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Indifference to the Dignity of Work

February 10, AD2015

Emily - St Joseph

We have all done it. We have walked past a beggar on the street. We have purchased groceries from a cashier whose eyes we did not meet. We have insisted on the least expensive goods available to us. We have been impatient with a doctor when our appointment time is delayed. Some of us have even mumbled under our breath about a fussy baby on an airplane. What do these seemingly disparate scenarios have in common? These are times when we fail to appreciate the importance of understanding the dignity inherent in all forms of work.

For those of faith, we understand that God calls each of us in Genesis 2:15—without burden—to till and keep the earth. This is a duty inherent in who we are as mankind created in the image and likeness of God. By our very nature, we share in the process of creation. Each of us is called to work as a duty to God.

Pope Francis reminds us that work is fundamental to the dignity of the human person. He explains that “work ‘anoints’ with dignity, and that dignity is not conferred by one’s ancestry, family life or education. Dignity as such comes solely from work. We eat with what we earn, we support our families with what we earn. It doesn’t matter if it’s a little or a lot. If it’s more, all the better.”

However, without an understanding of the true nature of work, we can be indifferent to our responsibilities as workers and as beneficiaries of the work of others.

What is work?

At a certain level, we all know what work is. We all do it. However, for policy makers and those who study work, the United Nations 19th International Conference of Labour Statisticians has established five mutually exclusive forms of work that can be measured:

  1. Own-use production work: production of goods and services for our own final use.
  2. Employment work: work in exchange for pay or profit.
  3. Unpaid trainee work: work without pay to acquire workplace skills or experience.
  4. Volunteer work: non-compulsory work performed for others without pay.
  5. Other work activities: everything else.

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2013 American Time Use Survey (most recent data available), in the U.S., employed persons worked slightly more than an average of 7.6 hours a day during the work week– if considered in the average are those who work on the weekend, as well. This brief snapshot only captures the type of work that the UN describes as “employment work.” However, we all know that when we finish our day’s “employment work,” there is still much more work left to do. Think about a typical day in light of this framework. Before and/or after paid employment work– most of us will make meals, clean and care for a home, care for and transport family members, and volunteer our time and talents to sports teams, schools, churches and any myriad of social or community organizations.

We work, and we work.

How should we understand work?

Pope John Paul II, in his Encyclical Letter Laboreum exercens (On Human Work), teaches us that work has three dimensions: subjective, objective and social. Each dimension offers insight on not only what work is but how we should approach it.

  1. Subjective dimension of work: the work, itself, is considered as an activity of the human person. Laboreum exercens reminds us that “[a]s man, through his work, becomes more and more the master of the earth, and as he confirms his dominion over the visible world, again through his work, he nevertheless remains in every case and at every phase of this process within the Creator’s original ordering. And this ordering remains necessarily and indissolubly linked with the fact that man was created, as male and female, ‘in the image of God’.”
  2. Objective dimension of work: the person doing the work is the focus of consideration. Irrespective of its lesser or greater objective value, work is an expression of the person doing the work—an actus personae (act of the person). In this way, the human person is the measure of the dignity of work. Laboreum exercens reminds us again that “human work has an ethical value of its own, which clearly and directly remains linked to the fact that the one who carries it out is a person.”
  3. Social dimension of work: a person’s work is fundamentally connected with that of other people. The fruits of work give rise to opportunities for interaction, relationship and encounter with others. In the Encyclical Letter Centesimus annus (Hundredth Year), Pope John Paul II reminds us that “work is work with others and work for others.”

 Why should we care about work?

As people of faith, we should care about work because it is the mechanism for the provision of our daily bread. Not only does our work sustain us physically, but it also sustains us spiritually. It is clear that our wages provide the resources to physically support us. However, what is more challenging to understand is that our work (and how we accept, respect and support the work of others), is the mechanism that provides for the nourishment of our spirit.

Together, each human person, makes up the Body of Christ. How we interact with each other matters to all of us. Recall the lesson learned in in the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. Each of the three servants is given a portion (an amount based upon his own abilities) of the master’s assets and is entrusted to be a responsible steward. Two of the three follow the master’s instructions and make productive use of the master’s talents. The third, out of fear, hoards the asset and does nothing with it. The first two are praised and rewarded, and the third is scolded, rejected and punished.

God has given mankind the entire world and all its resources and has endowed us with intellect and reason. God expects us to use our “talents” to care for ourselves and our families. This mandate also means using our own work to help others be more productive and to always be vigilant to not disregard or diminish the work of others.

The Sadness of Indifference.

During a recent press conference in anticipation of the 2015 Lenten season, Monsignor Giampietro Dal Toso, under-secretary of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum (One Heart), shared an important message about indifference that is relevant to our understanding of our indifference to the dignity of work. Monsignor Dal Toso explains that “indifference comes from a lack of attention to differences.”

Indifference can be understood on three levels.

  1. Interpersonal Level: here is where a lack of attention to the difference between the other and myself conforms the other to my parameters and thus destroys him. This is the scenario where the beggar is expected to just get up and get a job—without regard for his mental and physical health, level of education or even whether or not he has an inadequate support system.
  2. Cultural Level: here is where there is a lack of awareness or an incomplete observance of values. This is the scenario where we are so “busy” during our shopping transaction that we do not offer a smile or kind word to the cashier whose “menial” job does not rise to the level of the importance of our conscience. But still worse are those scenarios where a lack of judgment on values (where every option is viable and anything goes) leads to the sweatshops and child labor that produces the inexpensive goods that we consume and demand.
  3. Metaphysical Level: here is where there is a lack of attention to the difference between God and man—Creator and creature. We believe that we are God. Here is the scenario where we lose our temper when and where we are not served as we demand.

 Our Challenge.

As mankind, we have a duty to work and respect the work of others, whether that work has high or low objective value. Its intrinsic value is derived from its nexus to the human person doing the work. Work honors the gifts and talents that we receive from God. We are all called to use these talents in proportion to our abilities and resources for our own care and benefit and for that of others.

We know that, through the introduction of sin, the duty of work is sometimes weighed down by pain and suffering. However, in God’s mercy, we have been given Jesus as the most poignant example of how to use pain and suffering for its redemptive power.

So next time we are annoyed by the crying baby on an airplane, we will remember that we are all God’s children, and that God’s work is perpetual in all of us. Let us imitate the patience of the attentive mother and never be indifferent to the dignity of our brothers and sisters.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Dawn Carpenter is a banker with the heart of a teacher and scholar. She is a veteran of Wall Street who studies what Christian theology has to tell us about the nature and value of work and the responsibilities of wealth. Using the experience of her nearly 25 year banking career, Ms. Carpenter serves as a Practitioner Fellow at Georgetown University's Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. She is also a founding Advisory Board member to the School of Business and Economics at Catholic University of America, chairman of the Investment Committee and member of the Finance Committee of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Black and Indian Mission, and as the Co-Chair of the Advisory Board of DC Habitat for Humanity. Ms. Carpenter is currently working toward a doctorate in Liberal Studies at Georgetown University where her groundbreaking research investigates the nature of work and the responsibilities of wealth. She has previously earned a M.A. in systematic theology from the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College, a M.P.M. in public finance from the University of Maryland, and a M.A./B.A. in political science from American University. Ms. Carpenter and her family reside in Washington, DC.

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  • Glynda Brown

    Dawn, a thought provoking article which makes me examine myself and acknowledge my own indifference particularly on the interpersonal level. And it is a great reminder for me that as you stated, “Work honors the gifts and talents that we receive from God. We are all called to use these talents in proportion to our abilities and resources for our own care and benefit and for that of others.”

  • Jack Yoest

    Dawn, a well reasoned and important article. But let me offer a minor addendum: I am not bothered by a crying baby on a plane. Yes, I might be the only male on the planet who feels that way. I’ve got five kids and I took each as pre-potty-trained infant on extended business trips. (Would this be laboreum exercens?) Cheers, Jack

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