"Proclaiming the Dignity of Work"
Vol.2, No.1, 1996
National Work Commission, Secular Franciscan Order, U.S.A
Ed & Mary Zablocki, SFO, Chairs, 360 Beard Avenue, Buffalo, NY 14214 (716) 838-4178
One Christian voice was raised in their behalf last week. No. It wasn't the Christian Coalition, or Pat Robertson, who generally back the Republicans and the Contract with America. It was the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, about as politically incorrect as a group can possibly be. At their conference, the bishops offered a stunning diagnosis of this country's economic and social ills. We seem to be "three nations living side by side," they said. "One growing more prosperous and powerful, one squeezed by stagnant incomes and one left behind in poverty, dependency and hopelessness." The bishops bravely said "the economy exists to serve the human person, not the other way around" and that "economic life should be shaped by moral principals and ethical norms."
They observed that "profits and productivity grow while many workers' real income and sense of security decline" and that "some businesses cut jobs and prosper while their workers pay the price of downsizing." This is rank heresy in survivalist Washington. Wall Street assured the controlling Republicans that the Catholic bishops' views on economic justice are not likely to be taken seriously in the near term. The Dow Jones industrial average surged toward new records promising to smash through the 5000 barrier very soon. (by Douglas Turner; reprinted from the Buffalo News - 11/20/95)
Three days later, Feuerstein, a religious man who spends an hour a day memorizing the works of Hebrew and English poets, addressed more than a 1,000 workers saying: "For the next 30 days - and it might be more - all our employees will be paid their full salaries. But over and above the money, the most important thing Malden Mills can do for our workers is to get you back to work, and within 90 days we will be fully 100 percent operational." There was a moment of disbelief, then the workers were on their feet, cheering and hugging. An employee rejoiced: "This is the best Christmas present I ever got, far and away." Feuerstein said, "A lot of people figured, well, this guy is 70 years old and he'll just take the insurance money and that's the end of Malden Mills. Maybe I'm a nut, but the thought never crossed my mind."
(Steve Donahue, Catholic Worker newsletter, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)
A few years ago, while living in Huoma, Louisiana, I was walking a road in that city collecting aluminum cans which littered a drainage ditch. At a traffic light some people in a car told me in an angry tone of voice to "go get a job." I was immediately overcome by feelings of great shame and I hurried home without my aluminum cans, fearing more people would yell at me. You see, I was unemployed at the time and was already feeling like, well, you know. These days, when I reflect back on what I felt that day, I think of those I live with now who must daily endure the punitive attitudes of those who are "productive" members of society. You see, they have a boss, they work for a living.
What is work anyway? This is really a very complex question. In our modern society, work has lost much of its spiritual dimension. For many, if not most of us, our work is the way we get money so that we can buy the things we need to survive and, hopefully, buy some things we don't really need but would like to have. We compete with others for work and then end up competing with each other on the job. Thus, we hope to secure for ourselves and our families assurances for survival in this consumer society. Our work becomes a drudgery, we feel alienated from it and, feeling thus, we strike out at others, you know - unwed mothers, those collecting aluminum cans and any who we perceive, "don't carry their load." Modern corporate policy adds to this alienation by treating human work as a commodity. Just one more resource, like crude oil or coal.
Pope John Paul II wrote in the encyclical Laborem Exercens that, "toil is something that is universally known, for it is universally experienced." (Yes, even the unemployed work.) And although this toil is sometimes dangerous, it is still good for people to engage in. Why? Because, through our work we become a partner with God in bringing creation to perfection. We become co-creators with God. (Do all types of employment fit this description?) God worked and even got tired (see Gn 2:2-3) We work and get tired. We are partners with the Creator. By our work we become more whole (holy) and move toward a more integrated and less alienated society.
Work is dignified because of those who do it. Because it is people who do it, work can not be treated as merchandise. People are not to be treated as instruments. Human labor always is to take priority over capital (see Laborem Exercens, chapter 12). It is the reversal of this which leads to the degradation of work, the weakening of human solidarity. We have a duty to work. We have a duty to contribute to the common good of our community and to practice our creativity as those made in the image of the Creator. It is a gift. (see Catechism of the Catholic Church: 2427, 2428) Needless to say, in our modern corporate society much of what the Church teaches about work seems out of touch. How can we restore a spiritual and scriptural meaning to our work? Joe Holland devotes his book, Creative Communion: Toward a Spirituality of Work (Paulist Press), to answering the question. I highly recommend it. He states that, "we need to allow the Spirit to unfold the vision that all human work is religious." We can move toward a deeper understanding that our work is intimately related with the rest of our life and the lives of those around us. We can involve ourselves with the labor movement which struggles to build solidarity among workers. Pope John Paul II calls unions an "indispensable" part of modern industrial life. By integrating our work with prayer and a thoughtful listening to the Scriptures, we can know that our labors do provide not only for our needs but also for the progress of the human community and the furthering of the reign of God. That is the "Gospel of Work."