It will take many years to come to grips with the way COVID-19 has disrupted our lives, even after the immediate danger has passed. While some things will likely return to normal quickly — shopping without masks or eating at restaurants — others will take years, and still others may never again be the same. Of particular importance is the way that people experience and think about work — not to mention the way we actually do it.
We are currently going through what economists are calling the “Great Resignation,” giving what might otherwise have appeared as a curious phenomenon the status of a historical event. It seems to warrant this status because of its magnitude and its culture-changing implications: Not only did the rate of early retirement skyrocket in the past two years, but tens of millions of otherwise young and capable adults quit their jobs — sometimes to take advantage of the “seller’s market” to find a better line of work, but other times simply to live without a job as best they can. These members of a burgeoning “anti-work” movement are finding other, unconventional means of surviving, ways of making a living that do not involve fixed hours in a cubicle and endless paperwork.
What has caused this radical shift in attitudes toward work? There is not yet consensus about the economic and sociological causes behind it, but one thing seems certain: The pandemic forced us to step back from the usual course of our lives, which allowed us to reflect on the things we do, and why we do them. And when people today asked themselves why they work, many of them apparently found no compelling response: Why work, often toiling away at something seemingly pointless for people we scarcely know, if we don’t “have” to; if we can find some other way to meet our needs? Whatever the proximate causes may be, it seems we have lost a sense of work as a meaningful part of our existence.
Catholic social teaching, which has developed since the late-19th century, sheds a unique light on the state of work today. This teaching helps us to see that the Great Resignation is not just a superficial change in behavior patterns, but ought to be recognized as a symptom — one of many — of a deeper crisis regarding the meaning of life. Indeed, it is ultimately a crisis of love.
In an encyclical that celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, Laborem Exercens (on human work), St. John Paul II identified work as one of the things that makes us human. As embodied spirits, human beings have the extraordinary privilege of participating in the most original work of all, namely, God’s creation of the world. Made in the image of God, we are able to realize in a unique and effective way God’s creative will that the world flourish and manifest his glory. This gift was granted to no other creature but man.
The commandments given at man’s creation, according to the Book of Genesis, are to “be fruitful and multiply” and to “till and keep” the garden, which means to “have dominion” over creation (Gen 1:28, 2:15). In other words, the two “tasks” God assigned — so essential to our existence as to define who we are — are marriage and family, and work. It is not an accident that precisely these two areas of existence, the most fundamental to our nature, were wounded as a result of original sin: Sexual relations became complicated and childbirth painful and dangerous, and work became laborious and often fruitless (cf. Gen 3:16-19).
But in both cases, what was wounded was not destroyed. At the wedding Mass, we recall the uniting in flesh of man and woman as a great blessing rooted in God’s plan for creation. It is important that we see work, too, in its original reality as a gift. When God created man to till the soil, it was not because God was unable or unwilling to supply man’s needs, and so left man to fend for himself. If God gave work to man, it was mainly as a blessing, to share in his own free and celebratory bringing of the world into being: “God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good!” (Gen 1:31).
Early in his pontificate, John Paul II famously elaborated a “theology of the body,” explaining that the “call to love” is so fundamental to our existence as to be inscribed into our very flesh. Each of us is made for faithful and fruitful union — most clearly signified by bodily fruitfulness in marriage. But we are also “called to work” (Laborem Exercens, prologue) — and this call is also inscribed in our flesh. For example, the human hand, which Aristotle called the “tool of tools,” with its uniquely opposable thumb and thus extraordinary versatility, allows man to intervene in the world and refashion it in profound and creative ways, cultivating it, transforming it, giving it order and beauty, and making it fruitful. The vocation to work, in other words, is also an indispensable part of the vocation to love that defines our humanity.
“Love inevitably carries burdens. To put our hand to real things, to take the time to do things well — for all of the toil involved — is to affirm our humanity and to take part in the love that is creation.”
There seem to be two basic reasons that we have lost a “taste” for work in the contemporary world. One is that much of the work available these days has, in fact, become largely meaningless — at least in the profound, human sense. Work has generally been organized around productivity and profit, not first of all around what John Paul II called its “personalist” meaning. The main purpose of work is not what can be achieved by it, but first of all the activity itself; we work not simply because it produces good things, but because it is good to work. Moreover, it can be better to work in a way that is actually less profitable and productive, if it is more affirming of the intrinsic meaning and value of what is being done and of the people doing it.
Second, we have forgotten that work is an expression of love, and that, to quote John Paul II once again, “man cannot live without love” (Redemptor Hominis, 10). The explosion of ever more sophisticated gadgetry has reinforced our disordered inclination to avoid burdens whenever possible. But there is nothing meaningful in our lives that is not also a burden, even if it is a “light” one. To get rid of all inconveniences is to eliminate the very things that make life worth living. Love inevitably carries burdens. To put our hand to real things, to take the time to do things well — for all of the toil involved — is to affirm our humanity and to take part in the love that is creation.
We are accustomed to think of the Church as the “guardian of marriage,” cultivating and protecting that basic human institution. But as Catholics and Knights, we ought to become more aware of the Church’s role as “guardian of work.” And to do so we may meditate on St. Joseph, that great saint who was identified in Scripture with a simple — but increasingly significant — description: “the Worker” (Mt 13:55). The Greek word here, tektōn, is typically translated as “carpenter,” but in fact it means “artisan” or “craftsman” in a more general sense. St. Joseph may therefore be taken as the living symbol of work as an expression of the essential Christian mission.
When Pope Pius XII established the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker in 1955, he wisely chose May 1 — the date that had been claimed by the Marxist International Socialist Congress in 1889 for the annual celebration of workers’ rights. He thereby made clear a message that is important for us, too, to remember during this confusing and unstable time: The value of work can best be affirmed by recovering its deepest roots and its noblest purpose, namely, to participate in God’s own creative act — and to respond to the call to love.
D.C. SCHINDLER is professor of metaphysics and anthropology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He is a member of Potomac Council 433.
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