperate simply by working: educating our children, operating mechanical devices, sorting out paperwork in an office…. Work is a form of civil love: it is not romantic love nor always an intentional love, but it is a true, authentic love that enables us to live and moves the world forward.”
— Pope Francis, Address to Delegates of the Italian Confederation of Workers’ Unions (CISL) (28 June 2017)
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