Work as Vocation — What It Is and What It Isn’t

Man works to live. He does not live to work.

Labor Day 2019 marks the 125th anniversary of that federal holiday, established in 1894 to honor the American worker. Many priests may use the occasion to repeat the old saw about Catholic social teaching being “our best kept secret.” Some may delve deeper into that teaching to observe that it puts a priority on labor, recognizing the worker as a human and not just economic (cost) factor in the work process.

I want to suggest a different theme for reflection and preaching: work as a vocation — what it is and what it isn’t.

Work is part of the vocation of everyman. God intended from the beginning for man to work. Even before the Fall, the Lord God placed man in the Garden “to till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15).

This is an important perspective, because a view still seems to exist among Catholics that work is some kind of divine punishment because of sin. Yes, after he sins, God tells Adam that “by the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread” (3:19), but that text does not mean that work itself is a punishment. It refers, instead, to the unproductive nature of human labor, the resistance that man encounters in his effort to exercise dominion over the earth (1:28) because of his now disrupted relationship with creation due to sin (see 3:17b-18).

Work is, therefore, part of human nature, part of the human condition. As Pope St. John Paul II points out in his 1981 encyclical, Laborem Exercens, work is an expression of human participation in God’s creative work. Creation is not a finished product: God continues to create and sustain his creation. We are not Deists.

God also affords us a share of participation in that creative work by the dominion humans are to exercise over the world. By work, the human person expresses his creativity, he puts his personal stamp on the universe. Work is, therefore, not just about getting something done, but is also an inherent part of what it means to be human, a co-creator with God in continuing to create and sustain this world.

Man’s vocation is co-creatorship with God, peopling the world with persons and exercising dominion under Him over the rest of material creation. Let me unpack two important points from that sentence:

  • Man’s first way of exercising co-creatorship with God is his capacity to give life. The very first blessing God confers on the newly-created man and woman is fertility: “Be fruitful and multiply” (1:28). Only then does God bless them with dominion over the earth. Priority, therefore, belongs to the family.
  • The material world is subject to the human. This is not warrant for people to abuse the world, but neither is it warrant for them to sacralize that world, to engage in Gaia-like environmentalism at the expense of the human person.

Recognizing that work is part—a good part—of the human condition also means recognizing that work is part of the human vocation. People should work (which is why policies that encourage employment and counter the scourge of unemployment are morally required).

But everything requires perspective. Aristotle spoke of the golden mean, in media stat virtuus. Virtue is normally a balance between two vices. Bravery is a balance between foolhardiness and cowardice, thrift between greed and waste.

So, too, with work. Work enables us to be truly human, to fulfill our participation in God’s image and likewise by sharing in his work of creation.

But we are first and foremost participants in that work through the sharing of life, because the Trinity is what it is because God is Life-sharing Love. That means family comes first.

Work enables us to participate in God’s dominion over the material world, which also enables us to support that family. That is why the Church talks about a “family wage,” deeming a just wage that which “ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner” (Rerum novarum, no. 45) and “be sufficient to enable him comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his children” (no. 46) [.]. “[T]he worker must be paid a wage sufficient to support him and his family” (Quadragesimo anno, no. 71].

Just wages remain a question today. On the one hand, the typical American middle-class wage-earner’s buying power has largely remained stagnant for decades. On the other hand, some professions pay very high wages, but which exact other tolls from family life.

Man works to live. He does not live to work. And the place where human life primarily takes place is the family.

As Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI pointed out, that means paying a wage that supports a family. It also means creating work-life balance, so that professional work retains its place within the full context of human life.

On the latter point, and in the context of work-as-vocation, I want to talk about a contemporary phenomenon: workaholism.

Industry, as with all other virtues, is a balance between extremes, and there have always been those who have veered to the extreme of overwork. We can recognize its viciousness behind parodies of the obsessive employer. Remember Mr. Misrell’s “push-push-push-all-the time” in The Twilight Zone’s “A Stop at Willoughby?”

There are reasons, old reasons, why Anglo-American culture values the “push-push-push” approach to work and leaves latent feelings of guilt about taking a day off: think Protestant Work Ethic. But there are also newer reasons for this phenomenon.

The Atlantic ran a piece last February about what it called “workism.” It noted that young urban professionals with well-paying jobs are increasingly miserable. Why?

Part of it, I think, is vocational.

In that Atlantic piece, Derek Thompson observes that investment in one’s job is rapidly becoming almost quasi-religious, especially given the decline of institutional religious affiliation among millennials. Thick organized religion is being replaced with an evanescent “spirituality.” “…[W]orkism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.”

And why not? People instinctively want to be committed to something. They question their identities and want a community. The workplace, where people spend ever-growing amounts of time, potentially offers those things which people previously sought in religion and their social networks (which were often coextensive with religion).

The problem is, however, that making work one’s “vocation” in today’s world often loses the balance in extremes.

For one thing, the modern workplace is inimical to the family, both in terms of family formation and family support. Marriage-age people are increasingly deferring marriage and/or making it dependent not just on having a job but the “right” job with the “right” set of wages and benefits. Companies, which find unmarried workers easier to deal with (they recognize the value of celibacy, if they don’t use the name): consider how many tech companies will support young women freezing their eggs to put off parenthood. Instead of work existing to support the family, the family now becomes a project of the workplace.

Yet, even when families are formed, work increasingly steals time from families. “Greedy work,” as Kay Hymowicz calls it, increasingly encroaches on the worker’s “free time” (since it does not recognize that a job should have time limits), usually at the expense of families.

There are all sorts of economic, sociological, and legal reasons for this state of affairs, but there is also a theological one: making one’s work one’s religion.

Catholic theology traditionally divided reality between the supernatural and the temporal. The supernatural, by definition, is not time-bound: we do not necessarily need lots of time to come to love God, and God can show His goodness to the one who came at the last hour as well as the first (Matthew 20:1-16). William Camden captured this when, speaking of the fatally wounded knight, he could write: “Betwixt the stirrup and the ground//he mercy asked; and he mercy found.”

But work is not supernatural. It is temporal, i.e., part of time that takes time. Advance in the spiritual life is first and foremost God’s grace; advance in the professional life is usually a slog of years through competitions and promotions. Work by its nature needs and will take as much time as one gives it. There are only 24 hours in a day and our bodies will eventually shut down when overtaxed. The demands of sleep will assert themselves more quickly than the demands of family. Pinning one’s fate to the temporal demands of the job can exact an exorbitant amount of time. It will also skew perspectives, e.g., subordinating the family to the job, subordinating the economy to the 24/7/365 “global” workplace, etc. etc., and then insist these outcomes are “inevitable.”

No, they are not.

Culture—including the culture of work—is a human product, which humans make and can remake, in ways consistent or inconsistent with genuine human flourishing. We can declare certain patterns inhumane, and we can insist that the economic factor subordinate to the human. But those are choices—choices our “pro-choice” society seems loathe to make.

So, instead, we choose pseudo-vocations in pseudo-religions, making “workism” our faith. As Thompson notes, “The rise of the professional class and corporate bureaucracies in the early 20th century created the modern journey of a career, a narrative arc bending toward a set of precious initials: VP, SVP, CEO. The upshot is that for today’s workists, anything short of finding one’s vocational soul mate means a wasted life.”

On this Labor Day, should we not challenge the pseudo-religious “calling” of the modern, particularly “professional” workplace? Should we not talk about how work is a vocation … and isn’t?

It used to be said that, lying on one’s deathbed with the family assembled around, no one used to say “I wish I worked more.” Dying alone with my frozen eggs down in the gamete bank seems even crueler.


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