The Scandal of Glaring Inequalities

"Do you like your job?" It's one of the questions pollsters have been asking lately. A fairly large number of people answer "yes." However the demands and circumstances of some jobs are difficult and even demeaning, so that work becomes just a necessary evil to be endured.

In his 1931 social document, Quadragesimo Anno, Pope Pius XI painted a dark picture of factory work, in these words: "And so bodily labour, which even after original sin was decreed by Providence for the good of man's body and soul, is in many instances changed into an instrument of perversion; for from the factory dead matter goes out improved, whereas men there are corrupted and degraded" (no. 135).

The conditions of work do often need to be changed. That is one of the reasons labour unions are so important, to defend working people and to struggle for just and humane working conditions. Pope John Paul II went so far as to insist that "work is for the worker", and that this principle should guide all decisions concerning the workplace and the conditions of work. Besides looking at the objective conditions of work, however, it is also important to consider our subjective attitude to our work.

The religious sociologist, Robert Bellah distinguishes three possible attitude to one's work. A person may refer to what he or she does as their "job". This minimal attitude reduces what one does to simply a means of making money or a means of having some task performed. Viewed this way, work is simply something to endure, some that makes possible "real life" after work is done.

A person might also speak of what they do as their career. This is a better attitude because it implies measuring up to professional standards and having a certain pride in what one does. The possible drawback is that such an attitude can also become self-centered, so that it focusses on my success, my personal advancement, my fulfillment, and can cause one to lose sight of the common good.

The best attitude to one's work, Bellah suggests, is to see one's work as one's calling. My work is my way of serving the common good. It is my particular way of acting as an "image of God", that is, as one of God's managers. It is the part I play in the care and management of God's creation and of human society. This is very close to the position taken by Pope St. John Paul II in his 1981 document on human work. There he agrees with Karl Marx that humans are, by nature, workers. However he goes on to say that this is the case because humans are "the image of God." They are by nature God's managers or stewards, and they carry out their particular role especially by their work. It is the reason why he insists that every person has a right to work, even those who are suffering from physical or mental challenges of some kind.

The pope shows us an important consequence of taking this attitude to work. He says that what gives any work its value is not primarily what the work involves but rather the fact that whatever it is, it is being done by a human person. In this sense the work of the person who sweeps the floor is as valuable as the work of the brain surgeon. The two workers are doing different things, but each is doing his or her part in the management and care of God's world - the natural world and the social world. Each is carrying out his or her role as "God's image", God's manager.

In the early part of his 1981 document on work, Pope St. John Paul II says: "Work is a good thing for persons - a good thing for their humanity - because, through work, persons not only transform nature, adapting it to their own needs, but they also achievement fulfillment as human beings" (no. 9).

Since work is this important in the life of human beings, it is not surprising that Catholic social teaching takes the position that, to be just, an economy must make it possible for all who want gainful work to have it. Forced unemployment tends to lead people to feel deprived of their dignity. A just government, therefore, makes a full employment economy its priority.

Réflexions par le père Mike Ryan