The Dignity of Work

In every era, work is needed. And this past year workers have received a devastating blow to their overall mental state. In 2020 covid inflicted grievous economic wounds, shutting down the world’s leading economies and kneecapping production and service sectors. People are still feeling the economic pain from the lockdowns. Going through a furlough or a job loss altogether has led to a genuine uptick in human stress and insecurity about one’s worth. However, this year, the worker has a spiritual hero they can look to guidance for.

Just recently Pope Francis dedicated this year to devotion to Saint Joseph. While St. Joseph has many titles ranging from “protector of the church,” “terror of demons,” an often overlooked title is that of “the worker.” Pope Pius XII instituted the feast of St. Joseph the Worker in 1955 to combat the communist-inspired “May day” celebrations of workers. In a sense, this new feast day was meant to provide downtrodden laborers with a spiritual patron, as well as an alternative to the communist labor agitation that was prevalent at the time. This feast extends the long relationship between St. Joseph and the cause of workers. If we back up to the Book of Genesis, we can see that God is celebrating the dignity of a human person through work.

At the beginning of time, God took man and put him into a land of pleasure to dress it, and to keep it (Gen. 2:15). The phrase described in Genesis is “till and to keep.” The Hebrew and Greek translation means “to minister” and “to guard.” Adam was given a specific task in the garden and, in part, created to work, to participate in the creativity of God through stewardship of the gifts bestowed to him. Therefore, work in the truest sense was ordained to be a blessing from God.

Work takes on a whole new meaning when we see it is embedded in God’s creation. The pattern God uses is to create or “work” for six days and then rest, bless, and hallow creation on the seventh day (see Genesis 2:2-3). As theologian Scott Hahn writes, “God himself labored to bring creation into existence. We are called to work, before the Fall, in imitation of God our Father.” In short, the original plan God scripted in creation is that work was ordered to worship and labor is oriented to liturgy to allow us to have an intimate union with God, the ultimate Creator.

However, after the Fall of man (see Genesis 3: 17-19) we now see that Adam’s work entails heartache and punishment. While a surface reading of the story seems to illustrate the paradox that work is good at one point and at another point a drudgery, more insight rises to enlighten the deep-rooted connection of work and sacrifice. Clearly, work itself is not evil, for God created Adam to work in the garden before the Fall. However, having mortally sinned, Adam cut himself off from the divine life. Here, man’s labor apart from God has now become a grueling process, even a curse.

As Kennedy Hall writes on this topic, “With God, the punishment always fits the crime, and the punishment even serves to correct the root causes of the sin. In the case of Adam, the punishment is severe due to Adam’s clear knowledge of God before the Fall, but it is also a corrective path of redemption of man.” In sum, hard work is now used to get us closer to God. Throughout salvation history, men had to navigate through the curse of Adam as they grappled with the paradoxical combination of both the dignity and the suffering of daily work. We can all relate to the fact that working is good for the soul (it gives a sense of accomplishment) while at the same time a cause of great stress or hardship. Even if we have jobs that are fulfilling, there will always be moments of displeasure and anxiety. Some jobs require great mental acuity, and therefore great concentration on a particular task. Yet, this mental focus can sharpen one’s senses in other areas – both intellectual and spiritual. 

It is important to grasp that under the Christian principle, your value doesn’t come from how much money you make, or how interesting you perceive your job is. Rather, your human value comes from being made in the image of God. Flowing from this image of God, your work can lift up the dignity of the human person when it is in-tune with the divine economy Yet, our modern society tends to align one’s worth, and, in turn, one’s identity to what they do – not with who they are. So, under the secular view, if your job is a toll taker, you are doing something lowly and of limited need, therefore your human value hits rock-bottom. It stands to reason that if you have a job that will inevitably be replaced by a machine or artificial intelligence, your worth is drained to a pitiful, dull existence. However, if you are a software engineer you’re immediately elevated to an intriguingly higher status. The modern formula of work-value necessarily turns someone into a throw-away object in that when they cease to be productive or useful in their duties they become casually kicked to the curb like an old, useless sock. However, under Catholicism, what one does for an occupation does not define that person. The Church states that every person, regardless of their differences, is a subject of inestimable value because he or she has been created by God in his image and likeness and destined by God for eternal life. Under this view, all humans have an equal value regardless if your job is a janitor or an attorney. 

As the focal point of God continues to be removed from our society, it follows that the relationship of man, work, and God becomes murky. Today, people typically interpret their happiness in light of their job satisfaction in which their value comes from how well they perceive their work. Having detached God from the labor equation modern man is now placed in the driver seat to determine if his or her work is fulfilling or not. But, how can a finite, flawed person completely grasp the fulfilling nature of their work if they have eliminated the vantage point of God? Here, we also miss the Biblical notion that our labor, no matter how dreadful, can be used as a pious sacrifice to our family and God. Yet, having jettison God out of the labor picture a bleed-over-effect ensues in which the modern concept of labor becomes off-kilter which, in turn, inevitably leads one to a depressing picture. 

One such problem on having lost the focus on the divine is the experience of more psychological pitfalls should one experience a job loss. Researchers have found that there has been a surge in the risk of suicide with those that are unemployed.

Another dilemma is that today there is a decrease in people’s happiness and self-worth the more people perceive their job as replaceable. That is, because people wrongly view their worth as a person coming from what they do they immediately abandon their human value the moment technology steps in to take over their job. The World Economic Forum asserted as much when it stressed that artificial intelligence will reduce the need for human jobs in the future, thus causing an increase in the notion of having a “worthless job.”  

Two years ago Professor David Graeber wrote a book on pointless jobs. More than a third of the people he surveyed believe their jobs didn’t make a meaningful contribution to the world. Graeber’s analysis is that pointless busywork is an epidemic infecting offices everywhere. Here, if people don’t see the big-picture perspective of meaning in their work, they deem their work as aimless.

With more insight, a report from Harvard Business Review reveals that those who are unemployed feel dejected and that a person continues to gain incremental happiness in which the work is deemed more engaging. What is the “engagement” that increases a person’s happiness? Might it be that they get a sense of what their work is doing – serving the other for the greater good. Yet, just because one doesn’t get a sense of “making a difference” in their job, if they can offer up their monotonous tasks to God (as the saints did), God will be able to “make a difference” to what they are doing. While it does require an acute spiritual focus, one can still be engaged and have a servant mentality at work even if the job seems tedious.

As a carpenter in the first century Saint Joseph had to walk for miles chopping down trees in the heat to get his wood. He used primitive tools that made for strenuous and laborious work. Yet, this arduous labor was offered to God through quiet contemplative prayer while working. 

In all types of work, the element of service to others (and God) needs to be the focal point – even if the service of others doesn’t seem present in a dull, monotonous job. As Genesis outlines Adam’s original task was in service to God, and this calling operates as part of man’s inner need.

For many individuals, work is merely a means to obtain the funds to pay the mortgage, buy the groceries, and give the kids a decent education. Yet, some will find that their earthly vocations give an indescribable sense of purpose and meaning that no leisurely activity could provide. The blood that gushes forth from one’s hands by strenuously working a tool, the sweat that seeps out from the intense labor in the heat, the mental strain that flows from a writer, architect, or a stay-at-home mom can ultimately bring satisfaction to the human soul.

Yet, a consistent problem arises today as psychology displays a false dichotomy in that if one doesn’t sense their societal contribution at work, and are bored they ultimately feel more miserable. It’s as almost if a demonic source stymies human fulfillment by creating this deceptive idea that who you are is defined by what work you do. 

What about work that rewards you with a higher income? This too has been proving to be a trap that fails to lead to ultimate happiness. Yale Law Professor, Daniel Markovits, highlights how elite executives that earn premium salaries have miserable, stressful lives and end up burnt-out from all the tension. As he states, “Today, the higher a person climbs on the org chart, the harder he or she is expected to work. Amazon’s ‘leadership principles’ call for managers to have ‘relentlessly high standards’ and to ‘deliver results.’ The company tells managers that when they ‘hit the wall’ at work, the only solution is to ‘climb the wall.’ A respondent to a recent Harvard Business School survey of executives proudly insisted, “The 10 minutes that I give my kids at night is one million times greater than spending that 10 minutes at work.”

In short, if God is taken outside the labor picture, the perspective of work leaves one jaded and discontent with the whole experience. However, when God is added as a focal point into the labor mix, the whole equation begins to blossom. Under the divine economy, humanity receives dignity. With work, humankind both fulfills the command found in Genesis to care for creation (Gn 2:15) and to be productive for others in their labors. 

The Catholic Church has been pro-work, and since the late nineteenth century, she has battled against the communist labor unions on the relationship of work, man, and God. In his encyclical, Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII outlined a distinct contrast to the modern, secular understanding of labor. In the document, he articulated that the human person is more than merely a replaceable cog in an ever-growing machine. Rather, work is part of the fulfillment of the potential inscribed in a person’s nature, and a person’s labor has great dignity and creative power when it is aligned to God.

Working for God allows one to advance in their moral ascent to become a better version of themselves. It produces men of honor who strive to offer their labor to the service of others – allowing one to be lifted up to their image and likeness of God. Conversely, working in the bowels of a communist work camp one is dragged down to a zombie-like drudgery in which they are only judged by how productive they are for the state’s advancement

Pope Leo also wrote about the prevailing “moral degeneracy” that he noticed as labor unions removed the dignity of the human worker. He saw that creating an atmosphere in which workers were treated merely as a gear in the state’s engine to test who can be a more productive instrument amounts to treating the worker as an object all the while inciting agitation and division among his fellow workers. This is a clear mark of the sinful human condition which the pope echoed needed to be removed from the human labor scene. Pope Leo XIII explained that man, as an active agent of the economy, works foremost to provide food for his family and a roof over the house and to earn the wages he is owed to survive – not as a pawn of the state.

The Second Vatican Council as well affirmed human work as a centerpiece of culture and creation. “By his work, a man ordinarily provides for himself and his family, associates with others as his brothers, and renders them service; he can exercise genuine charity and be a partner in the work of bringing divine creation to perfection” (Gaudium et Spes 67). 

Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Laborem Exercens, addressed how work lifts man to a higher level than the animals. “From the beginning therefore he [man] is called to work. Work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures, whose activity for sustaining their lives cannot be called work. Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by work occupying his existence on earth. Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons. And this mark decides its interior characteristics; in a sense it constitutes its very nature.” Here, John Paul II distinguishes the difference between the animal kingdom and the human race. He clarifies that when animals seek out food and shelter for themselves or their tribe, this is not classified as work as humans define it. Why not? When “God created mankind in his image,” God granted the human race the “mark” of continuing his creation story through the works of our hands, which first began with God creating the “heavens and the earth.” As St. Paul bluntly puts it, “For we are God’s co-workers, you are God’s field, you are God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9). In a small way when a man invents a machine, fixes a part, or more importantly brings new life to this earth, he is actively partaking in the divine economy. To dismiss our working nature is to go against the law of nature itself. It’s almost as if God coded work into our DNA.

Eradicating our need to be active and work reveals a demonic move that ushers in laziness. Laziness displays itself as the sin of sloth. With sloth, one becomes like a parasite that contributes nothing to society but merely exists to suck the creative power from others without passing on the value of service to his fellow man. This scene plays out through the welfare state today. It produces lukewarm laborers that ultimately creates laziness among its citizens. Here, lost is the soul that goes outside of himself to be of service to others. However, an acquisitively active soul defeats a lazy soul from his own slavery. As the book of Proverbs declares, “Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in slave labor” (Proverbs 12: 23-25) or as Ecclesiastes proclaims, “Fools fold their idle hands, leading them to ruin (Ecclesiastes 4:5, 10:18, see also Proverbs 10:4, 10:26, 21:25,).

In enforcing shutdowns, state governments unknowingly consented to laziness with their interpretation of what constitutes as “essential.” This verdict issued an unwarranted death sentence to the vast array of work considered “non-essential” and ushered in a lethargic attitude. However, the Church is communicating the truth that all work (assuming its in-line with God’s plan) is “essential,” for it gives dignity to our humanity and purpose to our lives as well fulfills our God-given nature to find joy in the effects of our work. As Paul described the source of his ministry: “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:29).

We can imagine that as a carpenter schooled under the tutelage of St. Joseph that Jesus was a hard worker. He later surrounded himself with hard workers – fishermen and farmers. In this time where the worker has received many blows against him, let us look to St. Joseph and revive the dignity of work. Just before he wrote Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII also wrote an encyclical encouraging devotion to Saint Joseph. The Holy Father presented St. Joseph as an irreplaceable example for those who wish to build culture upon the necessary pillars of faith, family, and labor. St. Joseph, pray for us.


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