Labor Day has come and gone. In our own day, the events of yesterday are all too easily forgotten. We are overwhelmed with daily activities, only with more to follow in subsequent days. We are inundated by information through 24-hour news cycles and social media. And so on and so forth. These dynamics of daily life make it difficult—and seemingly impossible—to remember and reflect on the deeper dimensions of life, such as the meaning and dignity of work which ought to be at the heart of not only Labor Day but also our daily lives.
In the Nebraska Legislature, the theme of work is prevalent in most debates. Work naturally finds its place in discussions about the economy. Oftentimes, the discussions raise basic, yet difficult, questions like: How can businesses create more work for Nebraskans? Can these jobs pay a just wage and allow people and families to not only survive but also thrive? How can the State of Nebraska create laws that incentivize or disincentivize business activity that lead to or detract from good work? Typically, these fundamental questions are pertinent to and provide a helpful framework for thinking about some of the deeper moral issues at the heart of labor—even if adequate answers are not always reached.
The theme of work, I have also noticed, has become increasingly present in discussions about early childhood, elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education. These days, a buzzword regularly used in discussions about our state’s education system is preparing our children for workforce readiness. Similarly, though not as readily apparent, the theme of labor undergirds discussions about vo-tech (i.e., vocation and technical education) and STEM (i.e., science, technology, engineering, and math education).
These discussions raise questions, such as: Is our education system producing an adequate workforce? Is our education system preparing our children (i.e., our future workforce) for the technological age which we have created for ourselves? And will the jobs that await our children provide them a steady income to participate in the economy?
These discussions sometimes reveal an ominous dimension about society’s general understanding of the meaning of labor and its relationship to the human person. A dimension that raises the pivotal question: whether man was made for work, or work was made for man. In other words, is work at the service of our humanity? Or are we at the service of work?
Unfortunately, at times, the response is that the human person is at the service of work—and all means possible must be undertaken to ensure that more humans are inculcated into a worldview fixated on a life of work, a life ultimately centered on profits, production, and power.
But the Catholic Church’s social teaching tradition has recognized this view as deficient. It does not correspond to the deeper needs and desires of the human person. It cannot satisfy the heart. And so the question remains: what understanding of work—if any—could satisfy our humanity?
As the Compendium for the Social Doctrine of the Church notes, beginning with Pope Leo XIII in 1891 with Rerum Novarum (“On the Conditions of the Working Class”), the Church has been wrestling with the unjust conditions of laborers and other problems presented by various economic systems we have created.
Yet, in all this moral reflection on particular circumstances, Pope John Paul II discerned a need “for a deeper understanding of the meaning and tasks that work entails.” If the answer to the social question of unjust conditions of laborers, for example, is to be adequately answered, Pope John Paul II proposed work as the “essential key” to answering these social questions. Without a correct philosophical and theological reflection on the meaning of work, the human person would be a slave to work rather than experiencing work as a gift from the Creator intended to help make each man and woman more human.
Unfortunately, this column lacks the word count to summarize the general framework or details of a proper understanding of work. But I recommend the following as points for reflection: Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 2426-2436; Compendium for the Social Doctrine of the Church Chapter 6. With this “deeper understanding” of work—an understanding we are called, as disciples, to propose to the world—we can help others live Labor Day, every day, in the truest sense of the holiday (that is, a celebration of work).