Modern Catholic social thought is typically dated back to Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor). It’s not that Catholicism had never dealt with social ethics before, of course, but the pope’s discussion marked a new level of reflection that considered particular ethical questions in the context of larger changes in social structures. The particular issue Pope Leo XIII spoke to was the “worker question”: the effects of the 19th-century Industrial Revolution that sparked the rise of socialism in Europe.
Even since then, Catholic social thought has seen work as the “key to the social question.” Today, work is facing a new crisis. Spurred by technological change and supercharged by the disruption of the pandemic, everyone is wondering about the future of work. News reports wonder, “Will the office disappear?” amid speculation that the new world of remote work could change American settlement patterns as much as the advent of the highway system. Meanwhile, the impact of the novel coronavirus exposes divides: Categories of “essential workers” must continue to stock the stores and provide nursing home care while so many others have the privilege to continue their jobs from the safety of their own homes.
How should we confront these changes? In his encyclical Fratelli Tutti (On Fraternity and Social Friendship), Pope Francis repeatedly says we cannot simply return to business as usual. He encourages us to “rise to the challenge of envisaging a new humanity. We can aspire to a world that provides land, housing and work for all.” As we rethink work, we must make choices in line with Catholic teaching about its value.
First and foremost, work is a very good thing for us. Catholic social thought has always held that human beings are made for work and that work is a central aspect of human dignity. While we sometimes pay lip service to this truth, we also tend to imagine that avoiding work or doing less of it would be better. In his magnificent recent book Getting Work Right (Emmaus Road Publishing), Catholic theologian Michael Naughton outlines our tendency to view work as merely a “job” that provides us with money we can use for the real things we care about in life.
Indeed, our very economic system can seem to measure work as a “disvalue,” as employers seek to minimize their labor costs and workers seek various paths to minimize the work they have to do to gain a paycheck. Naughton also points out the mistake at the other extreme, a “careerism” in which we measure our entire worth by our work achievements. There is more to life than work, and Naughton argues that we get work right only when we get Sabbath rest right, when we properly understand and integrate work and genuine rest. In order to do so, we must come to understand work as a vocation, as a role in a larger purpose or calling to which we devote our entire lives.
How can new technologies enhance human communion rather than diminish it?
This understanding of work can apply to all types of work and work structures. But we need to be careful: At least in our present circumstances, it’s clearly easier for some people in some professions to understand their work as vocation than for others. Our structures currently favor living out so-called white-collar work for vocation, but they leave behind the majority on whose “essential services” the few rely. How can we get work right for all?
Three key insights from Catholic social teaching can help us. The first is St. Pope John Paul II’s teaching about the purpose of business. He writes in his encyclical Centesimus Annus (Commemorating the Centenary of Rerum Novarum) that businesses, while they must be profitable in order to continue to exist, do not have profit as their primary, foundational identity.
Instead, a firm’s first purpose is “found in its very existence as a community of persons.” Work teaches us not simply to make products or services but to work together with others in order to do so. Consider the moves toward online commerce: The impersonality of solo delivery drivers running around, as quickly as possible dumping packages silently so they can move on to the next block, hardly looks like a workplace of human communion. How can new technologies enhance communion rather than further diminish it?
A second insight also comes from the same passage by St. Pope John Paul II, who explains that this community of persons is meant to “form a particular group at the service of the whole of society.” We sometimes talk as if “community service” is not for work hours and settings. But most “service” is ultimately provided through work. Catholic social thought teaches about the obligation of businesses to provide “good goods,” serving real and genuine needs that help human persons flourish. How can we support work that truly serves genuine human needs?
Finally, in his encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work), St. Pope John Paul II describes what he calls the “subjective value of work.” By this, he means that the work develops the person in their full humanity. This goes beyond communion and service. He identifies being created in the image of God with the idea of “dominion,” that work allows the person to become “capable of acting in a planned and rational way” and move toward “self-realization.” One of the least discussed aspects of the structure of work is that workers tend to value some degree of autonomy and control over their own work processes. Especially given the technological changes we are facing, how can people at workplaces develop into skilled, creative persons and not simply robots to be directed by others?
Work teaches us not simply to make products or services, but to work together.
For a long time, we have run our economy aiming to maximize output for consumption. We’ve assumed that the basic economic problem is “not enough” and that efficiency means organizing things so as to make the most output at the least cost. We’ve now got a lot of stuff but also a subordination of the worker to this demand of maximum output. Increasingly, both liberals and conservatives recognize that this subordination of the worker underlies our increasing political polarization, widening the gap between those who have secure, lasting employment and those who are constantly on the edge, barely getting by.
As we reset our work lives after the pandemic, it’s genuinely possible to rethink policies to put work and workers first. But we also need more than policy. We need to recover the fullness of Catholic insight on how God made us for work—the right kind of work, in which we ultimately serve God and one another.
This article also appears in the May 2021 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 5, pages 40-41). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Unsplash/Maarten van den Heuvel