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Putting Work in Perspective

Church's Social Doctrine Sheds Light on Its Meaning

ROME, JAN. 16, 2005 (Zenit) - Many still keep alive the spiritual message of Christmas in their families, but the end of holidays, and a return to work for many, should not mean forgetting about religion. The recently published Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church dedicates a chapter to human work, and seeks to explain its deeper meaning.

Heading the chapter is an explanation of what the Bible has to say about work. In Genesis God entrusts to man the task of exercising dominion over creation. "Work is part of the original state of man and precedes his fall; it is therefore not a punishment or curse," the Compendium notes (No. 256).

Work becomes associated with pain and toil as a result of original sin. Yet it still should be considered as something worthwhile since it enables us to provide the material elements we need, the Compendium insists.

At the same time, the Compendium warns against placing work at the apex of our activities. "Work is essential, but it is God -- and not work -- who is the origin of life and the final goal of man" (No. 257). In this context the stipulation of the Sabbath rest is important, because it gives an opportunity to refocus on God.

In the New Testament one finds the example of Jesus, who carried out the task of manual work as a carpenter. Jesus decries the servant who hides his talent in the ground and describes his own mission as that of working (John 5:17). But Jesus also teaches us to seek the treasures of heaven that will last, unlike those that are perishable (Mark 6:19-21).

Jesus further reveals that work is not only participation in creation, but also in the work of redemption. "Those who put up with the difficult rigors of work in union with Jesus cooperate, in a certain sense, with the Son of God in his work of redemption and show that they are disciples of Christ bearing his cross" (No. 263).

In fact, as St. Paul teaches, no Christian has the right not to work and merely to live at the expense of others (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12). The Apostle Paul encourages Christians to work and then to share the fruits with others who are in need.


The Compendium delves deeper into what work means for each person. It has both an objective and subjective dimension. Its objective meaning refers to the area of activities, instruments and technologies that are used to produce things. While the subjective sense is related to work as being the activity of a human person, who carries out work as part of a personal vocation. "As a person, man is therefore the subject of work" (No. 270).

This subjective aspect of work is vital to a correct understanding of its value and dignity. Work is not simply the production of a commodity, but is also the activity of a human person, whose dignity must be respected. The Compendium adds that the subjective dimension should take precedence over the objective aspects, "because it is the dimension of the person himself who engages in work, determining its quality and consummate value" (No. 271).

Human work also has a social dimension, as an individual's activity is connected with that of other people. "The fruits of work offer occasions for exchange, relationship and encounter" (No. 273).

Labor and capital

When it comes to the theme of understanding the relationship between workers and the material elements of production (capital), the Compendium repeats the importance of keeping in first place the concept of work as a subjective or personal task. In fact, in the modern economy the text notes that there is growing recognition of the value of "human capital" as an important resource in production.

But, while keeping in place the principle of the priority of the human person, labor and capital should exist in a relationship of complementarity, adds the Compendium. Each one needs the other and it would be wrong to exalt one and forget the contribution of the other.

To this end the Compendium encourages cooperation between work and capital through such means as participation in management, ownership and profits. This may be easier in today's world, given that human knowledge is a more important factor in the economy.

Regarding the cooperation between work and capital the text defends the right to private property, while also calling to mind the importance of placing it at the service of all. Both private and public property, "must be oriented to an economy of service to mankind" (No. 283).

Safeguarding rights

A section of the Compendium is dedicated to explaining what some of the rights are in the area of human work. For a start, "work is a fundamental right and a good for all mankind" (No. 287). Work is needed to support a family and unemployment brings with it many social problems. Achieving full employment, therefore, remains a key economic goal. An important means in carrying this out is to provide an adequate education, which continues throughout the working life, so that people can find suitable employment.

The state has a role to play in this, but the Compendium is careful to stipulate that this does not mean that governments should directly employ people to provide all with a job. The duty of the state is to encourage business activity by creating conditions that will lead to adequate job opportunities.

With the increasing globalization of the economy the Compendium also recommends that governments cooperate with one another to safeguard the right to work and to ameliorate the ups and downs of the economic cycle. Another responsibility is to take care of the family. Businesses, unions and the state should promote policies that support the family.

Other themes treated in this section deal range from women and children, to protecting immigrants and agricultural workers. Women's rights should be respected and discrimination against them is not acceptable, especially with regard to pay and social security. Child labor, continues the text, "constitutes a kind of violence that is less obvious than others but it is not for this reason any less terrible" (No. 296). While it is true that in some countries income earned by children is important for families, nevertheless this exploitation constitutes a serious violation of human dignity.

When it comes to spelling out more specific rights, such as a just wage, the Compendium recalls that "The rights of workers, like all other rights, are based on the nature of the human person and on his transcendent dignity" (No. 301).

Going global

The last part of the chapter on work deals with some recent developments in world of work. Globalization has brought with it many changes, and it is important to remember that along with this process the world also needs "a globalization of safeguards, minimum essential rights and equity" (No. 310).

An economy no longer built on an industrial base, but on services and newer technologies, brings with it many changes for those working, and some difficult adjustments. To deal with this the Compendium recommends avoiding the error of insisting that changes take place in a determined manner. "The decisive factor and 'referee' of this complex phase of change is once more the human person, who must remain the true protagonist of his work" (No. 317). Humanizing work, now on a planetary scale, is thus the goal ahead.


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