The dignity of the workman vs. the dignity of the work


Last Sunday I wrote about the dignity of different kinds of work. There are types of work that are downright shameful, types of work that are pretty meaningless, and there are types of work that are, to a greater or less degree, inherently worthwhile.

Such distinctions these days are often viewed as offensive. Some people even want to remove the shame attached to something like prostitution. Even as regards honest work it might be regarded as offensive to judge that work as a garbage man is less noble than work as a schoolteacher. We might hear the argument that picking up and disposing of the trash is ‘essential’! We could also observe that garbagemen are not likely to do any serious harm in doing their job, but some schoolteachers rather corrupt the minds of children than educate them.

Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that some kinds of work are not inherently worthwhile, while some kinds of work contribute in a greater or less degree to the common good of the society. That which serves the common good more directly and on a higher level is inherently more noble.

The cultural recognition of the true dignity of different kinds of work educates the populace (and especially the children) to recognize and judge not only between good and evil, but between good and better. Refusal to recognize a true hierarchy of value falsifies the perception of good and evil, good and better. That falsification is particularly destructive to the lives of children who begin to learn that everything is actually indifferent and meaningless.

Nevertheless, I concluded last Sunday, mentioning St. Joseph, the carpenter, who engaged in honest work that contributed to the good of others and enabled him to provide for the Holy Family.

If we set that work of carpentry in St. Joseph’s own time and place, it certainly did not rank as high as being a rabbi or a synagogue official. It would not have been esteemed as a merchant or a landowner or an administrator. It would have been more esteemed than the work of a shepherd, or of a hired hand. For all that, St. Joseph was more noble in his person than any man or woman who ever lived, except his wife and the child that was entrusted to his care. He was not dignified by his work, but rather he dignified his work by the nobility of his character.

Contrariwise, some people are dignified by a work or an office of which they are not worthy; it is an empty dignity. Others, we could say, fill and even exceed the dignity of their work or office. So, it is much better for person to impart the dignity of his moral character to his work or office, than to receive honor on account of a work or office for which he is inadequate.

Returning to the teacher and the garbageman: teaching is a more noble occupation than picking up garbage, but it is better to be an honest, hardworking, garbageman than a lazy, dull minded, ineffectual teacher.

If, however, we consider that different kinds of work possess a hierarchy of dignity dependent on their relation to the common good, we discover also an inherent inequality of social order. We also know that someone who is inherently suited to a more noble task, will find himself engaged in a lower place, while someone most unsuited will be found in a position of dignity, authority, and power. St. Joseph would have been more suited to sit on the throne in Jerusalem than the murderer Herod; indeed St. Joseph, the son of David, even had a better right to the throne. While St. Joseph was grieved by the evil rule of Herod, he was not at all distressed at being deprived of the throne but was content with his humble role.

Still this recognition of the more noble and less noble within the social order raises the question of privilege and equality. These days it seems that privilege is regarded simply as a bad thing; the implication is that privilege is inherently unjust, contrary to the equality that should hold among the different members of society.

We will need to look into that matter a little more closely next week.



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.

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