The Dignity of the Human Person, Work, and the Common Good
“In work, the person exercises and fulfills in part the potential inscribed in his nature. The primordial value of labor stems from man himself, its author and its beneficiary. Work is for man, not man for work. Everyone should be able to draw from work the means of providing for his life and that of his family, and of serving the human community.” — Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2428
Grocery clerks, shelf stockers, gas station attendants, truckers, garbage collectors: Almost overnight, all these people—and many more—have become the “heroes” of our global crisis. These are the people who are running risks daily to keep us fed and our supply chains functioning while we self-isolate at home. Just weeks ago, workers like these were viewed quite differently—and often taken for granted—by many in our society. But suddenly we have realized that these individuals and their work are “essential.”
Of course, it always was essential, pandemic or no pandemic. But now, for the first time, we are forced to stop and take notice of what we have taken for granted. This is one of the strange but welcome goods coming out of this crisis—that our eyes have been opened to the value of all honest work, even that of the humblest sort.
Work and the Common Good
The Catholic Church has always emphasized the great dignity and necessity of work. As the Catechism states: “Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another. Hence work is a duty: ‘If any one will not work, let him not eat.’ Work honors the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from Him.”
In our highly decadent society, the dignity of work is often obscured by the naked greed that motivates a great deal of our work. Wealth, of course, is not in itself evil. Indeed, to the extent that wealth-creation lifts people out of abject poverty and enables humans to live more dignified lives, it is a positive good. However, the Church’s social teaching is replete with reminders that all work must first and foremost be oriented toward building up the common good.
The Catechism defines the common good as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.”
In a humane economy, the profit-motive always takes a back seat to ethical considerations. Work is only good to the extent that it supports the common good, and the common good is built up only to the extent that our work is consonant with and protects the dignity of the human person.
As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate: “I would like to remind everyone, especially governments engaged in boosting the world’s economic and social assets, that the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity: ‘Man is the source, the focus and the aim of all economic and social life’” (para. 15).
Work is for man, and not man for work.
Work as Service
St. John Paul II celebrated work, writing in Laborem Exercens: “Work is a good thing for man—a good thing for his humanity—because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being.’” (Emphasis in original)
The millions of temporarily unemployed are learning the truth of this statement in a painful way. Many people spend their days dreaming about having nothing to do but sit at home watching TV; now that they have been laid off, they are confronted with the fact that human beings, as images of the Creator, are creative beings, and without the creative activity of work in our lives, we wither away. It is for this reason that governments must strive to get as many people back to work as soon as possible. There is a very real risk that widescale unemployment could prove to be nearly as catastrophic for physical and mental health as the virus that caused the unemployment.
However, on a more positive note, many of us are suddenly seeing, for the first time, the various ways our work makes us “more human” by putting us in service to our fellow human beings. That grocery clerk may have taken that part-time job simply because she wanted to earn a little extra cash to fund a sought-for vacation. However, now that she is faced with the decision of whether to continue this work during a pandemic, she has come face-to-face with what her work has been all along—a form of service that contributes to the common good.
Honest work always has this communal, service-oriented aspect to it. However, nowhere has this been made more manifest than in our hospitals and long-term care facilities. Many healthcare workers, on the front lines of this pandemic, are being reminded of the truly sacred aspect of medical work. They are being reminded that healthcare is not just a job. It’s a vocation.
In Catholic countries, the vocational aspect of healthcare used to be physically visible in the fact that most healthcare workers were professed religious. Unfortunately, with the widespread demise of religious orders and religious hospitals, the profit-motive has increasingly poisoned healthcare. This pandemic, however, is purifying some of that. Healthcare workers have been called upon to bear sometimes crushing workloads and heightened personal risk. Many are responding to this call with extraordinary generosity and heroism.
Even many of those who have lost their jobs have found ways to stay busy by volunteering to help the vulnerable. Hundreds of thousands of people volunteered in the UK over the space of a few days to help with such things as buying groceries for the elderly and those at risk. Countless people have begun hand-sewing medical masks in their homes to donate and distribute. Many people with certain artistic or practical skills have begun offering free lessons and tutorials online for other people in quarantine.
A Vision of a Truly Humane World
I can’t help but wonder: What would the world look like if all of us approached our work with this same spirit every day? What would it look like if we all searched for the ways that our work is a service to others and emphasized those aspects?
The truth is that many of us do not go about our work in the right way. In many cases, our work is irredeemably poisoned by greed and egoism. Rather than finding ways to serve others, we see our customers or competitors only as sources of, or obstacles to, more profit. Many employers treat their employees merely as cogs in a wheel to be exploited for the highest return and then discarded. Furthermore, some companies and billion-dollar industries, far from building up the common good, actively tear it down (e.g., the pornography industry and the abortion industry).
What would happen if, instead, we were to act in accord with the dignity of the human person? What would happen if we sought in justice the good of every human person? What would happen if we all consciously sought work that built up the common good? What would happen if we as a society considered the impact of our actions and choices upon the well-being of our neighbor, especially the most vulnerable?
St. Teresa of Avila once wisely noted that it is difficult to know if we love God. “But we can know if we love our neighbor,” she said. “And the more we advance in this love, the greater likewise will be our love for God.”
Many people spend their lives thinking only about how they can get more for themselves. This pandemic has sparked conversations and soul-searching about deeper values, about the sacrifices we are willing to make for others, about the meaning of our work, and how our work helps maintain a healthy and functioning society.
In response, many people are choosing to live the virtue of justice—a moral quality or habit that perfects the will and inclines it to render to each person and to all what belongs to them. They are choosing to put the welfare of others above their own welfare. They are advocating the duty of withstanding some personal inconvenience and hardship for the sake of the vulnerable.
My hope is that this newfound focus on the common good that is reflected in so many media articles these days will not be short-lived. Unfortunately, few people seem to realize the irony of advocating and taking great pains to defend the vulnerable, at the same time as some states have declared abortion as an “essential service.” And yet, it is up to us to gently show them the inconsistency. When people say we must do anything we can to save lives, we can point out to them that this is simply what we have been advocating all along—that we have a duty to ourselves and others to save the lives of the weakest and most vulnerable.
As I said last week in this space, God is a great God who can bring good out of every evil. My prayer is that a more humane economy and society—with a greater respect for the dignity of the human person and the value of the common good—will emerge from this crisis. That would make much of the suffering and hardship seem worthwhile.