Consider what we’re doing right now. You want to learn something. I need to earn something. What you learn and I earn in this exchange is good for both of us and by extension for our families and communities and our employers. It honors the dignity of the human need to grow and produce, contribute and participate. In that sense, God, who spent the first six days of the world working and who made us in the divine image, gives us the vocation of work as our contribution to the ongoing creation of the world.
|CATHOLIC teaching supports the dignity and
well-being of workers, including their safety.
Credit: GRP Technique & Service, Dresden.
People often think of work as that dreaded something they have to do. The church teaches that work is a human right and also a duty. It’s good for individuals and good for society—that is, it serves the common good. Three conditions are imperative for the dignity of labor: that what is produced is not more important than the person producing it; that work contributes to the unity of society and doesn’t tear it down; and that workers have a say in what they’re doing and the conditions under which they do it.
If that sounds incompatible with certain present economic formulas, that's because it is, or can be. Here church social teaching meets and debates with the marketplace. Since the time of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter Rerum Novarum, Catholic social doctrine has emphasized that economies ruled strictly by supply-and-demand, exalting product-derived wealth over every other consideration, are not compatible with Christian principles. People have obligations to each other: to work hard and honestly and to make their best contribution to their employer, coworkers, and community.
At the same time, the employer has responsibilities, too: for workers’ safety and welfare, to pay a just wage which provides a fair living for employees and their families, and to permit the organization of unions. The state likewise owes the worker legal protections. Workers are not means to an end; rather, their dignity is the end, and that’s safeguarded only when their livelihood is.
Catholic social teaching rejects a pure market standard; insists on a living family wage; questions great compensation disparities between the highest and lowest salaries in an organization; challenges discrimination in hiring and wages; is concerned with workplace conditions; and addresses the right to nonsalary benefits like accessible health care. In Pope John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical On Human Work, written on the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, he examines not only the dilemmas of the modern corporate world of work but also explores the spirituality of work as it enhances shared human life.
• Genesis 1:27; 2:1-3; Deuteronomy 24:14-15; Psalm 62:11; Matthew 6:19-21, 24; 20:1-16; Luke 10:7; 12:16-21; 1 Timothy 5:18; 6:8-10, 17-19
• On Human Work (Laborem Exercens) by Pope John Paul II
• From the Heart of the Church: The Catholic Social Tradition by Sister Judith A. Merkle, S.S.N.deN. (Liturgical Press, 2004)
• Spirituality@Work by Gregory F. Augustine Pierce (Loyola Press, 2005)