The vocation to work: the dignity of labor

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli, Paterson, NJ, September 1, 2016

In 1904, St. Louis, Missouri hosted the 21st World’s Fair. The fair was so big that a visitor would need more than a week to give even a casual glance at all the attractions. The fair’s 1,272 acres boasted 1,500 buildings, connected by some 75 miles of roads and walkways. The fair feasted the visitor with the marvels of modern technology, such as the x-ray machine, the electric typewriter and motion pictures. For the first time, most visitors came to enjoy the ice cream cone, iced tea and the hot dog. Electricity, however, stole the show. Electric lights on the inside and outside of all the major buildings and on the roads dazzled the visitor.

Among the 20 million visitors awed by the fair was the famous German Max Weber, who is credited with laying the foundations for modern sociology. His questioning mind could not rest until he found the reason for the incredible progress which he witnessed in America compared to his own country. Shortly after Weber returned to Heidelberg, he wrote his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

In his book, he produced one of the most influential arguments claiming that all the economic and technological progress that he witnessed was a consequence of the Protestant Reformation. It contains one of the most influential of all arguments about Western civilization: That its economic dynamism was an unintended consequence of the Protestant Reformation. He contended that the Protestant work ethic actually gave birth to modern capitalism (cf. Peter Kirsanow, “The American Work Ethic,” January 25, 2013).

Names such as Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie and Morgan all seem to give their approval to Weber’s theory of the imprint of a Protestant work ethic on our country. But, the idea of work as a value and as a vocation long predates the Protestant Reformation. One thousand years before Luther or Calvin, St. Benedict of Norcia recognized the inherent dignity of work. He urged his monks to live in community and to combine their life of prayer with manual labor (ora et labora). Benedict understood that work is spiritually meaningful and important for one’s own sanctification (cf. Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 126).

In the Catholic tradition, work has never been seen as a punishment or as a means of accumulating wealth and power for oneself. Such ideas are not biblical. Catholic tradition upholds all work as something good. By our work, we co-operate with God and build up the human community.

After God created man and woman in his own “image and likeness” (Gen 1:27), “God blessed them and said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28). To work: this is the first command that God gives humanity in the entire Scriptures. Thus, by working, we actually are like God who has created all that is. As Pope Francis teaches, “we were created with a vocation to work” (Amoris Laetitia, 128).

In the beginning, God placed our first parents in the Garden of Eden “to cultivate and care for it” (Gen 2:15). In this paradise free from “blood, sweat and tears,” humanity was to work to the delight of God himself. But, once Adam and Eve disobeyed God and committed Original Sin, they lost Eden and work, good from the beginning, now took on the aspect of toil and hardship as a punishment for sin (cf. Gen 3:17-19).

In echoing God’s primal command to work, St. Paul goes as far as to say “if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat” (2 Th 3:10). By our work, in business and at home, we truly cultivate and care for creation itself. Labor or work: it is part of [God’s] plan; it means making the world increase with responsibility, transforming it so that it may be a garden, an inhabitable place for us all (Pope Francis, General Audience, June 5, 2013).