An Introduction to the Dignity of Work

There are three great marvels in the natural order of human life: children who have been well brought up; a woman who is happily married; a man who finds satisfaction in his work, without neglecting his wife and children. These three marvels are obviously interrelated and when they all come together they make for a fourth marvel, a happy family. These marvels belong to the natural order, but they are scarcely achievable without the aid of supernatural grace.

Yes, a woman can find gainful employment outside of the home and a woman can also be a happy mother, nevertheless, apart from a happy nun or woman religious – and that involves the supernatural order and a different kind of marriage – what, for the most part, really seems to bring fulfillment to a woman in this life is marriage. If the marriage fails or is not found, there is no substitute.

Not even motherhood seems to fulfill a woman as does marriage; a woman can be a great mother, struggling either as a single mother or enduring a difficult marriage, but she is deeply hurting because she does not have the love of her husband.

While a woman by no means needs to be limited to the home, a woman can truly find fulfillment and satisfaction within the home in a way that a man usually cannot. For a man, while marriage and fatherhood are also important and central for his natural human fulfillment, the man typically needs something more, a work, a task, a mission.

Typically, when a woman finds herself obliged to work full time in order to support her family, she experiences an intense conflict between the demands of the family and work.

For a man, however, working to support his wife and family is one of the main ways that he shows his love for his family. This very masculine instinct goes awry when the man thinks that he has fulfilled his role as husband and father merely by putting food on the table. Nevertheless, when the man is unable to provide for his family by means of his work, he suffers a deep interior frustration and sense of uselessness. Things are very different if a man finds his work frustrating or unfulfilling but is nevertheless able to provide for his family. Precisely because he is able to provide for his family, he is often able to find meaning in the sacrifice he makes. He endures the hard work, the grind, the humiliation for the love of his family.

This is all reflected, both the right order and the disorder, in the punishment God pronounced on Adam and Eve in Genesis. The woman is to experience suffering in childbearing and in relation to her husband; she suffers from the disorder of sin in what most touches her womanhood. (cf. Gen 3:16) The man experiences suffering in his work: By the sweat of your face you shall get your bread to eat. (Gen 3:19)

This leads us into another realm of social justice: work and economic organization. Here we enter into a realm that is more traditionally identified with social justice; indeed the workingman was at the center of the considerations in the foundational social encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum.

Nevertheless, the economic issues have become so dominant that they have usually lost the needed context of religion and family. Once again in Eden there were four original harmonies that were disrupted by sin: man beneath God, the interior order of man, man and woman, man and the world. Work (and so also economy) belong to the last harmony.

There is a great deal of complexity here, especially in our contemporary world. My intent in this next series of essays is to offer first a few reflections on man’s relation to work, then on his relation to the world/environment through his work.

I do not intend so say much about economic organization, except to highlight the priority of work. The ‘lockdowns’ introduced as a response to the pandemic caused massive unemployment, deprived millions of their jobs, their work. No amount of stimulus payments can compensate the loss of work. The loss of work does not just mean the loss of income, it means the loss of meaningful activity.

A great deal of discussion regarding measures to be taken for the sake of national prosperity revolve around not the worker, but the consumer. One of the great measures of American prosperity is Black Friday retail sales. That is hugely disordered. It reveals that we have an economy ruled by consumerism, not by the dignity of work. (To be continued)

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.