New Aesthetic Vistas on the Metaphysics of Labor

Anglophone debates over John Paul II’s theory of labor are often concerned with his agreement with a neo-conservative economic program. While this is a worthwhile question, its terms do not do justice to the pope’s capacious worldview. John Paul II’s theory of labor fits within a larger metaphysical and aesthetic commitment, summarized in the key phrase from Person and Act: “action expresses the person.”[1] This personalistic commitment is central to the metaphysics of labor in Laborem Exercens.[2]

What follows will begin by developing the context for John Paul II’s understanding of labor. Using the work of Brad S. Gregory and Charles Taylor, the first two sections will engage in a brief historical survey. I will examine the late-medieval/early-modern shift in the valorization of work as part of ordinary life, a shift that was part of a larger divide created between being and action. The early-modern rejection of formal and final causality elevated instrumental reason, a move that also reconfigured human labor as purely instrumental.

Combined with the ascendency of voluntaristic pictures of God, the result was, as Joseph Ratzinger puts it, “man’s complete devotion to his own work as the only certainty.”[3] In the third section, I turn to John Paul II and LE to see how he affirms the ordinary life of work in a way distinct from that of the early moderns. The argument is that John Paul II’s aesthetic philosophy of the person provides a distinctive way of reconnecting being and action through expression. He returns to a sacramental, or semiological, account of action as revelatory of being, prior to any utilitarian purpose. I will conclude by showing how his approach bears fruit in the spirituality of work that he presents in LE. Such a spirituality prizes the “subjective” or personalistic meaning of labor before its “objective” use.

The Industrious Revolution

Recently, Charles Taylor and Brad S. Gregory have repristinated the labor theory of Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–1905). For mostly different reasons than those found in Weber, Taylor and Gregory argue for the social significance of the attitudes and social conditions that began in the late medieval age and flourished in the Reformation.

Gregory emphasizes the universal condemnation of avarice in the patristic and medieval worlds. Money was understood to be conducive to idolatry, in that it can easily become an end in itself rather than a means to an end.[4] Gregory cites Aristotle, whom Thomas Aquinas followed on this point: “Consequently those who place their end in riches have an infinite concupiscence of riches; whereas those who desire riches, on account of the necessities of life, desire a finite measure of riches, sufficient for the necessities of life, as the Philosopher says.”[5] The virtue of almsgiving imprints medieval life with ideas and practices that relativized monetary gain.[6] Even though increasing urbanization, beginning in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, began to depersonalize economic exchange, the larger Christian context meant that “even in cities such behaviors remained market activities in what had not yet become a market society.”[7] This was true throughout the late Middle Ages.

On the face of it, little of this changed with the Reformation. Like Catholic moralists, Reformers were just as opposed to the love of luxury, especially when found among the Catholic hierarchy.[8] Nevertheless, Reformed soteriology refused to allow a salvific importance to one’s economic actions. Because it tended to deny that avarice or almsgiving could hurt or help one’s chances for salvation, economic activity was disaggregated from the divine and given its own relative independence.[9]

As seen especially in the “Industrious Revolution” of the Dutch Republic in the mid-seventeenth century, this disaggregation also seemed to lead to economic and political supremacy, brought about “by bracketing questions of Christian truth rather than letting doctrine dictate political decision-making.”[10] This intentional separation of economic and political action from doctrine and salvation is new with the modern validation of work.

The economic rejection of the traditional Christian view of avarice is expressed clearly (and controversially) in 1705, by Bernard Mandeville in his poem “The Grumbling Hive, or Knaves Turn’d Honest,” republished in 1714 as The Fable of the Bees. Avarice is now seen to be the necessary driver of the economy, producing good ends through bad means.

The Root of Evil, Avarice,
That damn'd ill-natur’d baneful Vice,
Was Slave to Prodigality,
That noble Sin; whilst Luxury
Employ’d a Million of the Poor,
And odious Pride a Million more . . .

Here vice becomes almost providential, turned to good economic benefit: “Thus every part was full of vice, / Yet the whole mass a paradise.”

The Affirmation of Ordinary Life

Gregory helps us to understand the ascendency of the economic in our social imaginary. Charles Taylor provides further insight into how “production and reproduction,” which were previously seen as secondary compared to the primary end of virtue and contemplation, become more central.[11] He treats these themes under the heading of “the affirmation of ordinary life.”[12]

According to Taylor, this affirmation begins in the Reformation but does not become widespread until the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries. He locates its inspiration in the Reformation rejection (shared by many Catholic reformers) of a spiritual elitism that viewed the religious life as more fully “Christian” than the life of the ordinary layman.[13] “The institution of the monastic life was seen as a slur on the spiritual standing of productive labor and family life, their stigmatization as zones of spiritual underdevelopment.” Luther himself lives out the theological shift by abandoning the monastery and marrying a former nun.[14]

Puritan clerics placed a particular emphasis on a dual Christian calling, both to faith in Christ and to a specific kind of labor. The important thing was not how elevated this labor was but how well one did it. Hence, preacher Joseph Hall argued, “God loveth adverbs; and cares not how good, but how well.”[15]

In many ways, of course, this was simply a basic Christian conviction, a point Taylor does not completely grasp. In Christianity, the important thing was not how much the widow gave, but the degree of love and abandonment to God that marked her gift (Mk 12:38–44). For Thomas Aquinas, non-burdensome work was found in the garden before the fall and hence is an intrinsic part of human life created in the image of God, who is pure act.[16] Modern Catholic spiritual writers, such as St. Francis de Sales, emphasized the salvific potential of doing little things well, a trend that reached its apex in St. Therese of Lisieux’s “little way.

Nevertheless, for metaphysical reasons that I will unpack shortly, the Protestant emphasis on adverbs, while not novel, had a distinct flavor. That flavor was due to the rejection of hierarchy, both ecclesiastical and ontological. For the Protestant, it was suspect to elevate one way of life—such as vowed continence—over another—such as marriage. As a result, hierarchies of all kinds became subject to a levelling process.

If it is no longer tenable that the life of the evangelical counsels is objectively superior to other forms of life, then the superiority of a life must be found not in its objective status within a hierarchy but only in the subjective way one lives it out. While the Catholic theology of work emphasized both objective and subjective excellence, the Protestant anti-hierarchical move allowed only for the subjective.[17] Hence all the weight was placed on the adverbial, on “how well” one did one’s work.

In this scenario, idleness becomes a grave spiritual matter, as the preachers of the day repeatedly stressed. The opposition to idleness began to lend an increasingly moral valence to wealth, and poverty likewise became more morally suspect.[18] The elevation of industriousness was also an important theoretical element supporting the “Industrious Revolution” of early modernity. Further, along with diligence comes enjoyment, as long as it is rightly ordered: “there is no question of renunciation.”[19] Renunciation of pleasure was itself renounced as popish elitism and works-righteousness.

This validation of ordinary life within Puritanism was mixed up with a surprising streak of Pelagianism. How could this happen? First, Taylor argues that the sacred/profane distinction, which smacks of popish spiritual elitism, was replaced by the order/disorder tension.[20] Calvinists believed that the elect must act responsibly to prevent vice from taking hold in a society. This responsible action entailed striving to order the community to virtue (as seen in Geneva or New England). An elite religious life may have been out of bounds, theologically, but an ordered society was enjoined by the Gospel itself. Secondly, the wider culture began to shift toward what Taylor calls a “disciplinary society,” which was marked by a great optimism about the possibilities of human malleability under social control.[21] As part of this, all denominations were influenced by an early-modern repristination of Stoicism. Thirdly, Puritans allied themselves with Francis Bacon’s program of technological service to mankind, which again seemed to put Gospel requirements into a practical program of societal organization through science.[22]

This last point illuminates our question concerning the status of labor, so let us explore it more closely. Taylor finds the logic of this alliance with scientific technology in the emphasis of both Puritans and early-modern scientists on using (rather than renouncing) the goods of the world for the glory of God and the service of man. This is clear in Bacon. But also, as Taylor states, for the Puritans’ Augustinian theology, “instrumentalizing things is the spiritually essential step.”[23] This was the Protestant form of Ignatian indifference, and it was mixed with an innately Calvinist distrust of the goodness of the postlapsarian natural world. Instrumental reason seemed to subsume appropriately all the fallen things of the world under the aegis of the Kingdom of God, as managed by the God-fearing man with technological know-how. According to this mindset, the proper enjoyment of the world was enabled by the instrumentalizing of all things for God and humanity by means of a uniquely modern knowledge.

This embrace of instrumental reason is the key for understanding how the early Protestant valorization of labor differs from the Catholic one. I will explore this divergence in the next section; for now, let us attend more closely to the philosophical commitments behind the Puritan welcome of the Baconian project.

The ability to instrumentalize things, in order to turn them toward the benefit of humanity, requires emptying those things of any final purpose they might have had. In this way, final causality was jettisoned. Further, in order to be plastic matter available for manipulation, things cannot already be marked by form. Yet formal and final causality make the cosmos meaningful, marked by an intrinsic order. In rejecting these forms of causality, the late-medieval via moderna of nominalism and its related voluntarism created conditions for a new vision of the cosmos. Now the universe is not the expression of the eternal divine ideas but rather held together by the power of God.[24]

In such a metaphysical context, the role of human labor is exaggerated. If the world is not supported by an intrinsic order but rather only by the free will of God, the divine potesta absoluta could have ordained a completely different reality, even one in which the moral law was exactly opposite to the one we now have.[25] In such a world, labor’s ordering activity is all the more urgent to make the fallen cosmos into part of God’s kingdom.

It is no longer a matter of admiring a normative order, in which God has revealed himself through signs and symbols. We rather have to inhabit it as agents of instrumental reason, working the system effectively in order to bring about God’s purposes, because it is through these purposes, and not through signs, that God reveals himself to the world.[26]

Joseph Ratzinger sees these trends culminating in Giambattista Vico,[27] who rejects the Scholastic conviction that verum est ens (being is truth) in favor of verum quia factum: truth is found in what we make ourselves.[28] “The dominance of the fact began, that is, in man’s complete devotion to his own work as the only certainty.”[29]

Lastly, along with the other things inhabiting world, man himself loses form and telos, and he also becomes plastic matter that must be fashioned. This self-fashioning is merely one more piece of human labor, which more and more defines man. This trajectory reaches its apex in Marx (more on him shortly) and in the post-structuralists inspired by him.[30] Yet some nineteenth-century observers, like poet Matthew Arnold, decried the change: “Our preference of doing to thinking” is but “another version of the old story that energy is our strong point and favourable characteristic, rather than intelligence.”[31]

Rooting the Ordinary in Being

What are we to make of this history? Many themes sounded by the Puritans are appealing to contemporary Catholics. Vatican II documents such as the fourth chapter of Lumen Gentium and the entirety of Apostolicam Actuositatem from the Second Vatican Council, as well as John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, have emphasized that the laity are not second-class citizens, but rather full Christians called to sanctity. As a result, the ordinary life of work and marriage—Taylor’s “production and reproduction”—have received increased magisterial attention.

The Catholic revival of ordinary life shares some convictions with Protestantism, and, indeed, modernity itself is a complex reality that need not be utterly rejected.[32] But the voluntarist and then Baconian abandonment of formal and final causality remains the key problematic feature within the modern affirmation of ordinary life. As a result, modernity exaggerated the role of human labor, investing it with an excessive eschatological import, a trend seen in Marxist-influenced thought today.

A retrieval of the value of human labor must begin with the conviction that the world reflects the divine Logos and not merely divine power. If this is the case, then the retrieval of both ontological and ecclesial hierarchies becomes tenable. Those hierarchies reflect the interrelations of formal realities with each other and vis-à-vis the final end, God; hence, form and finality are intrinsic to the objective (and not merely subjective) aspect of the goodness of human work. Further, a metaphysics that accepts form and finality requires less of human labor. We do not need to work to make the world to be in accord with God’s design, because all things are already ordered according to that design, even if the Fall destabilizes that order to some degree.[33] But if this is the case—if Catholicism does not call us to labor because our instrumental reason is the primary way to order the world—then what grounds the value of human work for the Catholic?

John Paul II provides an answer to this question in Laborem Exercens. The Polish pope was quite conversant in modern philosophy and especially in Marxist thought, which surrounded him, in varying degrees of decadence, in Soviet-controlled Poland. LE begins with the conviction that human labor is one piece of the revelatory function of the human person who is and who acts as imago Dei. “Man is made to be in the visible universe an image and likeness of God Himself, and he is placed in it in order to subdue the earth.”[34] In so being and acting, the human person is fulfilled: “Work thus belongs to the vocation of every person; indeed, man expresses and fulfils himself by working.”[35] In this way, the formal and final causality that was lost in modern concepts of labor is reintegrated into the anthropology of work.

First, let us note the pope’s formulation: Even before man “fulfills himself” through labor, he “expresses” himself. By making human labor a matter of revelation before it is a matter of achievement, John Paul II’s theology is formally aesthetic, if we use the terms provided by Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theological aesthetics.[36] Balthasar argues that, in the form of a beautiful thing, “the truth and goodness of the depths of reality itself are manifested and bestowed.”[37] Beauty entails the revelation of the depths of being. This aesthetic approach anchors the ordinary not primarily in doing—and action’s corresponding utility—but in being. This approach is sacramental, in that it assumes the semiotic powers of the material world. In the being of creation, the goodness, truth, and unity of its divine source are imaged and made visible, and this is making-visible is beauty.

Let us see how this dynamic occurs in John Paul II’s aesthetic personalism, summarized in the frequently repeated phrase from Person and Act: “action reveals the person.”[38] In the book’s introduction, Wojtyła explains that an analysis of personal act is his method for approaching the mystery of the human person. “The act constitutes the particular moment in which the person reveals himself.”[39] The person is especially revealed through moral acts and moreover becomes either good or evil through his acts.[40]

Further, the revealed person is an interior reality.[41] The richness of personal interiority is an important modern theme; for John Paul II, however, this interiority depends first upon metaphysics. Each person is a suppositum, an individual and unrepeatable substance.[42] Further, each person is a substance of a rational nature, which is the “birth” or origin of our freedom (natura derives from natus). Human nature ensures that man labors, as LE emphasizes: “From the beginning . . . he is called to work. Work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures . . . . Thus, work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity.”[43] Still further, human nature gives a person the ability to “create oneself” through free actions, while also limiting the possible field of actions.[44] Metaphysics is not the last word on the person, but it is the first and necessary word.

Already here we see the recovery of elements abandoned in early modernity, namely, the sign-value of human action and its relation to human nature. An affirmation of the existence of human nature reintroduces formal causality to the equation, which is a reality that both enables and puts limits upon self-fashioning. Personal action builds upon, rather than replaces, the formal causality of nature, and human action is expressive before it is instrumental. But Wojtyła also affirms some aspects of modern anthropology, namely, the (qualified) self-formation that happens in action. The person who acts is a dynamic reality, who can form himself for better or worse, for virtue or vice.

Wojtyła’s metaphysical realism enables his aesthetic vision. Being and act reveal the depths of reality, depths that ultimately point to the Creator as origin and goal of all things. Because the world is already marked by form and oriented to telos, human persons do not have to conjure up order. It is already present, revealed effortlessly in the visible world, and developed freely by human persons. As poet James Matthew Wilson puts it, “All things declare their being and their goodness / By going out beyond themselves like seeds.”[45] Man does this consciously and freely through his action.

A Spirituality of Labor

We are now able to understand John Paul II’s aesthetics of labor.[46] Laborem Exercens undertakes a theological treatment of man as revealed through labor, much like Person and Act undertook a philosophical treatment of man as revealed through action.[47]

As noted, Wojtyła’s philosophizing happened against the backdrop of official Marxist dialectical materialism. Marxist analyses of labor emphasize the motivation of human needs. We labor, according to Marx’s early writings, to satisfy the needs that arise from our embodied reality.[48] Yet this formulation bakes a negative motivation into labor. As Marx writes in Capital, “The realm of freedom actually begins only where labor which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases.”[49] The goal is not more meaningful labor but simply less of it.[50] Work should be something that one chooses to do out of one’s free inclinations (one’s will), as The German Ideology famously emphasized.

In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.[51] 

The voluntarist freedom of indifference exhibited here is breathtaking.[52] The will is not constrained by reality—including the reality that cows might require more from their owners than the occasional dabbling in husbandry. Even more: beyond the activity of the work, Marx and Engels also refuse to grant any formal causality to the worker. They emphasize that one need not “become”—that is, be formed as—a worker of a certain type (a hunter, fisherman, herdsman, or critic). Such a limitation would be unfreedom, even alienation, because it would entail the division of labor seeping into the worker’s objectivity. The division of labor (along with its close relative, private property) is the source of alienation, and in Communism it must not be allowed contaminate the worker through any formal causality.

This fear of the intrinsically alienating power of form is absent in LE and John Paul II’s other writings on work. The pope takes seriously the question of alienation.[53] Yet he does not find the truth that work forms the worker to be inherently troubling, because he is not troubled by formal causality. Because of the metaphysical grounding of the person as a suppositum of a human nature, alienating labor cannot literally de-humanize him; indeed, nothing can. Rocco Buttiglione notes:

As philosopher, Wojtyła has elaborated a particular philosophy of human action that is also defined as a philosophy of praxis. It develops with particular profundity the theme of the self-creation of man through work. This theme, typical of Marxism, is here developed in strict connection with the philosophy of being and of the good.[54]

But if this kind of metaphysical grounding is lost—as is the case with early modernism and with Marx’s theory—human activity has the power of actual self-destruction, because the formal activity of human nature and the substantial reality of the human being as suppositum are absent: “Labor is man’s coming-to-be for himself within alienation, or as alienated man.”[55] Thus, there are no ontological safeguards that could protect the person against alienating labor. And for Marx, within capitalism, labor can only be alienating and therefore destructive.

Instead of this denigration of labor, John Paul II rewrites the “intransitive” element of work in LE: no longer inherently alienating, labor can now be in the service of the virtue of the subject. Of course, work is “transitive,” in that it begins in a subject and is directed outwardly.[56] “Work [is] a ‘transitive’ activity, that is to say an activity beginning in the human subject.”[57] The person expresses herself and creates through action. But labor is also “intransitive”: work must “serve to realize [the person’s] humanity, to fulfill the calling to be a person that is his by reason of his very humanity.”[58] Work expresses and forms the person, on the basis of his substantial reality. Through our labor, we form the products of our labor, and we also form ourselves. Contrary to the self-fashioning proposed by modernity, this formative power is based upon the prior reality of a formed cosmos. Labor works with and builds upon this formation, but our work is absolved of the urgent need to create form ex nihilo. This relativization of work is simultaneously its freedom.

Recall the Protestant preacher exclaiming that “God loveth adverbs; and cares not how good [the kind of work is], but how well [one does it].” LE agrees with the Puritan conviction that the value of work is not rooted in a certain kind of work, but the encyclical puts less value on “how well” one performs work. Rather, the value of work is found in its personal dimension: “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.”[59]

In other words, rather than an ethic of diligence and utility defining the value of work—an ethic closely tied to instrumental reason—work’s value is defined by its personalistic content—an approach closely tied instead to formal causality. By relativizing effectiveness and elevating personhood, John Paul II presents a metaphysical theory of human work that escapes the utilitarian trap. “It is always man who is the purpose of the work.”[60] For this reason, all work is a human good.[61]

The result is a true spirituality of work, as LE develops.[62] As Rocco Buttiglione puts it, the dynamism of human action and labor serves “as the place of the manifestation of being.”[63] Even the futility that marks all post-lapsarian labor is caught up in this spirituality. The toil of work reminds us of death, which entered into the world at the same moment as toil. Further, work’s futility is a sign of the Cross. Both toil and death have meaning in light of the Resurrection, which gathers up all created futility and brings to fruition the seeds of a new life within it.[64]

The Resurrection transforms what, in human work, is already a natural image of the Creator God.[65] The Father creates men ultimately for Sabbath-rest on his bosom (John 1:18). Thus, “man ought to imitate God both in working and also in resting, since God Himself wished to present his own creative activity under the form of work and rest.”[66] Work is a matter both of acting and of being: not only the “exercise of human strength in external action,” but also the “becoming more and more what in the will of God he ought to be.”[67] In both the being and the acting, man images the God who is and who creates and saves.

In this way, John Paul II in LE seeks to validate human labor on metaphysical-aesthetic and personalist grounds. Human work is indeed useful, but it is not good simply for that reason. It is good primarily because it reflects and participates in the creativity of the God who creates and saves. Because of this imago-nature, Wojtyła can say, “Man is a being, so to speak, doomed to creativity.”[68] In human labor, our doing is rooted in our being. Work expresses the goodness, truth, and beauty of created being, which is itself an echo of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful who is the triune God.

[1] The same idea is found in the theology of the body audience talks: “The body expresses the person.” John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston, MA: Pauline, 2006), 7:2, p. 154; 9:4, p. 164; and passim. See Angela Franks, “Deleuze, Balthasar, and John Paul II on the Aesthetics of the Body,” Theological Studies 81, no. 3 (Dec. 2020): 649–670.

[2] John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Laborem Exercens On the Ninetieth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1981), Prologue. Future references to this work will be abbreviated LE.

[3] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, second ed., trans. J. R. Foster and Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 61–62. Similarly, Balthasar labels this the modern “Prometheus principle”; see Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, vol. II: The Dramatis Personae: Man in God, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 417–424.

[4] Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, Mass.: 2015), 246–47.

[5] Summa Theologiae, Ia-IIae, q. 30, a. 4, English Dominican translation, available at For commentary, see Angela Franks, “End-less and Self-Referential Desire: Toward an Understanding of Contemporary Sexuality,” National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 18, no. 4 (Winter 2018): 629–646 at 637.

[6] I do not mean to imply that avarice was uncommon. See Gregory’s summary in The Unintended Reformation, 253, 258. It was not, however, justified theoretically. For the importance of almsgiving, see ST, II-IIae, q. 187, a. 3, which makes the ability to give alms one of four reasons to work, and the commentary in Marc Vincent Rugani, “St. Thomas Aquinas on the Goodness and Right to Work Today,” The Downside Review 136, no. 4 (2018): 193–210 at 198–200.

[7] Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 260, emphasis mine; see also 249–251, 258–260.

[8] Summarized in ibid., 262–264, 266–269.

[9] Ibid., 265, 269–272.

[10] Ibid., 274. Gregory points out that from the mid-seventeenth century on, European states foreswore wars of religion and fought instead for economic and political supremacy (282–283). For the importance of the Dutch Republic and the shape of early capitalism, Gregory relies heavily on Jan de Vries in The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), and Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), among many other sources.

[11] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), 211. I will not treat the changing status of marriage here; Taylor addresses it at 226–227.

[12] Ibid., 209–302; cf. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 176–185. See Patricia Ranft’s chapter in this volume for the principles guiding the medieval Catholic affirmation of ordinary life.

[13] Taylor, Sources of the Self, 217; cf. A Secular Age, 61­–76, on “reform.”

[14] Taylor, Sources of the Self, 218.

[15] Ibid., 223–224.

[16] On the garden, see Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 102, a. 3. On Thomas concerning human labor, see Rugani, “St. Thomas Aquinas on the Goodness and Right to Work Today”; and Sylvester Michael Killeen, O.P., “The Philosophy of Labor According to Thomas Aquinas: A Study in Social Philosophy” PhD diss, Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, 1939.

[17] See Thomas’s relativization of work dependent upon one’s state of life, with the life of the counsels as an objectively greater state, at ST, II-IIae, q. 182 and q. 183, a. 3.

[18] See Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 269–270. Cf. Victor V. Claar and Robin J. Klay, Economics in Christian Perspective: Theory, Policy and Life Choices (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: Inter Varsity Press Academic, 2007) for a contemporary Protestant version of the moral elevation of wealth.

[19] Taylor, Sources of the Self, 225.

[20] Taylor, A Secular Age, 82.

[21] Ibid., 90–145; cf. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995).

[22] Taylor, Sources of the Self, 212–214 and 230–232. Both Bacon and the Puritans felt themselves to be rejecting dead tradition (Aristotelian science and Catholicism respectively, but of course the two overlapped) for the sake of living experience.

[23] Taylor, Sources of the Self, 232, emphasis in the original. This shift relies upon a certain reading of Augustine, as in, e.g., De Doctrina Christiana and its distinction between uti and frui.

[24] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 97; cf. Thomas Pfau, Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge (South Bend, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), 168. The loss of formal and final causality is traced in many other works, including Gregory, The Unintended Reformation; Louis Dupré, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993); Simon Oliver, “Physics without Physis: On Form and Teleology in Modern Science,” Communio 46 (Fall-Winter 2019): 442–69; and many more.

[25] Dupré, Passage to Modernity, 176–177. Dupré qualifies this by noting that, for most nominalists, once God ordains a web of secondary causes, the order of that causality is completely reliable. Nevertheless, created order comes about after and as a result of divine decision, rather than being a limited but true reflection of God’s eternal ratio.

[26] Taylor, A Secular Age, 98. Taylor’s analysis would be enriched by considering the theological status of post-lapsarian creation in mainstream Protestant thinkers.

[27] For the Renaissance precedents to Vico, see Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, second ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

[28] Ratzinger, Introduction, 59.

[29] Ratzinger, Introduction, 61–62. Similarly, Balthasar labels this the modern “Prometheus principle”; see Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, vol. II: The Dramatis Personae: Man in God, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 417–424.

[30] On Marx, see Angela Franks, “A Body of Work: Labor and Culture in Karol Wojtyła,” in Leisure and Labor, ed. Anthony Coleman (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books/Rowman and Littlefield, 2019), 127–140, excerpted at On the labor of self-construction in post-modernity, see Angela Franks, “A Wojtyłian Reading of Performativity and the Self in Judith Butler,” Christian Bioethics 26, no. 3 (December 2020): 221–242.

[31] Culture and Anarchy, cited in Pfau, Minding the Modern, 180.

[32] See Dupré, Passage to Modernity, 223–230 (on modern spirituality, especially Ignatian) and 237–248 (on the Baroque) for attempts to integrate the positive aspects of modernity with Catholicism, utilizing Hans Urs von Balthasar in The Glory of the Lord, vol. 5: The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age, trans. Oliver Davies, et. al., ed. Brian McNeil, C.R.V., and John Riches (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 78–140 and 169–188. In general, this volume of Glory of the Lord provides a critical yet sympathetic reading of modernity.

[33] The degree to which the Fall destabilizes God’s created order is a point of disagreement among different Catholic theological systems, but Catholic orthodoxy demands retaining some sense of the enduring goodness of post-lapsarian nature.

[34] LE, Prologue.

[35] John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1991), §6.

[36] I will here focus on the “production” side of Taylor’s production-reproduction equation, but the aesthetic rationale that John Paul II uses to validate labor is formally identical to what is found in his theology of the body and of marriage. See Franks, “Deleuze, Balthasar, and John Paul II on the Aesthetics of the Body.”

[37] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 1, Seeing the Form, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982), 118. See also Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Logic, vol. 1, Truth of the World, trans. Adrian J. Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 88, 141, and 216–225; and Franks, “Deleuze, Balthasar, and John Paul II on the Aesthetics of the Body.” Balthasar’s Gestalt (translated as “form”) is not simply synonymous with either Platonic or Aristotelian eidos, yet it is still “formal” in the broad metaphysical sense in which I am using the term here.

[38] The English translation of Osobo y Czyn (1969) is Karol Wojtyła, The Acting Person, trans. Andrzej Potocki, ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, Analecta Husserliana series (Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1979). Future references will be abbreviated AP.

[39] AP, 10, translation modified.

[40] Ibid., 12–13.

[41] Ibid., 19.

[42] Ibid., 73. It is at this point that the English translation becomes especially opaque, because it steadfastly avoids the Scholastic term suppositum (kept in Latin in the original). It instead utilizes impenetrable neologisms such as “ontological foundation of action,” thereby transforming a precise term of art into a cipher.

[43] LE, Prologue, emphasis in the original.

[44] On human nature, see AP, 76–79. On limited self-creation, see ibid., 69–71, 77–78.

[45] James Matthew Wilson, “Seeds,” Evangelization and Culture, vol. 1, no. 1 (fall 2019), 15.

[46] For more detailed treatments of John Paul II’s theology of labor, see Franks, “A Body of Work,” and Angela Franks, “The Body, Alienation, and Gift in Marx and Wojtyła,” Proceedings of “The Heart of Work” Conference, Oct. 19–20, 2017, in Pensando il Lavoro, edited by Giorgio Faro, vol. II/5. Rome: Edizioni Università Santa Croce, 2017, pp. 223–37.

[47] LE, §1

[48] See Karl Marx, Comments on James Mill, trans. Clemens Dutt, in vol. 3 of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1975), 220 [XXIX]; and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, trans. W. Lough, in vol. 5 of Marx and Engels, Collected Works (New York: International Publishers/Lawrence and Wishart, 1976), 41–42.

[49] Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3, trans. David Fernbach (New York: Penguin, 1981), 959.

[50] See my analysis in “A Body of Work” and “The Body, Alienation, and Gift.”

[51] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 47 [17], emphasis mine.

[52] For “freedom of indifference,” see the work by Servais Pinckaers, O.P., especially Sources of Christian Ethics, trans. Sr. Mary Thomas Noble (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 242­–243.

[53] See Centesimus Annus, §41–42, and Wojtyła’s earlier treatment in his essay “Participation or Alienation?”: “Despite its weaknesses, . . . the concept of alienation seems needed in the philosophy of the human being” (in Person and Community, trans. Theresa Sandok, OSM, Catholic Thought from Lublin, vol. 4 [New York: Peter Lang 1993], 197–207 at 205).

[54] L’Uomo e il Lavoro: Riflessioni sull’Enciclica Laborem Exercens (Bologna: CSEO, 1982), 13, translation mine, emphasis in the original. Buttiglione considers this philosophy of praxis to be one of John Paul II’s most important innovations; see also his Karol Wojtyła: The Thought of the Man Who Became John Paul II, trans. Paolo Guietti and Francesca Murphy (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 121.

[55] Karl Marx, Critique of Hegelian Philosophy, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 3, 333 (XXIII), emphasis in the original.

[56] LE, §6. This distinction is not original to John Paul II; it is found in Aristotle, in Metaphysics ix, 16, as commented upon by Aquinas, ST Ia, q. 18, a. 3, ad 1.

[57] LE, §4.

[58] Ibid., §6. More on the “intransitive” is in Karol Wojtyła, “The Constitution of Culture through Human Praxis,” in Person and Community, 265–267. See also Deborah M. Savage, The Subjective Dimension of Human Work: The Conversion of the Acting Person According to Karol Wojtyla / John Paul II and Bernard Lonergan (New York: Peter Lang, 2008).

[59] LE, §6, emphasis mine.

[60] Ibid., emphasis in the original.

[61] Ibid., §9.

[62] Ibid., §§24–27; cf. Joe Holland, Creative Communion: Toward a Spirituality of Work (New York: Paulist Press, 1989); Przemysław Piątkowski, “The Spiritual Status of Work in Opus Dei,” Journal of Management, Spirituality & Religion 4, no. 4 (2007): 418–31,; Vivian Ligo, “Configuring a Christian Spirituality of Work,” Theology Today 67 (2011): 441–466; and James B. Murphey, “Opus Dei: Prayer or Labor? The Spirituality of Work in Saints Benedict and Escrivá,” The Charismatic Principle in Social Life, Routledge Frontiers of Political Economy, ed. Luigino Bruni and Barbara Sena (New York: Routledge, 2012), 94–11.

[63] Buttiglione, L’Uomo e il Lavoro, 13.

[64] LE, §27.

[65] Ibid., §25.

[66] Ibid., emphasis in the original.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Karol Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, trans. Grzegorz Ignatik (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2013), 121.

Featured Image: Pieter Breugel the Elder, The Harvesters, 1565; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Angela Franks

Angela Franks is Professor of Theology at St. John's Seminary in Boston and a Church Life Journal Life and Dignity Writing Fellow. Her specialties include the theology of the body, the new evangelization, and the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Read more by Angela Franks

John Paul II's Labor on Marx

Angela Franks, Professor of Theology at St. John's Seminary in Boston, demonstrates how the pope critiqued and developed Marx's theory of labor.

Marx Streetlight