September 3, 2021

Christ the Cornerstone

Bishops, pope remind us work must give people dignity

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“We ask St. Joseph to help us fight for the dignity of work, so that there might be work for all and that it might be dignified work, not the work of a slave.” (Pope Francis)

The publication date for this column is Friday, Sept. 3, the beginning of the long Labor Day weekend. Traditionally, Labor Day marks the end of the summer and, as a nation, we take this time to rest and unwind before returning to our daily labors.

Our Church teaches that work is a blessing, a participation in God’s creative activity. Properly understood and structured, work gives dignity to the women and men who undertake it—to express themselves, to support their families, to build up their local communities and to make life better for themselves and others. Unfortunately, this vision of the meaning of human labor is not always realized in practice. Some work is demeaning rather than dignifying, and too often people who need, and desperately want, worthwhile work simply can’t find it.

In March 2015, the Catholic bishops of Indiana issued a pastoral letter “Poverty at the Crossroads: The Church’s Response to Poverty in Indiana.” The purpose of this letter was “to call attention to the poverty that exists right here within the state that calls itself the Crossroads of America.”As this letter points out:

“The economy must serve people, not the other way around” is a succinct paraphrase of a crucial statement by

St. John Paul II in his encyclical, “Laborem Exercens”: “In the first place, work is for man and not man for work” (#6.6). Work is more than simply a way to make a living; it is a continuing participation in God’s creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected. These include the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to organize, to private property, and to economic initiative. … The human person is what is most important, not economic theory or social structures. The human person, the one who works, is not a means to an end, but the primary beneficiary of his or her own labor.

Pope Francis strongly reinforces this teaching by repeatedly calling our attention to the idea that work contains goodness within itself and creates harmony between things. It creates beauty and goodness, and it involves every part of the person—mind, body and spirit. Work is man’s first vocation. Unfortunately, the Holy Father says, “Today there are many slaves—many men and women who are not free to work: they are forced to work for enough to live on, nothing more. They are slaves to forced labor … and poorly paid.”

One of the most devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic was the economic hardships that resulted from lockdowns and the loss of jobs. To be unemployed for more than a year affects a person’s self-esteem, and it causes economic difficulties for businesses, local communities and entire nations. That’s why the task of rebuilding our economy—responsibly and with a clear focus on the dignity of individual workers—must be a top priority for us.

As we bishops wrote six years ago:

To address the serious challenges facing our economy in the state of Indiana today, we must look carefully at the impact of policies, legislation and governmental regulations on real people—the women and men who struggle to earn a living, support their families and make ends meet. We cannot fix the economy by employing abstract theory that is detached from

those whose lives are at stake. As St. John Paul II tells us, we cannot simply look at material needs (food, shelter, clothing, health care, etc.), as important as these are for individuals, families and communities. We should also foster a spirituality of work, which recognizes its profound impact on the intellectual, social, cultural and religious life of individuals, families and communities.

To create a “spirituality of work,” we must always put the good of the human person ahead of the goods and services he or she produces. That’s why Catholic social teaching refuses to accept either unrestrained capitalism or unbridled socialism. As we state in “Poverty at the Crossroads,” “Work should be the primary means by which parents provide for their families and contribute to a healthy community. Governmental programs should exist principally to provide an adequate safety net for individuals who are in transitional situations or suffer from incapacitating illness or injury.”

Let’s enjoy this Labor Day weekend, but let’s also remember to pray for those who are in need of worthwhile work to support themselves and/or their families. And let’s seek to build an economy that is just and that provides for the needs of all. †

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