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The Catholic work ethic

Paul J. Voss argues that the Protestant work ethic is really less about theology and more about habits. Many Protestants believe that “idleness is the devil’s playground” and that work decreases the scope of such devilish entertainment. Voss ponders the corresponding “Catholic work-ethic” and how it differs from the Protestant ethic . . .

Paul J. Voss

Writing in the early 20th century, German sociologist Max Weber promulgated the idea that a so-called “Protestant work ethic” led to the development of a free-market, capitalistic economic subsystem, engendering the subsequent rise in the standard of living in Europe and North America.

Although dismissed by many scholars today, this formulation continues to be widely cited and accepted. One need only to look at American history to see names such as Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Morgan, Huntington and a host of others to recognize the profound and lasting imprint this “work ethic” had on our culture and history. America, according to this explanation, is a land of rugged individualism and self-made men (and women) who have pulled themselves up by their “boot straps.”

The so-called Protestant work ethic is really less about theology and more about habits and industry. Many Protestants believed that “idleness is the devil’s playground” and that work would decrease the size and scope of such devilish entertainment. Work became an end in itself, not simply a means to an end. By extension, material wealth emerged as a symbol of rectitude and even piety. We still see this belief in the supreme value of work operating in our culture — where “workaholics” spend 12, 14 and even 16 hours per day in professional endeavors, where “work-life balance” ranks near the top of most-desired but elusive goals, and where few Americans take their entire allotment of vacation.

So it appears that the Protestant work ethic is alive and well. But this begs an obvious question: Is there such a thing as a Catholic work ethic? Does the Catholic mind have a different conception of work? What does the Church have to say about the nature of work, industry, profit, leisure, rest and other pressing matters? What does the Church say about the tension between a free market/capitalistic economy versus a socialized/state-run economy?

To answer these questions, one should look to the Catechism or Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate. Additionally, I’d suggest two books. First, Michael Novak’s Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life (1996). Novak examines business as a vocation (from the Latin vocare and hence a calling). He sees business, properly understood, as “a morally serious calling” with aims higher and broader than simply the accumulation of wealth. His three virtues of business — creativity, building community, and practical realism — have nothing to do with the bottom line, per se. All Catholic business executives — especially those who take the adjective Catholic seriously — ought to read (or reread) this book.

Another valuable addition to the conversation comes from the insightful work of Dr. Josef Pieper. In his classic Leisure as the Basis of Culture (1952), Pieper articulates a vision of the Catholic work ethic. Pieper juxtaposes otium (the contemplative life) and negotium (the active life) and famously defends leisure and the contemplative life. Many people — and this includes Catholics — overvalue the sphere of work. Pieper believes that work must be seen as a means to an end (perhaps an important means, but a means nevertheless). The proper end of human work ought to be the attainment of leisure: We work in order to be free from work.

Leisure, of course, does not imply idleness or sloth; Pieper would never advocate laziness. For the philosopher, leisure means “intellectual work,” the type of thinking and reflecting proper to humans and the type of mental cognition that makes us most fully human. This type of leisure is required, ironically enough, to produce great art, theology, philosophy, poetry and various other forms of learning and beauty:

“Leisure, it must be clearly understood, is a mental and spiritual attitude — it is not simply the result of external factors. It is not the inevitable result of spare time, a holiday, a weekend or a vacation. It is, in the first place, an attitude of mind, a condition of the soul and as such utterly contrary to the ideal of ‘work’ as activity, as toil, as a social function.”

If this indeed represents a nascent version of the Catholic work ethic, perhaps it’s time for businessmen and women to build, refashion or update this foundation. We can do this by asking a few questions: How do we, as executives, cultivate the life of the mind and the condition of the soul necessary for this type of intellectual and spiritual work? How do we model it within our families? Do we create an environment at work where this type of activity is supported, encouraged and enhanced? Addressing these and many other related questions may indeed be the catalyst for a much larger discussion.

Paul J. Voss, Ph.D., is president of Ethikos, a professional organization offering ethics training and an associate professor of literature at Georgia State University.