As our nation continues to consider the social implications of the two candidates for President the nature and value of work seems to have been called into question.
With the sweep, in 1994, of a new group of more fiscally conservative Republicans into the House, then President Clinton found himself with a choice to make. Should he continue his more left-leaning agenda or move more to center and find a way to work with then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich? With the decision to be more centrist an enormous re-write of our national welfare program was completed in 1996 with great success for both fiscal responsibility by government and increased dignity for recipients. Welfare had become “workfare”. And sixteen years later (this month) it faces a new challenge.
Fast forward to the current debate where President Obama has largely removed, or at the most generous reading, radically altered what is accepted as “work”. While this might sound like typical political word manipulation, it actually represents something quite more problematic.
Work, if seen as mere “activity” , is gutted of its intrinsic value and transcendent importance- it is reduced to an activity for mere financial benefit. In a world framed by such a purely secular understanding, work is seen as even punitive. This is what President Obama (who has never held a private sector occupation) has done in his redefinition.
Work, for Catholics, is actually redemptive, collaborative and sacred. Work is seen as a calling (a vocation) where we collaborate in the creative and communal nature of God himself. It is activity where, as laity, we help “transform the everyday” – ourselves, colleagues, customers and communities- into a sanctified and virtuous expression of God’s transcendent goodness.
To envision work as simply a “job”-for simply earning money without a bigger and richly imbued context-is to rob those individuals of much more than their personal dignity. It removes their gifts, talents and contributions from the whole community family.
That is the real difference between what is being offered by this President and Mr. Romney.