The Vocation to Work: Contributing to the Fabric of the World
Remember the first encyclical penned by Pope Francis? It’s good for us to remember it as we celebrate Labour Day. Laudato Si is an amazing document. There are few significant topics in life that he doesn’t cover. It even speaks of architecture and urban life. He has a wonderfully broad notion of integral ecology.
I’m not sure how some people reduced the document to global warming! A fellow Jesuit described the section on employment as “astonishing and powerful.” With those words of praise, I decided to go back and read that short section. It has some wisdom to offer us as this part of the world acknowledges human labour.
Chapter Three of Laudato Si deals with the human roots of the ecological crisis. Francis devotes a section in Part III of that chapter to the need to protect employment (numbers 124-129). The Pope’s words are powerful, but he joins a long line of popes who have weighed in on the dignity of human labour, starting especially with Leo XIII and Rerum Novarum in 1891. It dealt with the rights and duties of capital and labour.
Too many people in our culture act as if Francis is the first Pope to offer strong words about labour and to offer a critique of capitalism. Most of his predecessors in the past 125 years have written significant encyclicals dealing with matters in the Church’s social teaching and include a critique of our consumerist mentality.
Church documents on human rights, the dignity of labour, social justice and peace fill many volumes. Important documents have appeared on anniversaries of Rerum Novarum. Check out Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno on the fortieth anniversary or John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens on the ninetieth anniversary in 1981. The words of Francis are, as always, strong, but he is building on an equally strong tradition.
Pope Francis begins the section on human employment by including it in his approach to integral ecology. He says that labourers “maintain the fabric of the world,” quoting from Sirach 38. Humans are “the instrument used by God to bring out the potential” which God inscribed in things.
Francis’ notion of labour includes “any activity involving a modification of existing reality,” whether our work is agricultural, writing a document or designing an iPad. He speaks of the need for right relationships with what we do and points out how monasticism shows us that manual labour is spiritually meaningful.
The Pope doesn’t say much about the menial labour of so many in our world, but it’s difficult to think of someone finding spiritual meaning in responsibilities at Wal-Mart or flipping burgers at McDonalds. There are far too many in our world who long for the “vocation to work” that he describes:
“Work should be the setting for this rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, giving glory to God.”
Francis says that work is a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment. He bemoans the fact that so many people are lacking meaningful employment. Elsewhere he singles out young people around the globe. The Pope offers a few examples of creative projects that favour productive diversity, such as small-scale food production systems.
Pope Francis and our Church have long offered wisdom about the dignity of human labour. An advantage we have that most political and business leaders lack, is that we have a spiritual underpinning. Our words are not empty rhetoric, aimed at getting as many votes as possible.
The words of Francis are rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As we face a long election campaign this fall, let us pray that we may hear some of our political leaders speaking as Francis and his predecessors do.