The right to work: central to the Catholic Church's social teaching

The right to work: central to the Catholic Church's social teaching

Patrick Byrne

When Adam and Eve were driven from the garden of Eden, Eve had to bear children and nurture the family. Adam had to toil at work to keep himself and his family. So family and work became an intimate part of human redemption.

This raises the question: What do the extremes of unemployment on the one hand, and excessively long working hours on the other, mean for workers, families and their spiritual lives?

Studies from the last Australian census show that one-in-five men aged 24-45, in their prime income earning and family formation years, lived on less than $15,600 p.a. By their mid-40s, only 56 percent of them were married, compared to 79 percent for those earning over $52,000 p.a.

By their mid-40s, 18 percent of the low income men were divorced, compared with eight percent of those on higher incomes.

Almost one-third of men in this age group were not in full-time work, and living on less than $21,000 p.a.

Another recent study showed that in 18 percent of families, nobody has a job, while for an increasing number of families both parents work to pay the mortgage.

Then there is a generation of young people who work for good pay, but have only three to 12 month work contracts. For them, work is problematic, and getting a mortgage near impossible.

It is little wonder that the Church's social teaching is so strongly focused on the nature of work and its social, intellectual and spiritual importance.

Pope John Paul II points out in his encyclical Laborem Exercens that "human work is the key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question. And if the solution - or rather the gradual solution - of the social question, which keeps coming up and becomes ever more complex, must be sought in the direction of 'making life more human', then the key, namely human work, acquires fundamental and decisive importance."

The bishops of Vatican II stated that "it is ordinarily through their labour that humans support themselves and their families, are joined to neighbours and serve them, and are enabled to exercise genuine charity and be a partner in the work of bringing God's creation to perfection."

In other words, there are three reasons why humans work.

First, we work to feed ourselves and families, to provide for education, health, housing and retirement needs. In this way we stay alive, protect our children, thrive as families and enhance our human dignity.

This is why the Church supports workers' rights to organise and bargain for humane conditions of work, for a just wage, and endorses a citizen's right to vote for governments that give a preferential option to families.

However, as Australian statistics show, unemployment, low wages and a lack of secure employment seriously undermine the likelihood of many finding a spouse and holding a familiy together. Among these people there is real social breakdown.

For others, the problem is the opposite - overwork. Today, in 45 percent of families, both parents work to provide for the family's needs, many working long hours. The resultant stress takes its toll on family life.

Admittedly, for some hard work is not treated as a virtue, but rather as a means to satisfy greed. A small but growing number of "dual-income-no-kids" couples (DINKs) treat work as a means to extravagant consumption and children as an unwanted burden.

Second, we work to fashion a place for ourselves in the world. Work provides, or should provide, meaning and purpose to life. It teaches discipline, develops social skills and gives people a useful place in the world.

The unemployed, especially the long-term unemployed, are denied a place in society.

In Peter Weir's 1985 film Witness, Harrison Ford joins in work with an Amish community and is touched by the symmetry and arching beauty of a world shared with others. In contrast, Michael Douglas shows the terror of losing one's place in society through unemployment in the 1995 movie, Falling Down.

Third, one of the deepest reasons for work stems from humans being created in the image and likeness of God. It is in our nature to work, and in doing so we share in God's ongoing creative work, developing our talents and gifts in the process. And from our work we sustain a family, creating in the most profound way new life through our children.

Fulfillment

Hence, John Paul II emphasises that "work is good for us - a good thing for our humanity - because through work we not only transform nature, adapting it to our needs, but we also achieve fulfillment as human beings and, indeed, become more human."

In Laborem Exercens, the Holy Father sees fulfillment as coming in self-donation, not closing oneself off to the free and sincere gift of oneself to God and to others.

Primarily, fulfillment found in work is spiritual, satisfying the person's ethical needs. It comes before psychological fulfillment. Satisfying the need for achievement, respect from fellow workers and material improvement can be good things, but they can also become sources of pride and the selfish pursuit of gain.

Unemployment restricts a person's possibilities for marriage and holding a family together. It increases the chance an individual will suffer from depression, drug abuse and suicide. It denies the person an important aspect of spiritual fulfillment, and a role in God's ongoing creative process. It is dehumanising.

Similarly, low paid, short contract workers and those increasingly forced to work excessive hours can become dehumanised wage slaves.

John Paul II warns in Redemptor Hominis that an economic system which denys people work or turns them into wage slaves is a system that "turns against man himself," and is contrary to human nature.

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