Recent studies show a need for a greater understanding of labor as a Christian call to work. Nearly half the people on the planet are workers. Statically speaking, the UN’s International Labour Organization tallies the world-wide workforce at nearly three billion. Standing hand-in-hand, these workers would circle the globe 11 times. Needless to say, what work looks like throughout the world can be dramatically different. Factors such as national affluence and the respect for the rule of law and private property are important– just as are the levels of education, training, and opportunity available to workers. Despite these often vast differences in the world of work, what is remarkably similar are workers’ feelings about engagement with their work.
According to Gallup’s study of 142 countries entitled the State of the Global Workplace, only 13% of employees worldwide feel engaged at work. This means that only one in every eight workers is mentally committed to his work in such a way as to be open to making fruitful contributions to his organization and community. This is a striking commentary on man’s place in the world of work.
A Christian approach to work offers another way: an orientation to work and the calling of the worker that is rooted in man’s relationship with God and creation. This orientation is expressed in what can be called a “calling to work.”
Spiritual Work of Business
When we think about the reasons why we work, subsistence is the most obvious, but God has more in mind for man. We must always remember that work was given to man not as a punishment but as a gift. We recall in the earliest part of the creation story that God, the universe’s first worker, gave man the garden to “tend and keep” (Genesis 2:15). Made in His image, man was destined to be God’s co-creator and the fiduciary of the material world. This basic framework can often be easy to dismiss in the midst of tiring, tedious and sometimes downright unpleasant work.
Pope Francis reminds us that being a worker and engaged in business is a genuine human and Christian calling. He calls it “a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by the greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.”
There are two key notions that guide the Christian’s view of work: respect for human dignity and the pursuit of the common good. Each of these two principles are inter-related. First, because we are human, we are endowed with dignity as God’s creation. The Catechism instructs that man’s vocation is to “divine beatitude.” To fulfill his vocation, man must be free to conform to the good and be given opportunities for growth and contribution. Work is a real part of this process.
Second, the principle of the common good is key to understanding that through work man is meeting the needs of the world and his community. In its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), the Second Vatican Council sheds light on this symbiotic relationship in teaching that the common good is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as group or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and easily.”
When we forget that our work is an opportunity to use our gifts and our energies to help meet the needs of our fellow man, we forget that we are called to continue Christ’s redemptive work. Pope Saint John Paul II, in his encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work) made the issue very clear: “[b]y enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, man in a way collaborates with the Son of God for the redemption of humanity. He shows himself a true disciple of Christ by carrying the cross in his turn every day in the activity that he is called upon to perform.”
Work as a Community of Persons
Just as the Christian understands God as a Trinity of persons, so too man is to understand his role in the world of work in a communal way. In pursuit of the common good man was designed to work purposely with others toward shared goals. This is why man develops friendships, builds families and forms businesses. In its reflection of the Vocation of the Business Leader, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace reminds us that “[c]ommon goods are possible because we are relational beings who do not only have individual goals… [w]e also participate in truly shared and common projects that generate shared goods from which all participants benefit.”
It is important to also remember that it is only in community that man can genuinely develop in ability, virtue and holiness. Work is part of God’s gift to man.
Dangers of a Divided Life
One of the most significant challenges in understanding the nature and importance of man’s calling to work is rooted in what the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes calls “one of the more serious errors of our age.” This error is the all-too-common challenge of divorcing one’s temporal or daily affairs (work) from his spiritual life. This division has led to many of our culture’s most significant economic challenges.
Jesus teaches in Matthew 6:24 that “[n]o one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” This is precisely why an integration of faith and work is so very important. With a servant’s heart, man can offer his work with a higher purpose.
Again in the Vocation of the Business Leader, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace underscores that there is real opportunity in work to serve others as Jesus showed by his example: “[i]n living business responsibilities in such a manner, in developing true servant leadership, [workers can] give freely of their expertise and abilities. In figuratively washing the feet of their collaborators, [man] more fully realize[s] [his] noble calling.”
Test of Progress
When nearly 87% of the world’s three billion workers feels unfulfilled and disconnected, we can see that there is a real crisis on many levels. Most importantly, there is an evangelization crisis. Without a true understanding of the nature of work in the world, man will continue to feel separated and unsatisfied—no matter how much money he makes or how much material comfort he has secured.
Pope Saint John Paul II helped greatly to clarify this issue in Labor Exercens: “[t]he progress in question must be made through man and for man and it must produce its fruit in man. A test of this progress will be the increasingly mature recognition of the purpose of work and increasingly universal respect for the rights inherent in work in conformity with the dignity of man, the subject of work.”
In our calling to work, man is sent out into the world (1) to meet the needs of his fellow man in solidarity, (2) to organize work in ways that honor and protect human dignity, (3) to utilize the principle of subsidiarity to foster the spirit of initiative, and (4) to seek justice and prudence in the creation and distribution of sustainable wealth. With this spirit, we will have truly answered our sacred calling to work.