The Catholic Vision of Work – Reflections from Maggie Beirne

Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII, 1891

Maggie Beirne is a member of the Diocese of Westminster Justice & Peace Commission and co-ordinates the West London Network for Justice and Peace

The topic of “work” seems to be fashionable currently – with books and seminars on different aspects of the theme.  This is at least in part due to covid 19 and the belief that attitudes to, and experience of, work has changed dramatically in recent years.  But will this re-thinking of the world of work be of short or long-term duration; and what do Catholics have to offer to the debate?   

This latter question was addressed recently both by way of an international academic conference hosted by St Mary’s University, Twickenham, discussing the theme of “Rerum Novarum 130 years on: the future of the world of work” and a meeting of the Westminster Diocesan Forum on Social Justice & Peace, held on 22nd May 2021, exploring what our faith says today about what needs to happen practically on the ground.

Rerum Novarum dating from 1891 and issued by Leo XIII speaks to a different era but is regarded as the first of the social encyclicals upon which later Catholic Social Teaching builds.  People of faith were told that: “the Church commits itself to the reform of society, for society can only be healed by Christian life and teaching”.  Employers are exhorted to render what is ‘just’ to their workforces; workers should create workers’ associations consistent with Christian principles to improve the condition of the poor; and the state should intervene to prevent strikes by removing the causes of conflict, in particular by improving the conditions of labour.  

Whilst many of the St Mary’s conference speakers built extensively on the theological basis for the principles set out in Rerum Novarum, it was interesting also to hear similar concepts being explored by those speaking from a secular perspective.  Matthew Taylor spoke to his report entitled “Good Work” citing “all work in the UK economy should be fair and decent with realistic scope for development and fulfilment”.  He argued that this principle was true in terms of social justice but also because it ensured people’s health, productivity, and the creation of an active engaged civil society.  Will Hutton built on the concept of ‘good’ work by quoting Aristotle to the effect that we are happy – and will lead the good life – if we accept that we have a purpose in life.  Christians believe that they have a definite purpose in life – to quote John Henry Newman “God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another; I have my mission”.

It was this mission that was explored at the Westminster Social Justice and Peace Forum – participants looked to the learning from covid about the world of work.  Covid taught many of us that we have sometimes placed an economic rather than a social value on the work that people do.  We pay corporate bankers very well, but it was NHS workers, bus drivers, carers, and refuse collectors whose work we really valued in the last year.  So, how do we use this time of reflection to re-focus on the purpose of work, giving people more control over their work and recognising that work of the ‘heart’ is as important (and often more important) than the work of the ‘brain’ which society tends to privilege in terms of respect and monetary reward.

The Forum explored questions such as: if work is meant to give us a sense of purpose, identity and meaning, how can we reflect that in terms of everyone’s right to dignity, to just wages, and to fair conditions of work.  Our Catholic Social Teaching says that work shapes us as moral persons, so why is it that so many of us think of work only in terms of paid work?  What respect should be accorded to the work done in the home, as a carer, as a campaigner for the care of creation, as a person volunteering in the political or civic realm?  Work is good for us – making us more fully human and allowing us to become part of God’s redemptive plan for the world.  But how do we bring this faith perspective into the world of work?  Speakers and participants had lots of practical ideas.

These ideas can be grouped, as is the practice at previous Forums, according to what could be done by people as individuals, as active members of parishes, and at a diocesan level.

As individuals:  until the 20th century, Catholics were very active in social movements, but this seems to be less true these days?  Could I be doing more – in my workplace, in the home, in my local area, in my lobbying of my local MP etc – to challenge poor working conditions, to respect other workers, to promote efforts which will assure the fair treatment of all workers?  Covid reminded us of the importance of appreciating all those frontline workers (bus drivers, corner shop workers, etc) for their important contributions to the common good – will I maintain this post-covid, or will they become ‘invisible’ for me again?  Do I respect the God-given talents of all those around me?  Do I use my weekly shop to reward good employers and penalise bad ones and do I inform myself so as to know the difference? Do I buy Fairtrade where possible and if I personally face unemployment or under-employment have I turned to my church for moral and practical support?

As parishes:  What is my parish doing about issues of employment/unemployment/under-employment/poor pay/bad working conditions for its parishioners and our immediate neighbours?  Does the parish even know the conditions people are working in locally?  If the parish already has a Foodbank/advice service/benefits signposting effort, does it need more volunteers; does it report regularly on this work to the whole parish so that it becomes a community endeavour?  If the parish has no such project underway, are there other neighbouring ecumenical or secular efforts that they could work alongside to promote social justice?  What is being done internationally about the right to work and the dignity of labour – if you are not a Fairtrade parish, ask why not?  Is the parish helping out with offering shelter to refugees/asylum seekers and/or campaigning for better treatment?  Is the parish listening to all its congregation in all its diversity (age, gender, ethnicity, disabilities), and to all its different experiences of the world of work?   

As a diocese: is our church leadership vocal enough on these issues?  Does the Catholic church speak out regularly when it sees policies being introduced which undermine the dignity of work?  As we come out of the pandemic, what will it say about the moral imperative of addressing the economic and racial inequalities highlighted and exacerbated by covid?  What is being done to train our priests and catechists, and use our liturgical opportunities (Sunday Mass, 1st Communion, Confirmation events) to alert the faithful to the duty of all to speak for the voiceless?  Does it provide practical resources to be used at local level; does it regularly assess its own employment and procurement practices; do the church’s investments reflect our Catholic social teaching? Very practically, the Pope has talked positively about a Universal Basic Income – this is a new concept for many; should we have a period of discernment about it?  

Many emphasised the importance of Catholics developing a vision of work which could inform our day-to-day activities and our advocacy efforts, noting that this duty is not ours alone, but one due to future generations.   It is today’s youth especially which needs to be able to believe in the dignity and meaning of work, and in this way determine for themselves their own God-given mission in life.

Read more reports from the Forum


The next meeting of the West London Justice & Peace Network takes place on Saturday 5th June, 10am-12noon on Zoom and will include a discussion of the recent Forum on The Catholic Vision of Work, as well as sharing on other current issues of interest to West London parishes.

To join the mailing list and receive details of West London Justice and Peace meetings, please contact Maggie on

The Deaneries in West London are: Brent, Ealing, Harrow, Hillingdon, Hounslow and Upper Thames.