Laudato Si’ and “a correct understanding of work”

Day 5: Why and how we work says a lot about if and how we’re caring for God’s gifts to us

“We were created with a vocation to work. The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfilment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work. Yet the orientation of the economy has favoured a kind of technological progress in which the costs of production are reduced by laying off workers and replacing them with machines. This is yet another way in which we can end up working against ourselves.” Laudato Si’ 128

Monday seems a fitting day to explore not only Pope Francis’s words about work in Laudato Si’—as well as similar remarks he made yesterday in his trip to Turin—but also a document on the vocation of business published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

Moreover, considering that today is the Feast of St. Thomas More, who did not abandon his Catholic faith in the discharge of his worldly duties, we have all the more reason to look at our work in the world.

Given that the heart of Laudato Si’ is the human person, it’s no wonder that also central to the encyclical is the observation that how we work—and to what ends—indicates how well we are acting as stewards of the created order and keepers of our brother. The report card on all this is mixed, of course, which is why the Church is offering tutorials on how to work better.

“Work should be the setting for this rich personal growth,” said Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ Work is “where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, giving glory to God.”

"This way of experiencing work makes us more protective and respectful of the environment; it imbues our relationship to the world with a healthy sobriety." Pope Francis in Laudato Si'

It might seem that work is the focus of only a few sections of Laudato Si’. But the topic is really a part of most every section of the encyclical. After all, how we work in the world is critical to the Church’s mission of bringing the light of Christ to the world.

Helping us unpack the Catholic view of work, especially as it relates to the professional sector, is a small booklet called Vocation of a Business Leader, produced by the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace in partnership with the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“Coming out of the Church, this document on business as a vocation taps into our deepest roots of the spiritual and moral life,” said lead author Dr. Michael Naughton in an interview with me last fall. “It stresses that we need habits of receptivity if we are going to achieve the good we set out to do in the world,” he said. “That receptivity especially includes time for prayer, solitude, reading scripture, and of course worship.”

I’m not sure why Vocation of a Business Leader is not better known. It’s a wonderful, easy-to-read study guide that is perfect for group discussions.

Giving the gifts we’ve been giving

All work is a vocation. And it should not always be performed for personal profit. I’ve always thought parishes should help its members connect their talents with those who need but can’t afford them. If such a charitable offering of vocations were to be organized, willing plumbers, painters, lawyers, and what have you would offer a few hours a week, and cover other minor costs, to help a needy parishioner.

After all, when God gives us a gift, it’s a good thing to give some of it to others who could benefit from it.

This is why when Pope Francis spoke yesterday to laborers in Turin, he reminded them (and us) that that work is necessary, not only for the economy, but also for the integrity of the human person, for their dignity and social inclusion.

Here I think of the wastewater operators I regulate and train in my career at the Department of Environmental Management. My goal is to help them see how absolutely vital they are to the common good. Without wastewater operators and mechanics, we’d have a tough time building civilizations because our waters would be poisoned by our wastes.

But workers at wastewater treatment facilities are not held in high esteem by the general public—not like baseball players or movie stars. This is an example of what the Holy Father is telling us in Laudato Si’ and elsewhere: many cultures don’t appreciate the true dignity of the worker or their importance to the common good.

That’s not who we are as Christians. Pope Francis explains why:

We can also look to the great tradition of monasticism. Originally, it was a kind of flight from the world, an escape from the decadence of the cities. The monks sought the desert, convinced that it was the best place for encountering the presence of God. Later, Saint Benedict of Norcia proposed that his monks live in community, combining prayer and spiritual reading with manual labour (ora et labora). Seeing manual labour as spiritually meaningful proved revolutionary. Personal growth and sanctification came to be sought in the interplay of recollection and work. This way of experiencing work makes us more protective and respectful of the environment; it imbues our relationship to the world with a healthy sobriety. (126)

Good stuff. And it’s enough for today. Now, everyone, get to work.

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.