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LABOREM EXERCENS (1981) – Pope John Paul II

5. Reception

The reception of Laborem Exercens by journalists, academics and commentators was significant. Some journalists argued that in this document John Paul had severed the link between Christianity and capitalism. In a number of academic circles Laborem Exercens was viewed as so radical that the Pope’s concept of work could modify the very structure of capitalism.

Commentators opinions ranged across a spectrum of ideas. At one end there were academic reviews which examined the underlying philosophy of the document. At the other end of the spectrum was an embrace of the encyclical as a blueprint to assist those who were struggling for economic justice.

Immediately following the proclamation of the encyclical in 1981, the teachings contained in Laborem Exercens had an impact beyond the world of the Catholic Church, particularly in the United States and other developed nations.

Throughout the encyclical the Pope demonstrates a comprehensive understanding of the thinking that underpins both Capitalism and Communism and critiques both of these systems in the light of the gospel. This critique ignited public discussion in both the seemingly unbounded marketplace of capitalism and in the controlled economies influenced by Marxist thought.

The document was received according to particular circumstances, especially in the countries of the developing world that had a significant Catholic population. In Latin American countries where Church teaching had in the past sometimes been misused to oppress workers, the document was received by the oppressed workers as a message of hope and understanding. In Poland and other countries in Eastern Europe the document was viewed as a political statement in support for the Solidarity movement and its action in attempting to bring about reforms in the Eastern Bloc nations influenced by Russia.

Twenty years after its proclamation the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops through its Office of Domestic Social Development released a social justice statement The Dignity of Work and Workers: The Message of Laborem Exercens. This statement contains a summary and a strong reaffirmation of meaning and message of this ground breaking encyclical. During the Workchoices debate 2006-2007 in Australian, Laborem Exercens formed the foundation for critiques of the Workchoices policy by some Australian Catholic Bishops, academics and those working for social justice.

Laborem Exercens stands as clear teaching on the place and role of work in human life, a teaching that stands as constant challenge to present and future generations that work is for the person, not the person for work.

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