The Dignity of Work

“From the beginning therefore he [man] is called to work. Work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures, whose activity for sustaining their lives cannot be called work. Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by work occupying his existence on earth. Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons. And this mark decides its interior characteristics; in a sense it constitutes its very nature.”

Blessed John Paul wrote these words in his encyclical Laborem Exercens in 1981.

I’ve referred to this encyclical many times in my own writings and in attempting to get at the very nature of who I am as a Catholic woman, wife, mother, author, and teacher. I have found in his words a timeless truth—no surprise there!—and a certain sense of peace as well. Whether I have worked outside of the home out of necessity or out of a desire, balancing work with family always holds it challenges; but also holds its rewards.

Nothing offers a fuller sense of satisfaction than a task well-performed. It doesn’t matter if that task is washing the kitchen floor, finding the best bargains at the grocery store, or guiding a classroom of middle school students towards a lesson’s objective. Inherent in who we are as humans, as Blessed John Paul points out, is the need for a person to contribute to his or her family or neighborhood or culture in a discernable way. This is what separates us from the animals but also is what gives us dignity.

This is a different dignity—or maybe it is best to say it is another level of dignity—than we all have as created beings; that inherent dignity exists whether we “work” a day in our life or not. The presupposition here is our understanding of the dignity of the human being from conception to natural death.

In Laborem Exercens, Blessed John Paul moves past that assumption and explores the value and need for every man to “work” as a way to participate in God’s plan for man on earth and to elevate each day’s work in such a way that it actually becomes divine.

That is an incredible understanding of work—and quite a goal we ought to have as a society.

When we create a culture wherein safety nets become traps, we are denying dignity to each and every person caught in the trap. We are withholding an opportunity for each and every person to participate in God’s plan.

Think about how you felt the last time you finished a project or completed an assignment. I know that when I write a column I may read and re-read it half a dozen times. It feels good. I’ve accomplished something.

When I stand next to my three grown sons and listen to them converse with each other there is a sense of accomplishment that I have as their mother. God gave me a job and I performed it to the best of my abilities.

When my husband finishes a project at work he has a bit of a spring in his step. Dignity exists within that accomplishment. When my college-aged son passes a particularly difficult test he is more animated and more talkative. It has affected him in a good way.

Blessed John Paul goes on to write:

“Even by their secular activity they must assist one another to live holier lives. In this way the world will be permeated by the spirit of Christ and more effectively achieve its purpose in justice, charity and peace… Therefore, by their competence in secular fields and by their personal activity, elevated from within by the grace of Christ, let them work vigorously so that by human labour, technical skill, and civil culture created goods may be perfected according to the design of the Creator and the light of his Word.”

Notice that through work the world will more readily be filled with justice, charity and peace! That makes sense, doesn’t it? If we really step back and think about it, there is an interior sense of dignity that rises up within us when we are productive. Why would we deny that from others? When we all share that vision of work and look for ways to bring that to all, we are creating heaven on earth: we are providing an opportunity for each and every person to feel alive in a way that only work can produce.

When Blessed John Paul includes a long list of work that is established in Scripture you can’t deny God’s call upon each of us regardless of what we do:

“The books of the Old Testament contain many references to human work and to the individual professions exercised by man: for example, the doctor, the pharmacist, the craftsman or artist, the blacksmith—we could apply these words to today’s foundry-workers-the potter, the farmer, the scholar, the sailor, the builder, the musician, the shepherd, and the fisherman. The words of praise for the work of women are well known. In his parables on the Kingdom of God Jesus Christ constantly refers to human work: that of the shepherd, the farmer, the doctor, the sower, the householder, the servant, the steward, the fisherman, the merchant, the labourer. He also speaks of the various form of women’s work. He compares the apostolate to the manual work of harvesters or fishermen. He refers to the work of scholars too.”

Does this mean that work is all fun and games? No, as further we find in Laborem Exercens, work is always associated with toil. That is part and parcel of the journey we are on. So on the one hand there is a sense of dignity inherent in each of our accomplished tasks, while on the other hand those tasks aren’t accomplished without toil on our part.

I agree.

During the long days of raising three boys who are four years apart in age I wasn’t always sure I was going to make it; and for darn sure I wasn’t convinced that I wasn’t failing at it, either.

Studying for his test, my son doesn’t smile and proclaim the joy he is experiencing. No, he perseveres in spite of the obstacles and frustrations.

When my husband is in the midst of a project his hours are long, his nights are sleepless, and his mind is elsewhere.

This isn’t to say we are entitled to a job filled with joy and reward wherein everyday is an excursion to Happyland. Rather, it is to recognize that we are designed by our Creator for work that may be demanding and difficult, it may be boring or strenuous; but whatever it is, it is also an opportunity to unite with God and give glory and honor to His kingdom.

Cheryl Dickow is a Catholic wife, mother, author and speaker. Cheryl’s newest book is Wrapped Up: God’s Ten Gifts for Women which is co-authored with Teresa Tomeo and is published by Servant (a division of Franciscan Media); there is also a companion journal that accompanies the book and an audio version intended for women’s studies or for individual reflection. Cheryl is the author of the non-fiction story Elizabeth: A Holy Land Pilgrimage (available in paperback or Kindle format) and she is the president of Bezalel Books (www.BezalelBooks.com). She can be contacted at Cheryl@BezalelBooks.com or at             248.917.3865            

Cheryl Dickow

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Cheryl Dickow is a Catholic wife, mother, author and speaker. Cheryl’s newest book is Wrapped Up: God’s Ten Gifts for Womenwhich is co-authored with Teresa Tomeo and is published by Servant (a division of Franciscan Media); there is also a companion journal that accompanies the book and an audio version intended for women’s studies or for individual reflection. Cheryl’s titles also include the woman’s inspirational fiction book Elizabeth: A Holy Land Pilgrimage. Elizabeth is available in paperback or Kindle format. Her company is Bezalel Books where her goal is to publish great Catholic books for families and classrooms that entertain while uplifting the Catholic faith and is located at www.BezalelBooks.com. To invite Cheryl to speak at your event, write her at Cheryl@BezalelBooks.com.

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  • Joe DeVet

    Many good points made in this article, and the idea of work is expanded (appropriately) beyond our usual idea of what constitutes work.

    Now, let’s expand the idea still farther. How about a good article from a Catholic perspective about the dignity of the work of the entrepreneur? How about the dignity of the investor? Both these kinds of “workers” provide a critical contribution to the common good in the economic arena. Without their “work”, virtually no jobs would be created. Advances in economic well-being would not happen. People’s wants and needs would not be met, or at least not nearly so well.

    Probably the reason we hear little about the good these contributors do is that so few of us understand the processes of creating a business and gathering the capital which will make it run. We can easily envision the contribution of the one who works with his hands, and to some extent that of the “white-collar” workers. But few understand what it takes to take huge risks, to dream about an enterprise which does not yet exist, and to know how to bring the dream to fruition.

    You can find information, presented from a Catholic perspective, on the value of these “workers” at the Acton Institute. But I would like to see these ideas more broadly known. If it were, Catholic witnessing in favor of economic justice and poverty reduction would be more realistic, thus more efficacious. In particular, it would be nice if the USCCB would take notice.

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