Finding the Value of Work
There are some people who picture heaven as a place where no one has to do any work. Other people believe that the Church does not truly care about individual workers. Neither of these is true. Pope Pius XII pointed this out definitively when he instituted the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker in 1955. We observed this feast earlier this week, and we recognize it every May 1.
St. Joseph already has a feast day on March 19, but Pope Pius XII felt that it was important to establish a feast that recognized him specifically as a laborer. St. Joseph is a quiet, humble figure in the Gospels, but we know that he worked hard as a carpenter, provided for his family, and taught Jesus the trade of carpentry. St. Joseph was not defined by his work, but he used work as a way to give glory to God and fully live out his vocation. For this reason, Pope Pius XII recognized him with a feast to help clarify the Christian understanding of work.
Church teachings on work boil down to two main points:
1. Work is inherently good.
God always intended for us to work. Work is not a punishment or simply a means to an end, but an integral part of who we are as human beings. This is evident from the early chapters of Genesis: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Tilling the land and harvesting its fruits was an essential part of God’s plan for creation. From the very beginning of the earth, God intended for humans to actively participate in creation through work. It was—and is—a blessing.
We can have a tendency to either drag through a work day, wishing for it to end, or to overwork. Both of these habits fail to recognize the inherent goodness of work. If we see work as merely an obligation, as something we have to do to survive, then it will be miserable for us. But if we view it as actively participating in creation, we are liberated and able to enjoy work. The type of work a person does will not necessarily make it more or less liberating: if you are doing the work that you are called to do, then you are made free. On the other hand, if you do nothing but work, then you risk idolizing work. God intends for work to be part of what we do, but not all of it. That is why He created the Sabbath and commanded that we observe it.
2. Workers need to be treated with dignity and respect.
This second point overlaps with the fact that all people need to be treated with dignity and respect—for we are all called to work in some capacity, depending on the gifts God has given us. The Church teaches that in the particular context of work, the worker needs to be treated well. Employers, managers, and anyone who holds any sort of power over a worker has the duty to treat that worker with dignity.
Jeremiah 22:13 says, “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages.” God instructs us to be fair in our dealings with workers, which makes perfect sense with His command to work. When we are following God’s commandments, all the elements of our obedience must be guided by justice.
Along these same lines, we as a society have the responsibility to make sure that everyone’s right to work is recognized. This means that people of all talents and abilities should have some corresponding work that enables that person to make a living. In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI writes, “Every worker should have the chance to make his contribution knowing that in some way ‘he is working “for himself”’” (no. 41). In our answer to the call to work, we have not only the right, but also the obligation to give the very best of our personal skills and talents to participate in creation and build up the Body of Christ.
As we work for the glory of God and balance our work with the other elements of our lives, we ask for the intercession of St. Joseph the Worker. St. Joseph, pray for us!