Cardijn and the theology of work in Mater et Magistra

Before returning to what Cardijn wrote about work in his paper for John XXIII, let’s take a quick look at what popes said on the issue over the previous 70 years since Rerum Novarum.

Leo XIII: A curse

Looking back at Pope Leo’s pioneering encyclical, it is striking to note how gloomily he thought of human work:

As regards bodily labor, even had man never fallen from the state of innocence, he would not have remained wholly idle; but that which would then have been his free choice and his delight became afterwards compulsory, and the painful expiation for his disobedience. ‘Cursed be the earth in thy work; in thy labour thou shalt eat of it all the days of thy life.’ (Rerum Novarum 17)

Having lost its primordial “delightful” nature owing to original sin, human labour was now reduced to punishment and a curse.

All the same, this did not justify injustice towards the worker, Leo XIII insisted, going on to argue memorably “that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner” and recognising the right of workers to “associate” in trade unions to protect their interests.

Pius XI: Continuation of creation

Forty years later, however, Pius XI has begun to move beyond Leo’s negatively framed conception of work. In Quadragesimo Anno, he wrote:

Every one knows, too, that no nation has ever risen out of want and poverty to a better and nobler condition save by the enormous and combined toil of all the people, both those who manage work and those who carry out directions. But it is no less evident that, had not God the Creator of all things, in keeping with His goodness, first generously bestowed natural riches and resources – the wealth and forces of nature – such supreme efforts would have been idle and vain, indeed could never even have begun. For what else is work but to use or exercise the energies of mind and body on or through these very things?

With Pius XI, we begin to see that work is not just “toil” but also in a sense a continuation or development of what God had begun by bestowing humankind with “natural riches and resources” with which to work. Clearly, there’s been a significant shift and development in Catholic thinking about work since 1891.

Pius XII: Cooperation in redemption

Although Pope Pius XII did not publish a specifically social encyclical, he did recall Pope Leo’s encyclical on its 50th anniversary in a Radio Message for Pentecost 1941 in which he wrote:

Rerum Novarum teaches that there are two properties of human labor: it is personal and it is necessary. It is personal, because it is accomplished with the exercise of man’s particular strengths: it is necessary, because without it one cannot procure what is indispensable to life, to maintain which is a natural, grave, individual duty.

And he goes further than his predecessor, linking human work not just to God’s work of creation but to Christ’s redemption of the world. Citing both Leo XIII and Pius XI, he insists that believers have a “moral duty” to cooperate “in the ordering of society and, in a special way, of economic life.”

“Is not this a sacred duty for every Christian?” he asks. “Let not the makers of errors and unhealthy theories mislead you… currents which pretend that, since redemption belongs to the order of supernatural grace and is therefore the exclusive work of God, it does not need our cooperation on earth. Oh wretched ignorance of the work of God! “Dicentes enim se esse, sapientes, stulti facti sunt.” (Rom 1:22).

Cardijn: A human act of creation and redemption

Even though there is clearly a gradual development in the way Leo XIII, Pius XI and Pius XII viewed work, none of them attempted to propose a more complete or holistic view.

Here, Cardijn’s uplifting and positive view of work and the worker reaches a new level that is not present in earlier Catholic social teaching on work.

Work, for Cardijn, is no longer a curse or even simply a right or duty, but it is the defining human act:

The first truth that is the source and the principle of all the others is: work is the necessary and primordial act of the human person. No work without workers.

Certainly it is the means for providing for the concrete needs of the worker and his or her family: 

It is by this necessary and primordial act that the human person provides and must provide for the needs of his person and of his family; needs that are increasingly developed and elevated, that human work itself develops in its production and its extension.

But work also exists FOR the personal development of ALL workers and their families, Cardijn continues: 

One cannot deform the link between work and the worker; the worker does not exist for work, but work for the worker, for himself, for his family, for his development and his elevation, and this not for a minority but for the whole of humanity.

This truth is at the base not only of the person, of the family taken individually, but of the person as a social person, but of the national and international community.

Indeed, work also has a spiritual dimension, which makes the human person a collaborator of God both in the work of CREATION and REDEMPTION, Cardijn argues: 

It is in this sense that we say that the worker by and in his work is the necessary and irreplaceable collaborator of God in the execution of his plan of love in the work of Creation; and after original and actual sin in the work of Redemption.

The worker, conscious of the meaning and of the purpose of work collaborates with the redeemer in restoring the divine order in the world of work and in the world quite simply; the worker by his collaboration participates in the earthly and eternal glorification of God Creator and Redeemer.

This is indeed a profound and elevated conception of the importance of human work for the worker as a human person that is light years away from Pope Leo’s perception.

Pope John XXIII

How then does Pope John address the nature of work in his encyclical, Mater et Magistra? To what extent does it echo Cardijn’s own thought?

Citing Leo XIII, Pope John begins in §18 by noting that work is to be regarded “not merely as a commodity” but – like Cardijn – “as a specifically human activity.”

“In the majority of cases a man’s work is his sole means of livelihood,” he recognises, hence its remuneration could not be made to “depend on the state of the market” but “must be determined by the laws of justice and equity.”

Drawing on Pius XI, he highlights the pontiff’s affirmation in Quadragesimo Anno that “if the social and individual character of work be overlooked, it can be neither justly valued nor equitably recompensed.” 

But Pope John also goes further.

In §106, he observes that “people are aiming at proficiency in their trade or profession rather than the acquisition of private property.” This is as it should be, he says, since work “is the immediate expression of a human personality” and must therefore “always be rated higher than the possession of external goods which of their very nature are merely instrumental.” (§107)

“This view of work is certainly an indication of an advance that has been made in our civilisation,” Pope John notes.

No doubt influenced by his experience as the son of a rural sharecropper, he has a similarly lofty view of the importance of farm work.

“Those who live on the land can hardly fail to appreciate the nobility of the work they are called upon to do;” he notes in §144. “They are living in close harmony with Nature—the majestic temple of Creation. Their work has to do with the life of plants and animals, a life that is inexhaustible in its expression, inflexible in its laws, rich in allusions to God the Creator and Provider. They produce food for the support of human life, and the raw materials of industry in ever richer supply.”

What’s more “theirs is a work which carries with it a dignity all its own,” he continues (§145).

“It brings into its service many branches of engineering, chemistry and biology, and is itself a cause of the continued practical development of these sciences in view of the repercussions of scientific and technical progress on the business of farming. It is a work which demands a capacity for orientation and adaptation, patient waiting, a sense of responsibility, and a spirit of perseverance and enterprise.”

And he summarises all this in his concluding paragraphs, linking it to the humanisation and Christianisation of modern civilisation:

256. That a man should develop and perfect himself through his daily work—which in most cases is of a temporal character—is perfectly in keeping with the plan of divine Providence. The Church today is faced with an immense task: to humanise and to Christianise this modern civilization of ours. The continued development of this civilisation, indeed its very survival, demand and insist that the Church do her part in the world.

Indeed, this is why Pope John insists that the Church needs and claims “the cooperation of her laity:”

In conducting their human affairs to the best of their ability, they must recognize that they are doing a service to humanity, in intimate union with God through Christ, and to God’s greater glory. And St. Paul insisted: ‘Whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever else you do, do all to the glory of God.’ ‘All whatsoever you do in word or in work, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.’

People – both clergy and laity – are thus “called to a share in His own divine life; and since they are united in mind and spirit with the divine Redeemer even when they are engaged in the affairs of the world, their work becomes a continuation of His work, penetrated with redemptive power,” Pope John concludes in §259.

“Thus is man’s work exalted and ennobled—so highly exalted that it leads to his own personal perfection of soul, and helps to extend to others the fruits of Redemption, all over the world.

“It becomes a means whereby the Christian way of life can leaven this civilisation in which we live and work—leaven it with the ferment of the Gospel,” he concludes, echoing an expression – the leaven in the dough – that Cardijn had all but made his own over the previous quarter century.


It is clear, then, that there is much in common between Cardijn’s vision of human work as cooperation in God’s own work of creation and redemption and that expressed by Pope John in Mater et Magistra.

Unlike the see-judge-act, which was obviously due to Cardijn’s advocacy and example, it’s not so evident how much this shift in pontifical theology of work owed to Cardijn.

Moreover, other theologians had made significant contributions to the emerging theology of work, in particular, Cardijn’s Dominican colleague and friend, Marie-Dominique Chenu, who had in 1955 published “Pour une théologie du travail.”

In any event, there is little doubt that the explosive growth of Cardijn’s JOC and its sister movements around the world, which had a presence in 90 countries by 1961, helped foster this theological reflection.

Plus, as we have seen, it was Cardijn himself who lit the spark that led to Mater et Magistra and opened the way to Gaudium et Spes.

Even so, it’s equally clear that not even Mater et Magistra managed to articulate such a compelling theology of work as that proposed by Cardijn in his paper for John XXIII.

Stefan Gigacz


1. Stefan Gigacz, Cardijn, work and the worker (Cardijn Research)
2. Stefan Gigacz, Mater et Magistra endorses the See Judge Act (Cardijn Research)
Joseph Cardijn, The Church and the World of Labour (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)
MD Chenu, Pour une théologie du travail, Seuil, Paris, 1955.