Hanging on the wall in my childhood home was a simple image of Joseph the carpenter, working with a piece of wood. My dad for most of his life was also a carpenter, building homes for his small business, The Village Carpenter, and thus especially liked this image.
On May 1, we celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. In the year 1955, amidst the tumultuous era of Communism and their May Day celebrations—which emphasized what the ideology was supposed to do for workers—Pius XII established May 1 as the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. In a sense, this was a new feast to highlight the teachings of the many papal social encyclicals, issued since Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891.
Taken as a whole, Catholic social teaching emphasizes the dignity of the worker, the responsibility of employers, the need for humane methods of employment, and a just wage.
Obviously there is still a long way to go.
However, even though the balanced teaching of the Church in social matters may not yet be realized in society, that does not excuse individuals throwing their hands up in the air, conceding themselves to corrupt systems. If Christians wait for justice to come into their lives so that they might then work virtuously, what good is being a Christian?
A stunning example of hard work in unjust circumstances is seen in Fr. Walter Ciszek (1904-1984), who spent five years in prison and fifteen years in a Gulag labor camp in Siberia as a prisoner of the Soviet regime. The common practice among his fellow prisoner workers was to do the long and backbreaking work as poorly as one could get away with—and even to sabotage the work if possible. Yet Fr. Ciszek worked hard and well, much to their amazement.
I tried to explain that the pride I took in my work differed from the pride a communist might take in building up the new society. The difference lay in the motivation. As a Christian, I could share in their concern for building a better world. I could work as hard as they for the common good. The people who benefit from my labors would be just that: people. . . . There was the realization that work of itself is not a curse but a sharing in God’s own work of creation, a redemptive and redeeming act, noble of itself and worthy of the best in man—even as it was worthy of God himself.
Fr. Ciszek, despite being in a situation where he was compelled to work by corrupt masters, still recognized the need to work well and honestly. Fr. Ciszek’s situation, of course, was exceptional; Catholic social teaching doesn’t demand that we accept being treated like slaves. But there is a dignity in working well, even in adverse conditions.
If there is a need to protest unjust working conditions, then just work is a prerequisite for that protest. It provides the foundation for protesting injustice. If the protesters themselves are not just, they won’t have the credibility to effect justice in their workplace.
Indeed, Christians are called to work honestly and excellently and, when necessary, to take a stand against injustice. In the book of Genesis, one of the punishments of Adam was that the ground would be cursed and his work would be toilsome—he would acquire bread “by the sweat of his face” (Gen. 3:17). But Jesus, true God and true working man, redeemed that curse by himself working by the sweat of his face. Thus when we work as Christians, we don’t work in the mold of the cursed Adam but in the mold of the redeemer Jesus Christ.
Daily work is plain old work, yes, but through the redemption of Christ, it is transformed into a part of his saving mission. And this doesn’t just involve manual labor. White-collar workers, students, teachers, stay-at-home moms—all are called to work excellently, and their work has dignity in itself, even in monotony. In turn, this work becomes evangelization, and it helps to spread the Gospel to co-workers, family members, and outside observers.
There is a tremendous truth contained in the realization that when God became man he became a working man. . . . Yet he did not think it demeaning, beneath his dignity, dehumanizing. If anything, he restored to man’s work its original dignity, its essential function as a share in God’s creative act. . . . He did it to make it plain that the plainest and dullest of jobs is—or at any rate can be, if viewed properly in respect to God and to eternity—a sharing in the divine work of creation and redemption, a daily opportunity to cooperate with God in the central acts of his covenant of salvation.
Just as Joseph worked hard to provide for his foster-son and his spouse, the Mother of God, the work of the Christian also serves God’s plan for the world. Joseph’s work transformed him from being a mere “working stiff” into being a divine worker. So, too, when we work well for Christ, we start to imitate Christ, to look like Christ as he spent so many years not saving the world by long sermons or miraculous healings, but by working hard “9 to 5,” as it were. And so, when someone sees the Christian working, he sees that individual person, yes, but he also sees the Divine Carpenter.
It wasn’t until I was older that I learned that the image in my living room was in fact an image of Christ.
The Catholic Social Teaching Collection, Word on Fire’s compilation of documents and writings on the the dignity of the human person, can give useful assistance in becoming more familiar with Catholicism’s historic teaching on this topic.