As we celebrate Labor Day, it is fitting to reflect upon the Catholic understanding of the value of human labor and its relationship to salvation. It is noteworthy that, before He began His three years of public ministry, Jesus worked as a carpenter for about 15 years, joining divine and human efforts together. And the Church celebrates Saint Joseph, who taught Jesus this skill, as the patron of workers and protector of God’s people.
In his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens (On the Dignity of Human Labor) St. Pope John Paul II developed what has been called a “creation theology,” of human work applying the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 to labor. In particular, he argued that human labor is not primarily “a sort of merchandise that the worker sells to the employer” or only something that is necessary to get by. Rather, human labor is valuable above all else because it expresses creativity and in fact a participation in divine creativity. He said that “the word of God’s Revelation is profoundly marked by the fundamental truth that man, created in the image of God, shares by his work in the activity of the Creator.” Through this “spirituality of work” our labor can draw us closer to God.
This spirituality stands in dramatic contrast to socialism, consumerism and “strict capitalism,” which are based upon materialistic assumptions that fail to recognize the spiritual element in work. Saint John Paul II of course recognized that, in reality, many things in the labor environment are not conducive to such a spirituality of work. But this fact gives us a calling to solve the problems of oppressive labor and elevate the value of work. St. John Paul II said that this challenge is “a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question.” Thus, he recommended uniting the interests of employers and employees by, for example, promoting management responsibilities and even shareholding among employees. He defended the rights of employees, such as the right just wages, decent working conditions, and pensions. But he placed the responsibility of creating just working conditions, not only on the direct employer, but on society at large. Thus, by such means as courtesy to laborers, charitable works, and an awareness of the conditions of workers, we can all make the working place a second Nazareth, where the Son of Man would be happy to dwell.