Almost 130 years ago, Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical Rerum Novarum. In this text, he defended the well-being of workers and made the Catholic Church’s position on work clear: Work and working people have a fundamental dignity that all societies are bound to respect and serve. “No man,” the pope wrote, “may with impunity outrage that human dignity which God Himself treats with great reverence.”
Work, the Church teaches, has profound meaning. It is an essential part of how we fulfill the purposes of our God-given design. Through it, we provide for the necessities of life and shape the world with our actions. The dignity of work, the Church instructs us through documents like Rerum Novarum, is not just the concern of individuals. It is the concern of communities and nations to provide productive labor to their people.
In the American tradition, private business enterprise is the main institution the public has entrusted with providing dignified work. Historically, the goals of business enterprise in America have been oriented to useful production. In our best moments, this institutional alignment created stable mass employment that secured the foundation for a dignified life.