By Dr. Max Torres
In the spring of 2017, Dean Bill Bowman and I resolved to organize a conference on the dignity of work, to be held this week October 3-5 at The Catholic University of America. Our attention was drawn to the dire predictions emanating from learned quarters concerning the artificial intelligence fast enveloping us, and its concomitant elimination of the need for human labor. Sages peering into humanity’s future called for some version of a universal basic income (UBI) to cushion the blow of mass displacement.
This struck us as wrong-headed on two grounds. As businessmen, we knew that the capacity for human ingenuity, if rightly incentivized, would likely suffice to avert Armageddon and most likely usher in an era of prosperity through new industries, enterprises, opportunities, initiatives, and ways of servicing human needs. Moreover, a moment’s reflection on the development of science and technology suggests that, rather that render humans obsolete, innovation multiplies the need, and opportunity, for personal work. Times change, people adapt, and society flourishes when people are allowed to try out new ways of doing things, and to benefit from their experiments.
Secondly, as Christians, we knew that work is too embedded in the designs of Providence to become obsolete among vast swaths of humanity.
Curiously, after the Second World War, neo-Thomist philosopher, Josef Pieper, suggested an alternative danger to that of having too little work: that of overvaluing work, of succumbing to a dictum cited approvingly by sociologist Max Weber that ‘one does not work to live; one lives to work’ (Pieper, 2).
Pieper believed that a culture of work predicated upon constant activity, on valuing effort without regard to the end for which effort was expended, on deprecating activity not aimed at the achievement of some utilitarian end, was a culture inimical to the human person, the creature at the heart of Catholic Social Teaching. The person, said Pieper, needs leisure, the soul of which is celebration, which unites effortlessness, calm and relaxation (ibid. 44). He saw divine worship as the paradigmatic expression of celebration, of leisure. At the end of the day, people most need God, and He is found in leisure, not activity for activity’s sake. As Pope St. John Paul taught in Redemptor Hominis, “Christ the Redeemer ‘fully reveals man to himself’” (1979, 10). Without leisure, we can’t even know ourselves.
In this age of electronic communication, work reaches into our sacred precincts as easily as into our profane ones, at any time of day or night, 24/7/365. Rare is the company—Chick-fil-A is a notable exception—that “keeps holy the Sabbath day” as instructed to do by the third commandment, and exhorted by Pope St. John Paul in Dies Domini. What is one to do?
As always, the Saints are helpful. St. Josemaria, for instance, suggests the following steps:
The first is to recognize work as a path to holiness. Above and beyond a means of remuneration, or even personal fulfillment, work is the place to meet daily with Christ, to have an encounter with Him.
Secondly, work done for love of God is a means to transcend all that is fleeting and ephemeral in our circumstances. Love makes even small things big and converts the monotonous detail of each day into something great.
Third, strive to work with order and constancy, which will express generosity and loyalty in a practical way. With the expansion of time that order brings, we will be able to give greater glory to God in our work.
Fourth, finish work well, for God calls us to offer sacrifices that are without blemish.
Fifth, remember that all honest work is dignified. The dignity of work is conferred by its subject—the person that performs it—not by its object—the work performed. We have it on high authority that God values work by the love with which it’s done and offered to Him, not by its worldly importance.
Sixth, work is best done in company with God, and with rectitude of intention. Reformation protests aside, occasional glances at an image of Our Lady or Our Lord help us to keep them in mind as we work.
Seventh, work is a primary means through which we mature in virtue. That is because a complete range of virtues is called for in our daily work, especially if we mean to sanctify it.
Eighth, work is a service to, and help for, others. Through work, while helping ourselves, we contribute directly to the development of society; we relieve others’ burdens. It is also a practical way help our colleagues.
Finally, work is means of apostolate, a way to reveal Christ to others through friendship and confidence.
Though Pieper didn’t say so, even in a world of superabundant work, faithful men and women have means to resist succumbing to total work. We can convert daily work into an encounter with Christ, a form of leisure, contemplation, prayer, and divine worship. Pieper believed that we work in order to have leisure, to commune with God. This we can do even in the midst of our work. Perhaps through this reformed perspective, we can convert work itself into leisure, into time with God. That is reason for celebration, indeed.
Dr. Max Torres is a Centesimus Annus Della Ratta Family Endowed Professor in the Busch School of Business and a fellow at the Institute for Human Ecology at The Catholic University of America.