Today is Labor Day in the United States. With this in mind, I thought it would be good to reflect on some teachings about human labor that are given in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The text from the catechism is shown in italics, while my commentary is in red.
- Human labor precedes original sin and hence is not an imposition due to sin but part of our original dignity. God places [Man] in the garden. There he lives “to till it and keep it.” Work is not yet a burden, but rather the collaboration of man and woman with God in perfecting the visible creation (CCC # 378). Our dignity is that we are to work with God to perfect creation. Adam and Eve were told by God to fill the earth and subdue it (Gen 1:28). Radical environmentalists often set aside any notion that we are to help to perfect creation, presenting a far more negative portrait of humanity’s interaction with the environment. While it is true that we have not always done well in treating the environment, it is wrong to think of the created world as being better off without humanity’s presence. It is our dignity to work with God in perfecting nature. Note, too, the characterization of work as not burdensome prior to sin. Man and woman did have work to do, but it was not experienced as a burden. Only after original sin did work come to be experienced in this way: Eve will bring forth her children in pain and Adam will only be able to get his food by the “sweat of his brow” (Gen 3:16, 19).
- Human work is a duty and prolongs the work of creation. Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another. Hence work is a duty: “If anyone will not work, let him not eat” [2 Thess 3:10]. Work honors the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him (CCC 2427). See again the emphasis on our dignity as collaborators with God in the work of creation and in perfecting what God has begun! As to the particulars of work, not everyone can work in the same way. Age and/or handicap may limit a person’s ability to do manual labor. Further, specific talents and state in life tend to focus a person’s work in specific areas. But all are called to work. Even the bedridden can pray and offer their sufferings for the good of others.
- Work can be sanctifying and redemptive. [Work] can also be redemptive. By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, man collaborates in a certain fashion with the Son of God in his redemptive work. He shows himself to be a disciple of Christ by carrying the cross, daily, in the work he is called to accomplish. Work can be a means of sanctification and a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ (CCC 2427). … In his mercy God has not forsaken sinful man. The punishments consequent upon sin, “pain in childbearing” and toil “in the sweat of your brow,” also embody remedies that limit the damaging effects of sin (CCC # 1609). Sin has brought upon us many weaknesses and selfish tendencies. Work can serve as a remedy by strengthening us to be disciplines, to labor for the common good, and to cooperate with others in achieving good ends.
- Work is an acceptable sacrifice to God. [The] laity, dedicated as they are to Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit, are marvelously called and prepared so that even richer fruits of the Spirit maybe produced in them. For all their works, prayers, and apostolic undertakings, family and married life, daily work, relaxation of mind and body, if they are accomplished in the Spirit—indeed even the hardships of life if patiently born—all these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. In the celebration of the Eucharist these may most fittingly be offered to the Father along with the body of the Lord (CCC # 901).
- To work is to participate in the common good. Participation [in the common good] is achieved first of all by taking charge of the areas for which one assumes personal responsibility: by the care taken for the education of his family, by conscientious work, and so forth, man participates in the good of others and of society (CCC # 1914). We work not just to benefit ourselves but also to contribute to the good of everyone. We do this first by caring for our own needs to the extent possible (and thus not burdening others unnecessarily with our care). We also contribute to the common good by supplying our talent and work in such a way as to contribute to the overall availability of goods and services in the economy and community. We supply human talent and the fruits of our works to others. In addition, from our own resources we purchase the goods and services of others. Hence to work is to participate in the common good.
The key word seems to be “dignity.” Human work proceeds from our dignity as collaborators with God in perfecting and completing the work of creation. All can and should work in the ways that are possible for them, not merely because each of us has a duty, but also because it proceeds from our dignity. Happy Labor Day!