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Management, labor, and the development of the human person: insights from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.


Catholic Social Teaching offers a distinctive view of the human person, one which is often in conflict with the perspective of the American economic system. This article will demonstrate the vision that the Church offers, as exemplified in its recent Compendium, and suggest that current practices might be rethought to ensure that the dignity of each person is respected.


Why do people work? What motivates human beings to engage in productive labor? Some might say that it is merely necessity; as St. Paul puts it, "Those who would not work shall not eat." (1) Sometimes the need for a paycheck is a bit broader than just the desire to fill one's own belly--it may also include the wish to care for one's family, or at least the duty to do so. But is there ever anything else driving the need to work?

Surely for some people there exists the desire to be involved in an enterprise greater than oneself, to live not just for oneself but also for the good of others. Other people may wish to develop their own talents, to discover the limits of their abilities, or to express themselves through a particular craft. In some cases, there may even be an aspiration to create, to devise something never previously imagined. The motives here are not necessarily pure, either--lurking behind may be a desire for wealth or fame.

The point, however, is that there are any number of reasons why people work, whether it is merely to avoid starvation or respond to a duty, to express love for others, to engage in the life of the larger community, to develop oneself, or to serve humanity in general. Often, however, we limit ourselves in considering the reasons for human labor, sometimes cynically taking into account only the basest of motives. In such cases, it is typically our assumptions about human nature that determine our beliefs, and this can lead to difficulties for both managers and workers in their expectations of others, in the way they treat one another, in the design of jobs, and in the determination of reward systems.

The social teaching of the Catholic Church, however, presents us with a broad and clear-eyed view of human nature, denying neither its shortcomings nor its virtues. An examination of this perspective on the human person, as outlined in the Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church (particularly in its third chapter), can be of great service to those involved in business at various levels, allowing a realistic assessment of what is possible, what is permissible, and how to create an authentic and effective human community at work.

The "Personalist Principle"

At the heart of the Church's social teaching is a basic principle that is all too often ignored: "All of social life is an expression of its unmistakable protagonist: the human person." (2) Any human community, that is, whether it is the family, a religious organization, a school, a government, a small business, a multinational corporation, or the entire economic system itself, is not meant to be self-perpetuating for its own sake, but to serve the needs and the authentic development of the human person. As will be seen, this does not imply a hardnosed individualism, for all persons are social by nature, nor does it deny the common good. But it does insist that the rights of individuals cannot be sacrificed to the needs of the collective. In the case of a business, this means that economic decisions cannot take a dismissive attitude towards the needs of the human beings who make it up. The bishops of the United States, in their 1986 pastoral letter on the economy, stated the principle clearly:
 Every economic decision must be judged in light of whether it protects
 or undermines the dignity of the human person ... We judge any
 economic system by what it does for and to people and by how it
 permits all to participate in it. The economy should serve people, not
 the other way around. (3)

When a company, for example, is facing financial difficulty, there may be the presumption that layoffs are inevitable. "It's just business," after all. But is human dignity respected when one's first impulse is to shed the "dead weight" of labor? This is not to say that the reduction of labor costs is not sometimes necessary to maintain profitability and competitiveness; the question is whether other options to do so are explored before the pink slips are handed out. At the same time, members of the labor force need to be willing to evaluate the situation themselves and to offer concessions when necessary.

In many cases, however, employees are not given much choice, nor are they allowed to participate in these difficult decisions. Especially when union representation does not exist, the tendency is for management to keep the relevant information, and the decision-making process, to itself. What assumptions are made here? It may be simply a matter of efficiency, of not desiring to complicate the process. But there may also be questions about the ability of workers to engage in such deliberations; perhaps they are unable to see the big picture, would make selfish decisions that hurt the viability of the organization, or are simply intellectually incapable of understanding the complex nuances of a company's finances. But whether it's a matter of speed or of paternalism, the result is that the individuals affected do not have a say in their future. Managers would do well in such cases to examine their own motivations.

The Human Person as the "Imago Dei"
 God created man in his image;
 in the divine image he created him;
 male and female he created them. (4)

Christians believe in a Trinitarian God: three Persons sharing one divine nature. In this formulation Father, Son, and Spirit are understood as persons-in-relation. The Christian conception of God rejects monism, the attitude that a single center of consciousness stands in opposition to created reality. Rather, the ultimate foundation of existence is a relationship. To be created in the image of God thus points to an understanding of the human person as a fundamentally social and relational being, not as an isolated individual. This has several consequences.

Human Life as Oriented Towards God and the Transcendent

The first is the assertion that human beings are profoundly related to God. (5) Created in the image of God, we also have God as our final end, our ultimate purpose and goal. All other motivations are subordinate to this end and should be oriented towards it. This orientation towards God implies as well an openness to transcendence. (6) The human person looks beyond the horizon of the created order to discover meaning in life. Our economic system can be quite effective in satisfying material wants, but it does not, and cannot, fulfill our underlying desire for such immaterial goods as truth, goodness, beauty, and love. "One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God." (7) Indeed, since God is love, (8) then our ultimate end is love itself, and all other human activities, including our work, should help lead us towards this goal.

A proper understanding of love is necessary here. American society tends both to romanticize and compartmentalize the notion of love. It becomes a feeling towards others, a mere sentiment that is restricted to the realm of personal relationships. To speak of love in our public life, and especially in our working environments, seems to be a naive idealization that will be shattered by the facts of the "real world." As Adam Smith put it so famously, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." (9)

In Christian thought, however, our ultimate interest is union with God in love. Here love is more than a sentiment or feeling; it is, rather, an act of the will which allows us to enter into a relationship with others. The Christian conception of love is modeled on that of Christ, whose greatest act of love was the gift of his own life on the cross, for our sake. "No one has greater love than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends." (10) This does not mean that we should be seeking martyrdom, but that our actions in all realms of life, public and private, should lead us to a sincere gift of self. This is based on a recognition that life is a gift from God which is not meant to be drawn within itself, but to go beyond itself so as to become a gift to others--in other words, we are to love God and neighbor in all that we do.

In the world of work, therefore, what matters is not merely efficiency or the desire to satisfy material wants. Rather, work can--and should--lead to the development of persons to allow them to contribute their gifts to the various human communities, including businesses, to which they belong.

Human Life as Oriented Towards Others
 "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable
 partner for him." (11)

This leads to the second consequence of our creation in the image of God: our relationship to God is reflected in our relationship to others. As St. John puts it: "If anyone says, 'I love God,' but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen." (12) Human beings are social by nature; we are meant to enter into communion with our brothers and sisters, and to cooperate with them in building up the Kingdom of God.

Human life is designed to reflect the life of the Trinity, which is by nature a communion of Persons. Perhaps this is why the book of Genesis states that when humanity was created in God's image, it was created male and female. It is through the union of diverse subjects that the divine communion is symbolized. Not only does this underscore the equal dignity of men and women; it also rejects the extreme individualism often found in our culture.

This is not merely an abstract theological assertion; there is concrete evidence of this reality. Language is one example; no one can learn how to speak (let alone read or write) in a vacuum. Our very ability to communicate is at root a social phenomenon and must be taught by others. Take the case of those who are born deaf: their inability to hear the spoken voice prevents them from discovering language on their own. After learning sign language, they frequently report that they were previously unable to make sense of the kaleidoscope of sensations which assaulted them; a means of communication was necessary for them to understand the rest of the world, including other human beings. (13) Of course, our senses themselves presume that there is a reality beyond our minds which we must reach out to encounter.

American mythology offers us images which attempt to deny our fundamentally social nature: the "rugged individualism" of those who conquered the frontier, the "self-made" man who succeeds in the face of an unforgiving society, the lonely inventor whose genius is the basis of technological advance. But even the most brilliant scientist "stands on the shoulders of giants," advancing knowledge gained in the past; the most successful salesman is dependent on the customers who desire his product, and on the work of those who design and manufacture it; and the loneliest cowboy hopes eventually to drive his cattle to market.

This is not to deny the value of individual creativity and initiative--it is both real and highly necessary. But it must be placed in proper context, for there is always an environment in which each person's talents and drives are worked out: a family background which shaped the individual; the contributions of teachers, mentors, and peers; the response of others to one's performance. Sports analogies may be apt here: the star quarterback is dependent on an offensive line to protect him and the Cy Young award winner needs his teammates to score runs. Even in individual sports, competitors are dependent upon outside actors, such as coaches, trainers, and practice partners--as well as fans and advertisers willing to financially support these endeavors.

In the world of work, too, there is a need for contributions at many levels. Executives and managers coordinate the disparate activities of an organization and direct them towards a larger end. Designers and engineers develop products to meet the needs of the market. Finance officers and accountants utilize their expertise to ensure adequate funding and cash flow. Assembly-line workers labor to fashion the finished product. Sales representatives, customer-service agents and marketing specialists develop and maintain relationships with consumers. Maintenance personnel and custodians help to ensure that others are able to perform their functions in a satisfactory environment. Each member of the firm offers a service to achieve a greater goal. In so doing, they are also able to achieve other ends, including the care of their families and their own self-development; but all of this is done in the context of relationships within and outside the organization in order to advance the common good of all.

Sharing in God's Creative Activity
 The Lord God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden,
 to cultivate and care for it. (14)

There is one further consequence of the creation of human beings in the image of God: we have been given dominion over the created order. (15) This dominion should not be reduced to an exploitative domination of other creatures; rather, it suggests that our relationship to the rest of the created order should mirror God's relationship to us. (16) If God loves and sustains us and the universe, our attitude towards other creatures (including human beings!) should reflect such concern. If God's lordship over creation includes the provision of gifts that enable us to develop to our full potential, then human leadership must be oriented towards the service of others. "Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant." (17) Managers, for instance, should look upon their subordinates as persons entrusted to them, and their goals should include the development of these persons to their fullest potential.

In addition, the creation came into being through the work of God. As human beings created in God's likeness, we too are meant to continue this work. As John Paul II put it,
 [M]an, created in the image of God, shares by his work in the activity
 of the creator and ... continues to develop that activity, and
 perfects it as he advances further and further in the discovery of the
 resources and values contained in the whole of creation. (18)

This is a tremendous vocation, to consider ourselves as partners with God in the development of the created order.

The Reality of Sin and the Possibility of Redemption
 "By the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat." (19)

Partners with God, yes; but not gods ourselves. Despite this inspirational-some might say idealized--view of human work as participation in creation, it is not the whole story. Christians believe that sin has tarnished the image of God in the human person. The Book of Genesis describes the first sin as resulting from the desire to "be like gods" (20), denying our status as creatures. In so doing, in trying to become ourselves arbiters of the universe, we enter into conflict with the rest of existence. As the Compendium states,
 The consequence of sin, insofar as it is an act of separation from man
 God, is alienation, the separation of man not only from God, but also
 from himself, from other men, and from the world around him. (21)

In other words, sin blinds us to our fundamental social and relational nature, because it leads us to consider solely our own interests and not those of other beings, as well as creating the illusion that we are somehow completely self-sufficient.

This impoverished view of human nature can therefore result in the exploitation and manipulation of others, due to overemphasis on particular factors. The extreme individualism of some parts of American culture, as discussed above, can lead to the view that human beings are self-creating and able to reinvent themselves at will. Human freedom is then detached from any moral framework, and "choice" itself becomes the supreme value. At the other extreme are various forms of collectivism and determinism, which presume that human nature is infinitely malleable and can and should be controlled by the State, or by assorted "experts." In either case, other human beings are perceived not as ends in themselves, but as means to be used for other purposes. The human person is reduced to an object to be controlled or an obstacle to be overcome.

Examples of such reductionism abound in economic history, especially in terms of attitudes towards labor. It can be clearly seen in the "scientific management" of Frederick Taylor (1856-1915), which, taken to its extreme, envisions workers as machines whose functions can be controlled precisely in order to achieve maximum efficiency. (22) This approach has contributed to the compartmentalization so often found in industrialized societies: in exchange for prosperity, workers accept tedious, repetitive labor. The human person as consumer is separated from the person as worker, and private and public life are set over against each other.

At the same time, the person as worker is frequently conceived of as a commodity. (23) Discussion of the labor "market" presumes that wages are merely the price paid for a certain product, in this case a person's labor. While this is a useful tool for macroeconomic analysis that seeks to understand the link between productivity, wages, and employment levels, it can also lead to the dissociation of work from the human beings who perform it. Particularly when unskilled labor is involved, workers can be seen as "fungible", interchangeable parts in a complex system, rather than as fully human persons. Human beings, however, are not merely their labor, nor are they merely consumers seeking to satisfy their desires through purchasing power. There is no such thing as homo oecnomicus, only homo sapiens. But sin can cloud our vision, allowing us only to see the part that serves our interest.

It is interesting to note that the American political and economic systems do take the fact of human sinfulness into account. Since all human beings are sinful, it is vital to prevent any individual or small group from gaining too much power. Relationships are therefore designed to induce conflicts among varying interests. In the political realm this leads to the separation of powers and federalism; in economics it means that people advance their own peculiar preferences in the market. There is value in this; but it can also lead to a suspicion of governmental authority itself, as well as to the rejection of a common moral vision within a society. Historically this was dependent upon a view (since abandoned except as an unexamined assumption) that sin had so completely corrupted human reason that it was impossible to clearly determine what was good and true. The Catholic vision has never been quite so pessimistic, although it is realistic enough in its understanding of human failings. It understands that we are divided within ourselves, desiring what is good but not always able to bring it about.

The Catholic understanding of sinfulness also recognizes that we have limitations, both physical and spiritual. For example, while work is not to be understood as a punishment or curse, since it was part of the human vocation from the beginning, for many people it can be a matter of toil and drudgery, particularly when it involves manual labor. (24) This points to a potential failing in our economic system: not class division per se, but a division between those who do intellectual work and those whose tasks primarily involve physical exertion.

In recent decades those who formerly could support a family through unskilled labor have found it increasingly difficult to do so. At the same time, those who are highly-educated and mobile tend to be more secure--those involved in design, consulting, or software development, for example. Our society in many ways seems to be falling prey to a type of Gnosticism, which values the intellectual over the physical and denies the unity of body and soul in the human person. Science and technology increasingly allow us to overcome our physical limitations, and economic value is primarily derived from intellectual creativity. Many of these developments are exciting and important, but the fate of those who are unable to participate in these adventures needs to be considered as well, as does our tendency to ignore the physical suffering of others.

Christianity prefers the union of the physical and the spiritual, and it values the works of both heart and hand. This is due to the fundamental Christian belief in the Incarnation. We believe that in Jesus Christ, God has completely entered into material existence, making our bodily existence a means through which we can come in contact with the divine. Despite its limitations, which Jesus himself experienced, the physical universe is good, indeed blessed, even if we cannot always see it. And we too have been given a share in the continuing work of its creation and redemption. (25) Our model here is Jesus, who was also a "man of work," (26) as John Paul II explained:
 [T]he one who, while being God, became like us in all things, devoted
 most of his life on earth to manual work at the carpenter's bench.
 This circumstance constitutes in itself the most eloquent "gospel of
 work," showing that the basis for determining the value of human work
 is not primarily the kind of work being done, but the fact that the
 one who is doing it is a person. (27)

By sharing in every aspect of human existence, including physical toil, suffering, and death, Jesus has again revealed to us our identity as persons, created in the image of God and endowed with an immeasurable dignity.

Conclusion: Respect for the Dignity of All
 Only the recognition of human dignity can make possible the common and
 personal growth of everyone. (28)

The vision of the human person in Catholic thought is thus varied, rich, and complex. Oriented towards God as our ultimate end, we are relational and social by nature. We all have a share in the continuing work of creation and need to work together for the common good. But this is not to be accomplished by focusing on such abstractions as "society," "the State," or even "the market." Rather, the concrete individual person, equal in dignity to all others and connected to others in an intricate network of relationships, is the center. Each person is unique in talent, history, and temperament, and is called to develop these gifts for the benefit of self and others.

The question is whether our working environments respect this God-given dignity. Are all members of an organization at every level granted equal respect, whether they are executives or custodial staff? Are jobs designed to utilize a wide range of physical, intellectual and social skills? Are the legitimate concerns and ideas of employees given a fair hearing? Are they given a sense of having a stake in the success of an organization? And are they viewed not just as interchangeable pieces in a machine but as individuals who have family and friends, aspirations and anxieties, and a destiny beyond our imagining?

These questions may be easy enough to answer in the abstract, but it can be quite difficult to develop a business organization based on the principles discussed here. For one thing, in a secular culture like ours, it is difficult to express these matters in a way that does not impose on the belief systems of others. Nonetheless, the promotion of human dignity is not dependent solely on Christian faith, for all people desire to be respected as persons. Perhaps more daunting is the fact that the day-to-day realities of filling orders, meeting deadlines, and turning a profit in the face of tremendous competition can tempt us just to go along as we have always done.

But our current system is based on a vision of what human beings are and what they live for, one which is limited in many respects. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church offers an alternative vision of the human person, one which peers further into the recesses of the human heart. Perhaps this vision can be the start of a new model of economic life that seeks to develop the whole person and responds to the many reasons why people work.


(1) 2 Thessalonians 3:10.

(2) Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2004, #106.

(3) National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Economic Justice for All. Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1986, Introduction, no. 13.

(4) Genesis 1:27

(5) Compendium, no. 109.

(6) Compendium, no. 130.

(7) Matthew 4:4

(8) 1 John 4:8.

(9) Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979, 1:26-27.

(10) John 15:13.

(11) Genesis 2:18.

(12) 1 John 4:20.

(13) Sacks, Oliver. "Mysteries of the Deaf," The New York Review of Books, Volume 33, Number 5, March 27, 1986.

(14) Genesis 2:14.

(15) Genesis 1:26.28

(16) Cf. Compendium, no. 113.

(17) Mark 10:43.

(18) John Paul II. Encyclical Letter Laborem Exercens, no. 25.

(19) Genesis 3:19.

(20) Genesis 3:5.

(21) Compendium, no. 116.

(22) See his 1911 Principles of Scientific Management, which led to the widespread use of "time and motion studies" to standardize labor practices.

(23) This process is well-described in Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), especially chapter 6.

(24) Compendium, no. 256

(25) Ibid., no. 263.

(26) Ibid., no. 259.

(27) Laborem Exercens, no. 6.

(28) Compendium, no. 145.

Timothy J. Cusick, S.S.

Fr. Cusick is a Sulpician priest who is currently a candidate for the S.T.L. degree at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, MA.
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Author:Cusick, Timothy J.
Publication:Review of Business
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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