The dignity of work


One hundred and five years ago, for the first time, by order of Congress and President Grover Cleveland, the first Monday of September was celebrated in the United States as Labor Day. Annually, citizens of the United States would be encouraged to recognize and pay tribute to the contribution of the American worker to the well-being of our nation.

This was not at the time an idle gesture. Everyone recognized that to make any product or to provide any service a number of factors had to be brought together, including financing, management, and human labor. Unfortunately, if we were to judge how important these factors were from the profits they received from their contribution, human labor was rated lowest. There was an army of working poor people available, and the guiding principle was one of supply and demand. You only had to pay what people were willing to work for, even if it was not enough to supply basic needs.

Yes, things have improved. There are now laws that deny the misuse of children as cheap labor, and so-called minimum wage provisions that still leave a large number of working poor. Management has discovered a way to legally deprive a number of them from health and retirement benefits by limiting their working hours, so they are classified as part-time workers. There have been some improvements for laboring people but too many suffer because labor is not given the respect it deserves.

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII wrote the first of many social letters calling people of good will to recognize the value of human work. In 1991, the Catholic bishops of the United States issued a pastoral message entitled A Century of Social Teaching — A Common Heritage, A Continuing Challenge.

The bishops identified six basic principles and themes that have emerged over the last hundred years. They are: The Life and Dignity of the Human Person; The Rights and Responsibilities of the Human Person; The Call to Family, Community, and Participation; The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers; The Option for the Poor and Vulnerable; and Solidarity.

In regard to the Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers, the bishops wrote, “Work is more than a way to make a living; it is an expression of our dignity and a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. People have the right to decent and productive work, to decent and fair wages, to private property and economic initiative.” They dared to state that, “in Catholic teaching, the economy exists to serve people, not the other way around.”

In the Book of Genesis we are taught that our dignity as human beings rests in the truth that we are made in God’s image and likeness. When we work, it is that imprint that we place on the products of our labor. The story in Genesis clearly teaches that by human labor we continue the work of creation. Human work is not a punishment for sin, but an opportunity to share in God’s work of creation. He did not rest after six days of labor because he was tired. He intentionally did not finish the work he had begun at creation so that we might have an opportunity to share in his Godly work.

Let’s not be so stupid to think that the bottom line is the economy, but the opportunity by work to love others, ourselves, and God; that is, for us humans to be God-like.

Msgr. Thomas R. Duffy is pastor of St. Michael Church in Garden City.