Labor Is the Law of Life

Today the United States celebrates Labor Day, a day we’ve been celebrating as a nation on the first Monday in September for over a hundred years. It is a day the U.S. Department of Labor calls “a national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

From the standpoint of Catholic Social Thought, the day is more accurately framed as a day we pay tribute to work and workers as “co-creators” with God.

A central theme in Catholic thought is work as participation in the creative action of God – in the work of creation itself, and therefore as a means of sanctification. From a Catholic perspective, work serves to facilitate and encourage human person in becoming “fully human” and therefore receptive to the divine, playing a tremendously important part in bringing workers to the realization of the fullness of their existence and potential as a human person.

This sense of work as participation in the act of creation, as a means for realizing our full potential as humans comes from our creation in the image of God and the dignity of the human person. The purpose of work is to create, and the purpose of creation is to actualize our potential as beings created in the image of God. Our divine nature is displayed in work.

However we think of the day, it would seem a bit inauthentic to celebrate it without lamenting that there are fourteen million unemployed people in this country today and another 8.8 million involuntary part-time workers (i.e., those unable to secure full-time employment).

Perhaps we might pray this day for those who seek work and are unable to find it.

Human Work

Today we celebrate Labor Day in the United States, a day dedicated to achievements of workers.  It offers a good day to reflect on the meaning of work from a Catholic perspective.

The secular world tends to think of work narrowly. Work is viewed as separate from spirituality and the holiness of work is often overlooked, even by many men and women of genuine spirituality.

The Catholic vision of work is very different. In Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II described work as one of the central characteristics that distinguishes humans from other creatures. “Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by work occupying his existence on earth. Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons. And this mark decides its interior characteristics; in a sense it constitutes its very nature.”

The source of the view of work as fundamental to human existence is our creation in the image of God and God’s command in Genesis that humans “[b]e fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” Created in the image of God, human are called to co-create the world with God. It is through work that we participate in the act of creation, making all work (no matter how ordinary) a means by which we fulfill our calling to be in the image of God.

Thus, in the words of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, work “is the condition not only for economic development but also for the cultural and moral development of persons, the family, society and the entire human race.”

May the Lord bless all of our work and may we be nourished by the awareness that all our work is holy.