In the Workplace

Expression of human dignity

It was Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary General of the United Nations, who said: “In our era the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.”

The Church, in its tradition of social teaching, recognises the value of work and its potential to sanctify, or make holy. It does this by firstly expressing human dignity and then increasing it by the cultivation of the virtues, or moral habits, among which the Church includes the “virtue of industriousness”.

“Work is a good thing for man,” wrote Blessed Pope John Paul II in Laborem Exercens, his 1981 papal encyclical on human work. “It is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy; it is also good as being something worthy, that is to say, something that corresponds to man’s dignity, that expresses his dignity and increases it. If one wishes to define more clearly the ethical meaning of work, it is this truth that one must particularly keep in mind. Work is a good thing for man – a good thing for humanity – because through work man not only transforms his nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being’.”

Besides providing for basic needs work should also provide people with the opportunity to develop individual talents, and more importantly to claim the fundamental rights and responsibilities that correspond with innate human dignity. Such rights, for exampkle, include the right to a family and the right to private property.

Blessed Pope John XXIII, in his 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris, said: “Men and women have the natural right to share in the benefits of culture, and hence to receive a good general education, and a technical or professional training consistent with the degree of educational development in their country. Furthermore, a system must be devised for affording gifted members of society the opportunity of engaging in more advanced studies, with a view to occupying, as far as possible, positions of responsibility in society adequate to their intelligence and acquired skill.”

Work, therefore, should give a person the means to become an active member and stakeholder of the society in which he or shre lives. In turn, they help to shape it through their direct activity – and indirectly through the taxes payable to the state. Indeed, it is because “work is a good thing for man” that unemployment is such a devastating and tragic evil.

Returning to Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul said: “Man must work, both because the Creator has commanded it and because of his own humanity, which requires work in order to be maintained and developed. Man must work out of regard for others, especially his own family, but also for the society he belongs to, the country of which he is a child, and the whole human family of which he is a member, since he is the heir to the work of generations and at the same time a sharer in building the future for those who will come after him in the succession of history.

“All this constitutes the obligation of work, understood in the wide sense. When we have to consider the moral rights, corresponding to the obligation, of every person with regard to work, we must always keep before our eyes the whole vast range of points of reference in which the labour of every working subject is manifested.”

(‘A Spirituality of Work’/Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales)