What does the Catholic Church teach about work?

It’s good to dedicate the Labor Day holiday to celebrating the work that helps us to accomplish God’s plan for our own well-being, and that of our family, of our church, and of our world

Q. Can you please say something about us Catholics celebrating Labor Day? Thank you.

A. Our celebration of Labor Day must begin with a proper understanding of work.

Do you think of work as a curse? Too much work may be a curse. Even Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said in 2006 that working too hard was never a good thing, not even for a pope.

But it’s not fair to call work part of Adam and Eve’s punishment for their sin, because Adam had to tend the garden even before the fall. The inspired storyteller in the book of Genesis tells us that “ha adam” — “the man,” “the human being” — received the breath of God and “became a living being.”

And, almost immediately, Adam became a working being, caring for Eden’s orchard. Since both the orchard and the work were God-given, they must have been good. Our God does not seek “to make us hired servants but rather desires to include us within the project of creation as gift” (Timothy P. O’Malley, “Liturgy and the New Evangelization,” Liturgical Press, 2014. p. 111). One of the Benedictine values stemming from the Rule of St. Benedict that my monastery lives by is “to appreciate the dignity of work in God’s creation.”

Cooperating with God

The book of Genesis shows us that being human and working have gone together from the beginning. Creation is God’s work and our own. Today, there is new emphasis on creation as the cooperative action for good between God and humanity. For example, St. John Paul II identified “Work as a Sharing in the Activity of the Creator” as one of the “Elements for a Spirituality of Work” in his encyclical on human work (“Laborem Exercens,” Sept. 14, 1981).

Yet, earlier ages glimpsed this truth. In the stained-glass windows and mural decorations of medieval cathedrals, we often find the figure of a man or woman engaged in some rather ordinary tasks: plowing, receiving grain at the windmill, bleaching a length of cloth, spinning, binding up sheaves of wheat.

It was not that the artist had tired of depicting angels or saints, or even that he had evaded the supervision of his ecclesiastical superiors. Rather, the artist was emphasizing a fundamental truth: By faithfully fulfilling one’s daily work, one cooperates with God’s plan for creation. The man depicted with the plow in one window could be as great a saint as the bishop with the halo in the next.

Our work, too, is part of a great mosaic. If it’s true that we saints-in-training are co-workers with God through our work, then the large number of unemployed people in our country must mean that some of God’s work, somewhere, somehow, is not being done as God would have it done. This is regrettable.

We are seeing and feeling the destructive effects of downsizing, outsourcing and consumerism, of an economy that is driven by the need to constantly replace what we have with something newer and cheaper, something most likely not made in the USA (although this may be changing.)

But what if our society did as Jesus commands us in the Gospel? — “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Matthew 7:32). Then maybe we could be like God the Creator in the book of Genesis, and rejoice in the good work of our hands and minds and hearts this Labor Day, especially as we celebrate the Eucharist.

All good things can become corrupted, including work. In parts of the world, slavery (especially of women and children) is a shameful and painful reality; workaholism can be a form of escapism from other obligations, even in religious communities.

So, it is good to dedicate the Labor Day holiday to celebrating the work that helps us to accomplish God’s plan for our own well-being, and that of our family, of our church, and of our world.