During the 2012 presidential campaign, we heard quite a bit about unemployment, redistribution and the government’s role in the economy: Do the rich support too many (Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comments) or too few (President Obama’s tax-the-rich solutions)? Are government programs excessive or insufficient? Is capitalism good or bad? One thing not discussed, however, was the nature of the activity presupposed in all economic discussions: work. This is unfortunate, for as we debate whether and how to extend or limit entitlement programs, we must understand the nature of work. Perhaps because of our separation between church and state, we have not delved into the one discipline most able to help us in this task: theology.
First we must understand the entitlement society. The late 19th century was a time of broad vision, universal claims and supreme confidence in the ability to unravel life’s mysteries. Karl Marx envisioned a new social and political order. Sigmund Freud redrew the landscape of the inner world. Charles Darwin claimed that a mechanism hitherto unknown controlled the natural world. In the early 20th century these grand schemes were embraced and embedded in cultures throughout the world. There were many reasons for this rapid acceptance, for each theory contains truths that advance our understanding of the world and the self. But instead of the selective adoption of certain elements of the theories, they were often indiscriminately promoted, particularly in education. School boards, for example, demanded, under threat of suit by the American Civil Liberties Union, nearly absolute adherence to Darwinism in textbooks.
These theories still exert immense influence, even though their various flaws are undeniably visible. The breakup of the Soviet Union revealed Marxism’s cancerous sores. Gender psychology, neurobiological discoveries and brain imaging discredited many of Freud’s tenets. And despite contrary assertions from the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, it matters that evolution is a theory and not a proven fact. Throughout the 20th century, however, these theories were steadfastly promoted as self-evident facts. Together the theories constructed a mechanical world with an inconsequential God, where the unconscious regulates behavior, evolution creates nature, social change originates “not in men’s brains…but in the economics of each epoch” (Frederick Engels) and jurisprudence is “determined by economic conditions” (Engels and Marx). The secular entitlement society was born here, and it solved many pressing social issues. In a deterministic world, however, humanity has little responsibility or control. This is a problem.
Theology of Work
Fortunately, 19th-century thinkers also theorized about work; the century is dubbed the concept’s golden age. The discussion began when Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel posited that only in work is a person’s humanity realized. It accelerated with Marx, who saw humans primarily as animal laborans. This prompted a rebuttal by Pope Leo XIII in the encyclical “Rerum Novarum” (1891). The 20th-century Roman magisterium continued to elaborate a theology of work to address the issues 19th-century theorists had unearthed, culminating in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “Laborem Exercens” (1981). These 20th-century teachings built upon Scripture: Work is intrinsically valuable (1 Cor 3:14-15), necessary for survival (2 Thes 3:10) and community (Eph 4:28), an expression of mutual charity (1 Thes 4:11) and the basis for social justice (1 Cor 3:8-9). This concept of labor was more positive than the generally negative view of labor in ancient societies as demeaning and punitive.
The church fathers rarely discussed work, although early monastic leaders incorporated the concept into their rules. During the next centuries, society was too busy laboring to contemplate the nature of work, but by the 11th century, conditions were more conducive to reflection. St. Peter Damian (1007-72), a Benedictine monk, recognized the opportunity and produced the first sophisticated treatment of the concept of work. It is the foundation of all future Western developments of the concept, including those of the 19th and 20th centuries.
St. Damian’s concept of work is optimistic and rooted in eschatology. Because this world’s imperfections will be replaced by the perfection of the next, it is our duty to ready the world for that transformation. This requires change, and work accomplishes change. “As to our beginning and to our end, these we cannot alter,” he wrote, but work can change what happens “between these two limits.” Thus the mandate to change the world is a mandate to work, be it physical, intellectual or spiritual. It is to be considered not as “something voluntary, but as completely necessary.” No one is exempt from this mandate. The specific task of each person varies but not its intrinsic value. Because “all are from one and all are one” in the body of Christ, he wrote, “whatever function is assigned by nature to a particular member can be said to be performed by the body which is its whole.”
Work, in other words, is the great equalizer. St. Damian insists, for example, that the manual labor of lay brothers is as valuable as the choir monks’ spiritual labor. He reminds Countess Guilla, the wife of Rainerius II, that the nobility must work as hard as the lower class. Centuries before Marx, Damian pondered the relationship between work and social justice; if all have a responsibility to work, then how is living off the labor of another just? “Do not live by plundering the poor, but recoil from food acquired through violence,” he counsels the countess, and remember that “the apostle instructs everyone to work with his hands, so that he will have something to share with those in need.” One is not good because of who one is or what one does, but only if one completes one’s assigned labor.
Gradually, society accepted Damian’s views. Peasants heard from the pulpit that their labor, no matter how servile, was not demeaning. To the contrary, by doing the labor proper to their role, they changed their world and themselves. They reached their full potential through labor. Work gave them a purpose. These messages were heralded and expanded by new monastic communities formed during the era. Guigo I, a Carthusian monk, taught that utility, not dignity, was the criterion for judging the value of work. When work is useful to one’s neighbor, then it is good; if not, it “does great harm.”
Work not only equalizes the classes; it is an equalizing force between men and women. “Male and female were joined together, therefore, in such a way that each one works through the other,” Hildegard of Bingen taught, “for they should work as one in one work, as the air and the wind intermingle in their labor.” Work bestows power to individuals, for people “by their labors might overturn the world.” Work makes the individual a member of the community; Juliana of Mont Cornillon “chose a humble and abject task [milking cows] which would serve the common good” and thus shared in “all the good works accomplished by the community that enjoyed the milk.” The greatest evil is to not work, for willful refusal is an act of utmost ingratitude for “the gift of work.”
At the same time these religious recognized the difference between the negative state of “unemployed leisure” and the noble state of rest. “Everyone engaged in study, every skilled artisan, every manual worker…strive for rest and aim for rest” because, Baldwin of Ford preached, God is “supreme rest.” By the end of the High Middle Ages, Peter Damian’s concept of work had triumphed. Manual labor lost much of its social stigma. Work sanctified and transformed. It gave people power and purpose. The old saint was one who withdrew from the world; the new hero was the saintly worker who labored in and for the world.
The continuity of Blessed John Paul II’s “Laborem Exercens” with medieval theology is obvious: “Work is a good thing for man—a good thing for humanity—because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being.’” The results of labor are universal: “It embraces all human beings, every generation, every phase of economic and cultural development.” At the same time work establishes an individualism that negates determinism. Work is done by “a person, that is to say, a subjective being capable of acting in a planned and rational way, capable of deciding about himself and with a tendency to self-realization.”
Next, John Paul II rebuts specific tenets used by 19th-century theorists in the construction of the secular entitlement state. Thanks to his intimate familiarity with Marxist and socialist concepts of work, he transcends their society from within by maintaining a personalist, non-instrumental position on the nature of work. A person needs to know that he is “a true subject of work with an initiative of his own,” John Paul II wrote. The personalist position is not new; the Second Vatican Council stated that “when a man works he not only alters things and society, he develops himself as well.” John Paul II, however, used the position for a new purpose, “to highlight—perhaps more than has been done before—the fact that human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question.”
Benefits of Labor
Such is the legacy of Christian work theology, a tradition of, yes, “theories,” but insightful ones about the role of work in life. Work is intrinsically valuable because it gives humanity the power to transform self, society and nature. Labor is necessary for survival, an agent of change and an equalizer of classes and sexes. It is utilitarian. It allows us to optimistically anticipate a better future. It fosters individualism, yet binds community and forms the basis for social justice. Work, in short, is what we do to attain happiness. Without work we have no power, no equalizer, no social justice, no change, no survival.
Herein lies a potential problem with entitlement societies: They foster an environment and mentality that diminishes the importance and benefits of labor. They declare that all need not work—but are silent about the negative side of unemployed leisure. Entitlement societies imply that receiving the benefits of others’ work is just as good as working oneself. This allows for survival—but little else. Instead of providing an equalizer and the basis for social justice, entitlement societies have great potential for the opposite. As the rift between northern and southern European Union members bears witness, entitlement societies have tremendous capacity for breeding anger, class warfare and envy. They fool people into believing that not working is as desirable as working. Most importantly, they deny people the opportunity to reach their full human potential. No amount of material security can replace this loss.
The French Revolution forced society to admit that when a nonworking minority lives off the fruits of a working majority, social problems thrive. Should we expect different results from a reverse situation? We are fast approaching such a scenario: Workforce participation is at a record low: 52.2 percent of young adults are jobless and 49 percent of households receive benefits. Partisans can argue about why this is the case, but the reasons matter less than the fundamental reality that too many people are deprived of labor’s nonmaterial benefits. A proper decision about whether or how far to grow our entitlement society must include consideration of what the loss of work entails.
Society needs mechanisms to support the poor. In populous societies that means legislated programs; hence, the entitlement society. Such programs are not the problem per se. The problem arises when programs do not acknowledge or promote the essential connection between that support and work. More worrisome is the fact that entitlement programs now extend well beyond support of the poor; many encourage early cessation of work. Senior citizens, thinking only about the onerous nature of labor, retire while still able and active, only to discover in boredom the beneficial nature of work.
We must listen to theology. Material support alone does not bring happiness. It must be accompanied by work. When government separates workforce participation from material support, it does a supreme disservice to recipients. When social policies encourage the cessation of work at mid-life, those early retirees no longer have access to work’s non-material benefits. When culture proposes nonproductive leisure as the ultimate good, it is deceiving individuals. High unemployment rates are unacceptable not solely for economic reasons, but for the psychological and moral well-being of citizens. Without work, a person is deprived of power over self and society and of the opportunity to fulfill potential. Without work, social problems multiply. Without work, true happiness is elusive.