Consider work's many aspects

February 13, 2006

Read: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nn. 270-286

"What then constitutes the alienation of labour? First, the fact that labour is external to the worker, that is, it does not belong to his essential being. . . . He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home." - Karl Marx

Karl Marx here made an important comment on the nature of labour. Viewed from the outside, labour is about producing things – material things, services or information – that are typically sold to others.

This product of labour is alien to the worker. It is not part of his being, given that it can be sold to others. It is not a gift of his self; it is something other than who he is. When a person quits a job or retires, he goes, not leaving any of himself behind.

That is the view from the outside. The view from the inside is quite different. This is what the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church calls the subjective sense of work:

"In the subjective sense, work is the activity of the human person as a dynamic being capable of performing a variety of actions that are of the work process and that correspond to his personal vocation" (n. 270, emphasis added).

Work is part of how we determine who we are. I do not so much get my identity through my work as much as I create who I am through that work. If I did no work, I would not thereby be less of a person, but I would have missed an opportunity to give something of myself to God and society and thus be more of who I was meant to be.

Marx was not the only one who tended to view work exclusively in the objective sense. Our contemporary ideologues obsessed with increasing productivity are fixated on the objective sense of work as well.


The Compendium points out that we are in a new world. In the factories of the Industrial Revolution, the product was more important than the producer. The worker tended to be an extension of the mechanical process. "In our day the subjective dimension of work tends to be more decisive and more important than the objective dimension" (n. 278).

So today we have career counselling and are much more concerned that the worker finds employment which not only reflect his talents but also his "inner bliss." Labour will always have an element of the alienation of which Marx wrote. But the worker must be engaged.

Ranchers are faced with a multitude of ecominic and environmental challenges, yet they stay the course because they love the rural way of life.

– Design Pics photo

Ranchers are faced with a multitude of ecominic and environmental challenges, yet they stay the course because they love the rural way of life.

This concern for engagement is progress. Work should not be a time of toil to be stoically gotten through in order to earn a pay cheque. It should be part of one's vocation – a job performed with pride and with a sense that one is contributing something of worth to God's kingdom.

Part of the genius of St. Ignatius Loyola and the Jesuit order was that they saw the importance of the subjective dimension of work. In his book Heroic Leadership, leadership guru Chris Lowney describes how the early Jesuits instilled in their recruits "the desire to make the most of their gifts and to avoid squandering them."

Ignatius was determined that his Jesuits would avoid an aimless path of life. He developed the Spiritual Exercises as a tool for them to discern how God was acting in their lives and to have an apostolate that was focused.

Twice a day, a Jesuit would briefly reflect on how well he was doing in overcoming his personal barriers or weaknesses that stood in the way of his living out his apostolate.

A life or a career that lurches about incoherently is one where the person has failed to discern and act upon God's call. We are all called to be leaders, Lowney maintains.

"The leader understands that his or her values and ways of working must form an integrated, self-reinforcing whole."

The Compendium says that while people are more important than profits, there should be no opposition between the objective and subjective dimensions of work.

We need economic systems which harmonize the tension between the two.

Unemployment is an evil that must be fought; there should be consultation in the workplace; work should not make excessive demands on one's family life; workers must avoid the temptation to workaholism; ownership of the means of production must be seen as a form of stewardship; property ownership must reflect the fact that God created the world for the good of all, not just a tiny minority.

These are steps or principles which reflect the true nature of work. They do not require one form of economy rather than another. But they are a challenge to the way we do business in the world today.

The alienation of labour, as Marx described it, is not something to be overcome. Work has an objective dimension. But it has a subjective dimension too, one that provides an opportunity for all to integrate their life and faith.