The True Meaning of Work
A Labor Day Reflection
Our observance of Labor Day moves us as Catholics to reflect on the meaning of human labor in light of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church. How are we to understand the role of work in our lives? Does work actually help to fulfill our role as cooperators with God in perfecting creation – or is work little more than necessary drudgery?
It is God himself who called man to be a worker. Work is part of the original state of man. God placed Adam and Eve in the garden with the command to “cultivate and care for it” (Gen. 2:15). The man and the woman were meant to “fill the earth and subdue it” as co-workers with the Creator, to whom all of creation belonged. Work, then, reflects the dignity of the human person because it is a participation in the work of God. Work is part of the original state of man and precedes his fall; it is therefore not a punishment or curse.
Not until sin entered the world through the same man and woman did man experience work differently. Because man failed to understand his place in creation, but rather sought to be like God himself, all of mankind now experiences the effects of the original sin. “To the man [God] said: ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat…by the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground from which you were taken…’ ” (Gen. 3:17,19).
In spite of the sin of Adam and Eve, however, God’s plan for man did not change. We are still called to cultivate and care for creation. Human beings work in order to make the money necessary to live in the world and to support others in the family. Work, then, besides being a participation in the work of God, is also a duty. St. Paul reminds the Thessalonians: “Indeed, when we were with you we used to lay down the rule that anyone who would not work should not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10).
We work because we are made in the image and likeness of God and because it is the duty of those who live in the world and so must be involved in the world. Every Christian, because we belong to a community of persons, must work to contribute to his own good, as well as that of the community. None of us has the right to live at the expense of others.
But work is not an end in itself. It is not the only purpose of life. Our Catholic social teaching tells us that work is essential, but it is God – and not work – who is the origin of life and the final goal of man. It is this truth that is the basis for our observance of the Sabbath rest. Sunday is not simply a break from the work week. Sunday is the privileged time for us to look to God. “Rest gives men and women the possibility to remember and experience anew God’s work, from Creation to Redemption, to recognize themselves as his work (cf. Eph. 2:10), and to give thanks for their lives and for their subsistence to him who is their author” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 258).
Human work has a twofold significance: objective and subjective. In the objective sense, work is “the sum of activities, resources, instruments and technologies used by men and women to produce things…” (Compendium, 270). Looked at in its objective dimension, work is the activity that we undertake to do or make things.
The subjective dimension – and this is the more important dimension – is precisely what gives human work its dignity. This is work as an essentially human activity. “This subjectivity gives to work its particular dignity, which does not allow that it be considered a simple commodity or an impersonal element of the apparatus for productivity…The human person is the measure of the dignity of work: ‘In fact there is no doubt that human work has an ethical value of its own, which clearly and directly remains linked to the fact that the one who carries it out is a person” (Compendium, 271). This teaching gives priority to the person, not the work. We must not forget this teaching in a culture that often values a person in the measure that a person’s work produces things.
Work is never more important than the person who engages in work. Work proceeds from the human person and, in fact, has as its final goal the human person. Man realizes himself in work insofar as he affirms that work is for man and not man for work. Even in the hardships and burdens of work, the Christian finds redemption. When we endure the hardships of work in union with Jesus, those hardships are redemptive.
Because work is a duty given us by God, in virtue of the fact that we were created in his image and likeness, it is through work that we, in part, actually fulfill our human potential.