A theology of work
The brilliant and enigmatic author David Foster Wallace told a story to begin his commencement address. “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life”: Two young fish swim past a wise, old fish who greets them with the simple question “How’s the water?” They swim on for a while when one of the younger fish asks his companion “What is water?” Wallace states, that “the immediate point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”
Wallace is correct. Married couples can find it difficult to talk about their life of intimacy, religious can find it difficult to speak about prayer, and priests can find it troublesome to discuss liturgy and theology with each other.
What is most pervasive is often either ignored, taken for granted or overlooked. So it is often with the reality of work. All of us work, but we do not always reflect on the meaning and purpose of it. This is troublesome especially for Catholics, because there is a wonderful, exciting “theology of work” in our tradition.
The high point of this theology is reflected in St. John Paul II’s great encyclical of 1981, Laborem Exercens (LE), “On Human Work.” The encyclical reflects a lifetime of philosophical and theological study of the phenomenon of work.
St. John Paul II knew that work was “the essential key” to the social question (LE 3). In one way or another, everyone is called to work, to labor in the vineyard of the Lord (Matthew 20: 1-16). The lay faithful in particular are called to sanctify the world through their work at home, in schools, and in the workplace (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 897-913).
As we learn from Genesis 1-3, work predates the Fall. Adam and Eve were given a great honor by God to name the animals, tend the garden and be stewards of God’s wonderful creation. When they sinned, work became toilsome but it did not lose its basic goodness. Through our work we help build up, by the grace of God, his kingdom.
St. John Paul II reflected on the nature of work as a “transitive activity,” that is, an activity that begins within the human person as a choice and then has an effect in the visible world. In this sense animals do not “work” because work involves a choice (LE 4).
As a transitive activity, work has two dimensions or “senses.” The first sense, the one most people focus on, is the “objective dimension” – the thing we make, the task we do, the service we provide. It is this dimension that is the focus of the market because it can be quantified via the pricing mechanisms of our economy (LE 5).
But there is another dimension to work. The “subjective dimension” of work is what work does to the worker, how it makes him or her more by participation in the process of creating and doing. It is this dimension which is, in fact, the most important. It is also with this dimension that the dynamism of a free economy is born. New ideas, enterprise, invention insights are discovered via the subjective dimension of work (often by a community of workers trying to invent a better way of doing things) (LE 6).
Businesses that survive and thrive over the long haul know that it is through paying attention to the subjective sense of work – to their workers’ health and well-being, training and development — that allows them to flourish. This is not surprising because it is people who work and serve, and who are ultimately the business. Business studies and books all reflect the simple truth that everyone benefits when the focus is on how work affects those who engage in it.
Of the two dimensions of work, the most important one is the subjective dimension. This follows from the basic moral norm that people are more valuable than things. As the old saying goes, “We are to love people and use things, not love things and use people.”
But what of the bottom line? St. John Paul II taught that there is an important role for profit properly understood as an indicator of the value-added by a healthy business (See Centesimus Annus 35). The most successful companies, businesses and organizations know this truth and their leaders pay strict attention to the subjective dimension of work and the holistic health of the community of persons that they have the privilege to serve.
MONSIGNOR STUART W. SWETLAND, S.T.D. is president of Donnelly College and chaplain to the Kansas City Chapter of Legatus.