Catholic Social Teaching on Work

The Church has had a long and active relationship with the world of work. Beginning with Pope Leo’s 1891 landmark social encyclical, Rerum Novarum (‘On Capital And Labour’) and continuing today the Church has had much to say about the rights and duties of the worker and of business. While the Church affirms the usefulness and goodness that can come from business and enterprise, it argues that those interests must always be tempered and shaped by moral concerns. That means Catholic Social Teaching on work begins with the dignity of the human person and an understanding that work is for the common good and part of building up and glorifying Creation. It does not, like most secular frameworks, begin with economic ideologies or an ‘economy first’ worldview.

Some key principles the Church, both from Rome and here in Australia, has affirmed and reaffirmed over the last 100 plus years include:

PERSON FIRST: Employees are people first therefore they cannot be defined or treated as only units of labour to be put to use for economic ends. As the Australian Catholic Bishops have said, ‘work exists for the person, not the person for work’.

A LIVING WAGE: Workers have the right to safe working conditions and to a fair minimum wage that is based on justice and equity. That is, a wage which covers the actual needs of a person and any family or dependents he or she has. The Church has continually advocated for a wage that covers the needs of a family and that does not force one parent to take up paid work outside the home if he or she would otherwise wish to care for children. It should also allow the worker to provide some security for the future and to acquire the personal property needed to support him or herself and a family, if needed. This is what the Church means when it calls for a ‘living wage’.

We need to remind ourselves constantly that the unemployed are not usually to be blamed for the unemployment.

 – ACBC SJ Statement, 1994

THE POOR COME FIRST: How the poor and vulnerable are faring is the ultimate measure of economic success – not simple growth. Unemployed, underemployed and low-paid employees deserve special attention and their dignity, and the dignity of their work, must not be violated. An economy that relies on or allows that violation is not a just economy.

WORK FOR LIFE, NOT LIFE FOR WORK: Working conditions must be such that workers have adequate time for rest, recreation, community and to form and sustain a family. The strength of families, and indeed the ability to find a partner and begin a family, rely heavily on employment conditions, so those conditions need to recognise and support this. In return, workers must fulfill their responsibilities and duties at work faithfully and justly.

UNIONS ARE FOR COMMON GOOD: The Church has strongly and consistently advocated for workers to have the right to form unions and associations and emphasises the importance of these in creating real human connection and community amongst workers (a key part of the dignity of work) but also in allowing workers to pursue and protect their rights and just working conditions. In Australia, early Irish Catholics and the Church were deeply involved in and leaders of the labour movement with key figures such as Cardinal Archbishop Patrick Moran and BA Santamaria exemplifying the Church’s solidarity with working people.

The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of the people and their ability to organise.

– Pope Francis

PUTTING THE PRINCIPLES INTO ACTION: In line with these broad principles the Church has frequently spoken out on particular issues as they have arisen. In Australia, the Church has spoken on such issues as the ‘Work Choices’ legislation in 2005; on the unemployment and underemployment of the young; on the unjust conditions of perpetual casual or insecure contract work; on the unjust and harmful encroachment of work into more and more of peoples’ time; the too-high unemployment rate borne by Indigenous Australians; and it has criticised many times over the unfairness and inadequacy of the minimum wage which grinds people, families and communities into poverty.


Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church: detailed discussion and explanation of all of the Church’s social teaching, Chapter Six is on work.

Australian Catholic Commission for Employment Relations: The Bishops’ national commission. It has a wide variety of well researched papers on specific topics, the way Catholic Social Teaching relates to contemporary issues and technical information on employment conditions.

Every year for the Feast of St Joseph through the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council a Bishop (the chairman of the Council) releases a Pastoral Letter on some relevant aspect of work for that year. Find a collection on a wide variety of topics here.

Archbishop Blase J Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, Address to the Chicago Federation of Labour, September 17, 2015. Though from an American perspective this address outlines some of the ways the Church lives out its commitment to Catholic Social Teaching principles in this area.

Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Social Justice Statements:

Sources: All sources and further information can be found by following the links embedded in the text.