Why we need a new theology of work

Amazon seems like a tough place to work, whether you are in the marketing department in Seattle or in a warehouse in Allentown, Pa., where workers have been reported to collapse from exhaustion trying to fulfill their daily quota of shipments. But Amazon is only one especially visible example of the sorry state of work in the digital economy. American workers put in more time on the job than most of their global economic peers, and increasingly, the boundary between work and not-work is a fuzzy one. As a result, the labor force increasingly experiences work as precarious, discontinuous and materially unrewarding.

There is also a problem in the way we talk about our work. As the stability of work that characterized the industrial era becomes rarer, the terms that theologians, philosophers and the magisterium developed to describe the moral significance of jobs—not just terms like career and craft, but vocation and co-creativity, too—become irrelevant. Despite the strength of its social teaching, the Catholic Church, not to mention many Protestant denominations, has yet to develop terms people in the postindustrial West can use to connect their work to their religious commitments.

For most Christian groups, the issue of work is a theological demilitarized zone. Clergy and laity tend not to discuss it. Clergy often have work experience outside the church to draw upon in the (unlikely) event that a congregant seeks guidance on a work issue, but they almost certainly have no theological training on this topic. Courses on marriage and sexuality are staples of university and seminary curricula, but courses on work are rare. This mutually acceptable silence is a great pastoral failure, a squandered opportunity to understand the universal call to holiness in everyday economic life.

Look to Genesis

When the icebreaking homily or conversation about work does occur, speakers will need terms that are both traditional and adequate to the reality of work in our postindustrial economy. The Bible is a good place to start. The first four chapters of Genesis tell a tragic story about work. God’s effortless work brings creation into being; the first human is created to “cultivate and care for” the garden; labor is divided between the sexes, and the man is condemned to toil among “thorns and thistles” on account of his transgression; and the first murder occurs after God smiles upon the fruit of Abel’s labor but not Cain’s. Finally, human work becomes fruitless; the earth “shall no longer give [Cain] its produce.” Then in the Gospels, Jesus offers a way beyond work’s futility: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”

There is limitless potential in these verses. The Catholic magisterium has relied on them to articulate norms for social ethics—including issues of salary, job security and the right to organize—but its record of developing terms for speaking pastorally to individual workers is mixed. St. John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical “On Human Work” focuses on Genesis and rightly emphasizes the subjective experience of the worker, who bears the imago dei and thereby lends work its dignity. Nevertheless, the encyclical’s outlook on work badly needs updating. Communist-era concerns, like a lengthy defense of the right to private property, haunt the document.

St. John Paul also displays industrial biases that made sense at the last moment of the West’s industrial golden age but no longer speak to the experience of work in the wealthiest economies. He emphasizes co-creativity, for example, the idea that human work continues God’s creation, as a primary way to think of work’s meaning, but this ideal is hard to square with the abstract nature of work in today’s economy. Countless workers do their jobs at a computer, manipulating virtual objects within a symbolic order. Often, the work is materially unproductive in every sense, which surely stands at odds with the positive good of creation. The work of medical care should be a model of maintaining creation, but its actual practice in America is commonly futile. By some estimates, 30 percent of it is unnecessary, producing no positive health benefit.

More recent encyclicals have barely advanced the church’s understanding of work. In “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis writes that “Jesus worked with his hands, in daily contact with the matter created by God, to which he gave form by his craftsmanship…. In this way he sanctified human labor and endowed it with a special significance for our development.” “Laudato Si’” is not meant to be about work, but a statement like this is still too vague. How, exactly, does work contribute to human development? The encyclical is also muddled on the issue of leisure, which the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper argued was aligned with the ultimate purpose of human existence. Francis echoes Pieper in saying, about the Sabbath, “We are called to include in our work a dimension of receptivity and gratuity, which is quite different from mere inactivity.” Unfortunately, the very next sentence revokes this point: “Rather, [leisure] is another way of working, which forms part of our very essence.” This is a significant problem for an encyclical devoted to “care for our common home.” By declaring leisure another form of work, Francis reiterates the primacy of the labor that, especially in wealthy economies, is consuming that home. Pieper argued that receptivity and gratuity are precisely not work. They alone resist the hegemony of the modern condition he called “total work.”

Protestantism’s touchstone for a theology of work, “vocation,” is just as unhelpful today. Martin Luther and John Calvin imagined the person’s vocation as the stable position from which he or she contributes to God’s providential order. Their inspiration for this doctrine was 1 Cor 7:20, “Everyone should remain in the state in which he was called.” Calvin argued that workers will be dutiful and efficient if they imagine that God has chosen them for their work. Moreover, “in following your proper calling, no work will be so mean and sordid as not to have a splendor and value in the eye of God.” So don’t bother seeking a promotion. Luther, meanwhile, wanted to disabuse his followers of the notion that they would have to enter religious life in order to be holy, but his argument, like Calvin’s, stands generally against social mobility.

We have to ask if the idea of vocation as a stable place in the world applies to the way careers operate at all levels of the American economy. Because of the increasing prevalence of on-demand labor, many workers perform odd, often microscopic jobs, like comparing online product descriptions to their accompanying photographs for Amazon’s Mechanical Turk project, earning a penny or two per item. Hardly anyone expects to do the same thing for decades. Instead, careers are discontinuous and precarious, and white-collar workers measure their prestige by their skill sets and networks. The long-term unemployed are counseled to see looking for a job as their full-time job. Their “state” seems incompatible with any sense of justice or providence.

The common theological terms used to describe work are not much help in navigating questions that workers face today. How do you recognize, for example, if your work is harming you? How much attention should you give it? How hard should you work? Is it “time theft” to take a mental break from work, given that work is itself a source of stress? What if you are not paid a living wage? Should you remain in a job even if you are burned out because you need the salary and benefits? To answer these questions, the church’s theology of work must be portable and subjective rather than objective and tied to a single “state.” It must not overvalue work or drive the overworked even harder.

Ancient Resources

Fortunately, ancient resources can be repurposed to apply to 21st-century work. When it comes to questions of value, as well as what it should feel like to work, the Benedictine tradition, beginning with the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict, has much to offer. Men and women religious of the various Benedictine orders are well known for making bread, cheese and beer. Trappist monks at New Melleray Abbey in Iowa make caskets by hand out of wood harvested from their grounds. The monastics’ devotion to craft is admirable—and resonates with the now-commercialized “artisan” ethos—but it alone is not enough to guide an approach to work. Most of us do work that is too abstract to be understood in terms of craft.

The Rule has a larger lesson, though. Its guidelines for living in the monastery teach that work can be a component of spiritual practice and is essential to fulfilling a community’s needs, but it must never become an end in itself and in fact should be limited in order to prevent it from inculcating vicious habits. The discipline that Benedict enjoins upon his monks, and that workers today could emulate, is selective disengagement from labor.

Benedictines have often distilled their way of life down to the motto ora et labora, “pray and work.” Benedict likewise compared the monastery to a “workshop” for holiness. And he taught that if all other means of keeping a monk from sinful indolence should fail, then he should “be given some work in order that he may not be idle,” even on Sunday. So the message of Benedict’s Rule for today is hardly to quit your day job.

Still, Benedict places strict limits on the monks’ work, beginning with the times in which monks are permitted to do manual labor. The work schedule of the monastery is bounded by periods of prayer, which takes precedence over everything else. As Benedict writes, “On hearing the signal for an hour of the divine office, the monk will immediately set aside what he has in hand and go with utmost speed, yet with gravity and without giving occasion for frivolity. Indeed, nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God,” Benedict’s term for communal prayer.

Benedict also establishes limits on how long a monk should perform any one job at the monastery. He calls for essential tasks like cooking, cleaning and reading aloud at mealtime to rotate among the monks. No one becomes a permanent reader, no matter how desirable it would be to have a specialist in that role. In fact, Benedict sees a real danger—to the monk and to the community—in unchecked specialization. Skilled artisans can easily end up with the wrong priorities, placing their work ahead of communal or spiritual aims: “If one of them becomes puffed up by his skillfulness in his craft, and feels he is conferring something on the monastery, he is to be removed from practicing his craft and not allowed to resume it unless, after manifesting his humility, he is so ordered by the abbot.”

This doctrine is exactly the opposite of the vocational division of labor that the Reformers advocated, Adam Smith secularized, and upon which Americans have built our wealth. No one could build an entire iPhone alone. An army of workers, though, each performing a single, minuscule task and collaborating across continents, can produce half a million of them in a day. Productivity demands singular attention to one’s job. But if work is to produce not just profits but also healthy workers and societies, then specialization and focus can become hindrances.

Taking Benedict’s approach would force us to reconsider how we think about our work. Instead of, “What work am I called to?” we might ask, “How does the task before me contribute to or hinder my progress toward holiness?” Not “How does this work cooperate with material creation?” but “How does this work contribute to the life of the community and to others’ material and spiritual well-being?” Not “Am I doing what I love?” but “What activity is so important that I should, without exception, drop my work in order to do it?”

Answers to these questions should be informed by recognizing two key theological truths that Josef Pieper makes explicit in his book Leisure, the Basis of Culture. The first pertains to creation as providential, its fruits sufficient for human needs. Pieper sees a lack of humility in the drive toward what he calls “total work.” Someone who believes that everything must be earned “refuses to have anything as a gift” and thereby refuses his or her own status as a creature of God. Abraham Joshua Heschel echoes this idea in arguing for the Sabbath as the heart of human existence. On the Sabbath, the person “must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of” human beings. We are limited, our needs are limited, and God, through creation, has given us enough to meet them. It is beguiling to imagine that in principle there is no limit to the wealth one can “create” by working. But at some point, work and wealth stop doing anyone any good. How many hours do already-wealthy Americans waste in laboring “to support my family”? And how much damage is done to those families by the adults’ anxious obsession with work? Such anxiety denies creation. Better, then, to “Look at the birds in the sky,” who eat without laboring (Mt 6:26).

We must also consider the ultimate destination of all of creation, namely, communion with God. The leisure for which Pieper argues is not simply rest from work. It is, in its highest form, a celebration of existence; and the highest form of celebration is worship. Pieper writes that in sacramental worship, the person “may truly be ‘transported’ out of the weariness of daily labor into an unending holiday,” the heavenly banquet. Once our work is over, we have the beatific vision to look forward to. It is a shame, then, that our dreary labor is typically matched with such dreary Sunday liturgy. The first step in developing a new theology of work could be to develop forms of worship that more closely resemble celebration. Convincing people to postpone work may begin by throwing a good party.

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William Rydberg
1 year ago
Wonderful basis for further discussion...
Jonathan Malesic
1 year ago
Thanks, William! I hope this essay will spark discussion, in parishes, universities, and beyond.
Charles Erlinger
1 year ago
I agree that this is a wonderful article for further discussion.
Jonathan Malesic
1 year ago
Thanks, Charles! Please do keep the conversation going!
Sara Damewood
1 year ago
Meaningful work that pays a living wage & gives you time for prayer, family, friends & hobbies is what God wants for you. So, I will fight for that!
Jonathan Malesic
1 year ago
Absolutely, Sara! There's only so much to say in a single essay, but as Catholic social teaching has insisted since 1891 at least, a living wage is the necessary first step to work being meaningful and just.
Lisa Weber
1 year ago
Worship of money/profit plus a tolerance of corruption causes an unrewarding environment for those who need to work for a living. As a nation, we are unwilling to look at the degree of corruption in business - healthcare is a wonderful example of rampant corruption.
Jonathan Malesic
1 year ago
I once heard William Byron, SJ, the management scholar and former president of CUA and St. Joe's in Philly, say that profit is to business as food is to the body. Without it, the business starves. But with too much, the business also becomes unhealthy. We have a lot of gluttonous companies out there, and they are harming their workers. Thanks for your comment, Lisa!
Wayne Lusvardi
1 year ago
What has happened in America is that the Theodicy (religious explanation of success and suffering) of Work has been decimated by secular affirmative action, teacher tenure, discrimination lawsuits, and whole industries being protected from competition (solar energy, auto manufacturing) where a large segment of the population gets to jump to the front of the line at others expense. The old Work and Savings Ethic doesn't exist any more. A family can't save money in a bank at 0.25% interest rates while inflation runs 1% to 2% (theft). However, Catholic policy and the current Pope have only worsened this situation.
Jonathan Malesic
1 year ago
Thanks for your comment, Wayne. You're right that it's hard to save, but that may have a lot more to do with the long-term trend of zero wage growth for anyone but the wealthy. I'm always disturbed the lack of solidarity I see in blaming other working people for such problems, without considering how businesses' failure to appreciate the common good has meant that wealth is funneled upward to the already-rich.
joseph o'leary
1 year ago
Thank you for the article! It was refreshing to be reminded about the Benedictine spirituality of work and Herschel's "The Sabbath." Is Pieper's book a difficult read or something you'd encourage the average layman to read?
Jonathan Malesic
1 year ago
It's my pleasure, Joseph! Thank you for reading and commenting. Pieper's "Leisure, The Basis of Culture" is definitely a book for everyone. My undergrads read it for class. It's also very short, so even if the argumentation gets a bit tricky, you can feel free to read it at a leisurely pace.
James Schwarzwalder
1 year ago
The last paragraph of the essay suggests more celebratory forms of worship. The local Baptist Church recently sponsored a moon bounce, pony ride, face painting, clown, helium balloon, hot dog party. Maybe we should integrate colorful helium balloons with our stained glass windows!

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