Arts and Culture

Papal Reflections on Work

Ninth in a series

Pope Francis’ reflections on work in his encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” make a great deal of sense to me. The Holy Father gives work a broad definition. Placing work within his general view of the meaning of human life on earth, Pope Francis notes that by work he means not only manual or agricultural labor, but also any activity by human persons that alters or changes reality.

For Pope Francis, that includes everything from writing a social report to the design of a technological development. For Pope Francis, what underlies all work is “a concept we can and must have with what is other than ourselves.” (No. 125, p. 84)

In the philosophy classes I teach at St. John’s University I confess to students that I feel guilty when I talk about work with them. They might face a difficult situation when they try to get jobs after graduation. I urge them to try to get work that they love. I admit to them that I love being a priest, and I love being a professor of philosophy at the second largest Catholic university in the country.

I am one of the fortunate people who love their work. Many people are not so fortunate. Still, I encourage the students to try very hard to find something meaningful to do with their lives, even if it means that they may have to make some sacrifices in relation to income.

Over 20 years ago, a student upon graduation told me that more than anything else in the world he wanted to be a teacher. He said that he would do anything to become a teacher but that it was impossible for economic reasons. He said that he could not follow his dream because the financial recompense was just too small.

Goals Require Sacrifice

I don’t remember what advice I gave him, but if I spoke to someone today who felt the way he did about being a teacher, I would encourage that person to make any sacrifices required. I would suggest paying for the necessary education by having two jobs for some period of time, and after getting the required education degree, to try to make extra money by taking a summer job. I realize that this is not an ideal situation but no sacrifice is too great if you really want the goal.

I think that it was the actor Robert Redford who offered this advice to people who were thinking of becoming actors: “Unless you can not live unless you become an actor, don’t try. A complete and total commitment is required.”

I think I would say something similar to the young man who told me that his strongest desire was to be a teacher. I probably would say to him: “If you really mean that, go for it and make any sacrifices that are required.” Easy for me to give that advice, but I honestly believe it to be good advice.

Pope Francis writes the following about work:

“We were created with a vocation to work. The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work. Yet the orientation of the economy has favored a kind of technological progress in which the costs of production are reduced by laying off workers and replacing them with machines. This is yet another way in which we can end up working against ourselves. … To stop investing in people, in order to gain short-term financial gain, is bad business for society.” (No. 128, pp. 85-86)

Path to Growth, Fulfillment

I agree completely with the Holy Father’s view that work is a part of the meaning of human life, a path to growth and even human development and personal fulfillment. I am wondering how many people view their work that way and actually find personal fulfillment in their work.

Of course, even if someone does not find personal fulfillment in the work itself, personal fulfillment might be found in providing for family, gaining money so that a family might be supported and children sent to good schools.

I am thinking of my father who worked very hard for many, many years so that my mother, sister and I were the beneficiaries of my father’s dedication and unselfishness.

What I like most about Pope Francis’ view of work – and indeed the entire social teaching of the Church – is that both are centered on the dignity and value of people. All other concerns take second place.