Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
September 6, 1999
A Catholic celebration of work
This week, Canadians celebrate Labour Day, an acknowledgement of the contribution of workers to our country's well-being and prosperity. It's a worthy celebration, one which unfortunately is now often regarded as only another summer long weekend. Perhaps that is because we have forgotten the value of work or that the value of human labour is often debased into a merely economic one.
The Catholic Church's teaching on work has much to offer our society. The Church can help us rescue work from the one-dimensional economic perspective in which it is too often seen.
"Work," in the Church's understanding, includes not only wage labour, but all our activities of toil. And those actions need to be viewed as part of Christ's ministry of priest, prophet and king in which all the baptized participate. In his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work), Pope John Paul wrote that "Men and women, created in the image of God, share by their work in the activity of the Creator" (n. 24).
This is heady stuff, but not new teaching. In its Constitution on the Church, the Second Vatican Council listed work, family life and relaxation among the ways for the laity to carry out their priestly office. Such activities, "if they are accomplished in the Spirit, . . . become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (n. 34).
Likewise, prophetic ministry is carried out through the labours of lay people. Work provides us with an opportunity to "make the most of the present time and with patience (to) await the future glory" (n. 35). We are called to make this hope evident to the world through lives of continual conversion in our secular activities.
Finally, laity build God's kingdom by competence, infused with God's grace, in secular activities and by living lives oriented to justice, love and peace. Our goal in the workplace should be to "impregnate culture and human works with a moral value" and to help each other live holier lives (n. 36).
Indeed, the pope began Laborem Exercens by emphasizing that the main point of work is not to make money for oneself or to boost the GNP, but lies rather in "elevating unceasingly the cultural and moral level of society."
The Church's teaching on work and workers dates back to Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. That encyclical is chiefly remembered for its endorsement of workers' right to form unions.
But while Pope Leo saw unions as bargaining on behalf of workers for better material conditions of work, he stated their primary role in broader terms. The "principal goal" of unions, according to Pope Leo, is the "moral and religious perfection" of their members. He asked, "What would it profit a worker to secure through an association an abundance of goods, if his soul through lack of its proper food should run the risk of perishing?" (n. 77).
It was Leo's emphasis on the integral unity of the spiritual and the material in work and the worker which formed the perspective in which the later teaching of Vatican II and Pope John Paul developed.
Although work is sometimes difficult, it does not debase the human person. Nor is it something from which we should seek escape. Work, according to the current pope, "corresponds to human dignity, . . . expresses this dignity and increases it" (LE, 9).
It is that exalted view of human work which we should celebrate on Labour Day. It is also the view we should endeavour to live out the other 364 days of the year.
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