Men at Work

Published May 4, 2023

The Catholic Thing

Earlier this week, on the first of May, the Church celebrated the memorial of St. Joseph the Worker. The feast was instituted by Pope Pius XII in 1955 as a counterpoint to the Communist celebration of May Day. What better counterpoint to an ideology of power and conflict than humble Joseph? What better antidote to individualism than the solidarity of the Holy Family? What better example of the dignity and goodness of human labor than the man into whose care God entrusted both Jesus and Mary?

Pope Pius was not the first pope to recognize that the Church’s legitimate concern for workers and the dignity of work was contested by both Marxist and liberal ideologies. Nor was he the first to point to St. Joseph as an example of the alternative proposed by a Christian life.

“For Joseph, of royal blood, united by marriage to the greatest and holiest of women, reputed the father of the Son of God, passed his life in labor, and won by the toil of the artisan the needful support of his family,” wrote Pope Leo XIII in 1889.

God himself chose to be obedient to a carpenter, to learn at his workbench, and to share in his labor. And by that labor, God himself was nourished, protected, grew, and became strong. In the person of Joseph, we see clearly what the Church means when she says that, by our work we share in the creative work of God.

The life of Joseph is a reminder that our sharing in the work of creation is not reducible to the execution of certain delegated tasks; we are not merely servants carrying out blind orders from our master. We share in his work; and he shares in ours. Our work becomes his, and (in a very real sense) he takes up our work as his own.

In Laborem exercens, Pope John Paul II placed human work at the center of the Church’s understanding of the social question:

[H]uman work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question, if we try to see that question really from the point of view of man’s good. And if the solution – or rather the gradual solution – of the social question, which keeps coming up and becomes ever more complex, must be sought in the direction of “making life more human,” then the key, namely human work, acquires fundamental and decisive importance.

At the heart of Laborem exercens is the insistence that man is the proper subject of work. That is, insofar as man was created in God’s own image and given dominion over the earth to subdue and dominate it, work is inextricably connected and ordered to man’s place and role in creation. At the same time, without a correct view of man’s true dignity and end, his relationship with work can be easily distorted. “However true it may be that man is destined for work and called to it,” the pope writes, “in the first place work is ‘for man’ and not man ‘for work.’”

Pope John Paul II took up these themes of work and the dignity of work several more times during his pontificate. In his 1989 apostolic exhortation, Redemptoris custos, Pope John Paul II made clear the connection between the vocation of work and the Incarnation. If our labor became toil and drudgery through the Fall, we can see in the example of Joseph how labor is also redeemed in the Incarnation:

Along with the humanity of the Son of God, work too has been taken up in the mystery of the Incarnation, and has also been redeemed in a special way. At the workbench where he plied his trade together with Jesus, Joseph brought human work closer to the mystery of the Redemption.

Among the concerns raised by Pope John Paul II – and, in fact, throughout the corpus of modern Catholic social teaching beginning with Leo XIII right up through Pope Francis – is the way advancing technology, which is itself a fruit of human labor, changes how we understand work. The Industrial Revolution brought the worker question to an acute crisis in the time of Leo, just as the advent of atomic energy, mass communications, biotechnology, and digital technology have in the 20th and 21st centuries.

In the wake of these subsequent revolutions, the dignity and meaning of work has become more obscured, not less. Work is seen as drudgery and toil, or else merely as a means of acquisition, both of legitimate goods, but also of vast excess and luxury. Labor itself is often reduced to a mere personal commodity, a private asset, severed from its social meaning and responsibility to the common good. This trend is accelerated both by our growing technological capabilities and the new forms of labor it makes possible. Consider, as one example: the explosion of professions in which “human capital” rather than skilled labor or access to material resources dominate.

Technology has provided us advantages for which we ought to be tremendously grateful. But our increasing technical mastery and dependence on technology has altered how we see ourselves and the world around us. While human nature remains unchanged, our understanding of ourselves, and our place in the created order, has shifted dramatically. We have become increasingly blinded by what Pope Francis calls the “technocratic paradigm.” Where this has happened, the most foundational of Christian truths – the Incarnation – has been rendered more and more incoherent to the people of our day.

In the light of today’s daunting challenges, as John Paul II understood all too well, the meaning and dignity of human work takes on a “fundamental and decisive importance” indeed. The example of St. Joseph, who shared so concretely in the work of his Creator, can help us rediscover the true meaning of human work. Such a rediscovery is essential if we are to better understand the proper uses and limits of our technology, which comes from, and so profoundly shapes, our work and our world.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. White’s work focuses on the application of Catholic social teaching to a broad spectrum of contemporary political and cultural issues. He is the author of Red, White, Blue, and Catholic (Liguori Publications, 2016).

Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. White’s work focuses on the application of Catholic social teaching to a broad spectrum of contemporary political and cultural issues. He is the author of Red, White, Blue, and Catholic (Liguori Publications, 2016).

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.

Upcoming Event |

The Promise and Peril of Civic Renewal: Richard John Neuhaus, Peter L. Berger, and “To Empower People”


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today

More in Catholic Studies