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Catholic Social teaching: Dignity of Work - Christ Working for Christ

By Andrew M. Greenwell,Esq.
January 25th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The Church therefore sees human work from three dimensions: the objective, the subjective, and the social.  The first looks first at the work and not necessarily the person doing the work.  The second looks at the person doing the work and not necessarily the work done.  The third looks at the social aspect of work: how it affects others.

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) -  The Industrial Revolution was something like the opening of Pandora's box.  With all the unquestionable increase in human economic development, the increase in wealth, and efficiency in productivity and technical progress that the Industrial Revolution ushered in, there also came a variety of moral plagues and social evils, particularly for the factory worker, the miner, the child laborer, the family in overcrowded tenement, the disregarded poor, all of whom seemed to suffer from exploitation.

For many of these workers, these were"" hard times.  The moneyed capitalist and the bourgeoisie who prospered from this gospel of wealth seemed fat enough.  Greed has its own financial rewards.  But for the poor worker, it seemed like hope remained bottled up, hidden somewhere.

Then, to make matters worse, all sorts of human, even Satanic, devices were thought up as solutions for the moral and social problems: socialism, communism, anarchism.  These seemed to pit class against class, brother against brother, and suggested injustice as an answer for injustice, as if two wrongs to make a right.  Frequently, these were Godless, materialistic recipes to counter a Godless, heartless capitalism.  They were but salt in the wound of class warfare.

This Industrial Revolution and the "social question" it raised, presented the Church with a new challenge.  When she saw the crowds, she had compassion on them, because they were distressed and troubled, wandering around like sheep without a shepherd.  So she looked into her reservoir of knowledge to see what she could offer to alleviate the problem and counter the spurious solutions.  Drawing forth from the natural law and evangelical principles, she brought forth the salve of her social doctrine.

The Church's first sally into this area was Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum novarum, literally "Of New Things."  This encyclical was, as, as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church describes it, "a heartfelt defense to the inalienable dignity of workers," but it also stressed the "importance of the right to property, the principle of cooperation among the social classes, the rights of the weak and the poor, the obligations of workers and employers, and the right to form associations." (Compendium, No. 268)

From Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum novarum to Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical Caritas in veritate, "the Church has never stopped considering the problems of workers within the context of a social question which has progressively taken on worldwide dimensions."(Compendium, No. 269)

In addressing the social questions and the economic and social changes brought forth by the Industrial Revolution, the Church has reflected on the meaning of work, work that is the every-day fact of life for man, work from which man can derive dignity, but which may in some cases also be impersonal, tainted by injustice, the loss of freedom, and the cause of heavy toil and inhuman suffering.

The Church brings a unique personalistic vision of work, one that finds in it great dignity and great value.  For the Church, work is always understood within the context of the human person.  The human is never viewed as a commodity, but always as a person called to an eternal destiny.  It is from this personal vantage point that the Church understands work and its dignity.

The Church therefore sees human work from three dimensions: the objective, the subjective, and the social.  The first looks first at the work and not necessarily the person doing the work.  The second looks at the person doing the work and not necessarily the work done.  The third looks at the social aspect of work: how it affects others.

The Church recognizes that work has an objective component.  It can be seen as the "sum of activities, resources, instruments, and technologies used by men and women to produce things."  The precise boundaries of works therefore changes with the times and with place.

But the Church also sees the more important subjective component of work.  In this subjective sense, work is the "actus personae," an act of a person.  She recognizes that "work is the activity of the human person as a dynamic being," one made in the image of God and enjoying all the dignity of that image. (Compendium, No. 270)  It is this personal, subjective side of work above all which gives it its dignity, and "which does not allow that it be considered a simple commodity or an impersonal element of the apparatus for productivity."  "The subjective dimension of work must take precedence over the objective dimension." (Compendium, No. 271)

This personal view of things excludes materialism. "Any form of materialism or economic tenet that tries to reduce the worker to being a mere instrument of production, a simple labor force with an exclusively material value, would end up hopelessly distorting the essence of work and stripping it of its most noble and basic human finality." (Compendium, No. 271).

Human work, therefore, must recognize "human finality."  It must have as its final goal, not work itself or its product, but must have its "final goal in the human person."  The "end of work any work whatsoever, always remains man."  "Work is for man, and not man for work." (Compendium, No. 272)

There is therefore always a personal, a spiritual part of man involved in work, and so "whatever work it is that is done by man--even if the common scale of values rates it as the meanest 'service,' as the most monotonous, even the most alienating work" retains its subjective value.

Work is never not tied to others.  There are invariably social aspects, social connections and interdependency tied to work.  One always works with others and for others, and not only for oneself.  "Work, therefore, cannot be properly evaluated if its social nature is not taken into account." (Compendium, No. 273)

Work is not an option for man.  Work is "an obligation, that is to say, a duty on the part of man." (Compendium, No. 274)  In a sense, work may be seen as part of that commandment of loving one's self and loving one's neighbor as one's self.  The "Creator has commanded" that man work.  That command is not arbitrary, as it recognizes that work is required for a man "in order to respond to the need to maintain and develop his own humanity." 

Finally, work is a moral obligation "with respect to one's neighbor, which in the first place is one's family," but which may also be seen to including "the society to which one belongs, the nation of which one is son or daughter," and even "the entire human family of which one is a member."  Indeed, the duty of work extends beyond our own time, since we are "heirs of the work of generations and at the same time shapers of the future of all who will live after us." (Compendium, No.274)

In trying to understand the Church's personalistic vision of work, we might invoke here the picture of the last judgment presented by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (25:31-46) and modify the context as a sort of thought experiment.

At the end of time, the Lord will separate employers and employees. And to the employers who understand the dignity of work, the Lord will say, "Come, for you provided me work."  And they will respond, "Lord when did we give you work?"  And the Lord will respond, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."

And to the employees who understand the dignity of work, the Lord will say, "Come, for you worked for me."  And these will respond, "Lord when did we work for you?"  And the Lord will respond, "Truly I tell you, whatever work you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."

Think of how the world would differ if the employment relationships were seen as Christ employing Christ and Christ working for Christ.

I'll bet Adam Smith, James Mill, the Comte Saint-Simon, Karl Marx, and Pierre Joseph Proudhon and a whole host of modern economists never thought of that.

What a new thing that would be. 

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Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

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