The Worthiness of Work

“My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Sit here, please,’ while you say to the poor one, ‘Stand there,’ or ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs?” (James 2:1-4)

This past week witnessed the online shaming of former “Cosby” show actor Geoffrey Owens. Owens, who played Cosby’s son-in-law on the show, had photographs posted online showing him bagging groceries at Trader Joe’s where he now works.  When the photographs went viral, he was deluged with demeaning comments.

But others wrote to reaffirm him.  Former NFL athlete-turned-actor Terry Crews tweeted: “I swept floors AFTER the NFL. If need be, I’d do it again. Good honest work is nothing to be ashamed of.”

The initial responses to the photographs suggest, however, that many people judge the value of work by the money it pays. On this view, a high-priced hooker is worth more than a hotel maid.

In Laborem Exercens, his encyclical on human work, Pope John Paul II is critical of the perspective, common in the ancient world, which saw physical labor as unworthy of free men and was therefore assigned to slaves.  Christianity brought about a fundamental change in this perspective because Christ, God Incarnate, “devoted most of the years of his life on earth to manual work at the carpenter’s bench.”

“Such a concept practically does away with the very basis of the ancient differentiation of people into classes according to the kind of work done,” writes the pope.  “In the final analysis, it is always man who is the purpose of the work, whatever work it is that is done by man – even if the common scale of values rates it as the merest ‘service,’ as the most monotonous, even the most alienating work.”

One might hope that Catholics would distinguish themselves by embracing this vision about the nobility of any good, honest work.  But I wonder.  How many Catholic parents are as proud when their sons or daughters take lower paying jobs? How many wish they could boast that their son or daughter is a highly-paid executive rather than a Catholic high-school teacher?

When I was growing up, Catholics were associated with blue-collar work.  Now it seems many esteem corporate office jobs every bit as much as my WASP father did.


How many Catholic parents are as eager as every other parent to send their children to Harvard or Yale rather than some Catholic school, because they’re just as eager as other parents to see their children “succeed” according to the usual norms of financial success and social position?

My proposal would be for every Catholic college to require its students to master a skill like brick-laying or plumbing, not because the students should all become brick-layers or plumbers, but because students would benefit from working with real, material stuff rather than simply moving images around in “virtual” reality.

Besides, brick-layers and plumbers are citizens in this democracy, and they deserve the benefits of a Catholic liberal arts education that respects their vocation.  How did Catholics allow WASP culture to convince them that the goal of a Catholic liberal arts education was to prepare people for careers as corporate executives?

Yesterday I stopped with my wife at our local shoe-repair shop.  The man who owns it is not only excellent at his craft, he is an honest businessman.  He can fix almost anything, including purses and leather straps, and he will tell you honestly when something won’t come out looking right. This man provides real value.

The same could be said for our auto mechanic.  The high-priced lawyers who advise my university seem to offer mostly bad advice, but an honest, capable auto mechanic is a gift from heaven.  My auto mechanic can not only fix everything, he does it honestly.  My first trip to him was after a windshield wiper went haywire.  Other shops said they would have to charge me over four hundred dollars to replace the entire mechanism.  Jim took it apart and said, “Here’s the problem.  It’s this broken bushing.”  “How much?” I asked.  “If we can get one, probably a dollar-fifty.”  Later, this man fixed my old broken-down car the day before my wedding. He is my hero.

There is a man who fixes things around our house.  I never cease to be amazed at all the things he can do.  He is invaluable and has saved us not only hundreds of dollars in repairs, he has probably saved the house more than once.  He too is my hero

A Catholic writer expressed concern recently about the future of work, saying that “Some experts even predict that it won’t be long before all the labor we need will be done by a small cognitive elite collaborating with genius machines.”  Would those be the same caliber of experts who predicted that we would be starving by now due to a population explosion and that we would be replaced by intelligent computers?

Don’t believe it. There are jobs that simply can’t be sent overseas or given to a robot.  One is taking care of your baby.  Another is laying bricks for a wall.  A third is fixing your plumbing.  A fourth is wiring an electrical socket in your house.  A fifth is making the bed up in your hotel room.  Every executive in the C-suite can be replaced before you can replace the people who do those jobs.

Consider all the people who do such jobs – jobs that provide real value for people, jobs that make your life so much better – and be thankful.

People say: “Be like Christ.”  Fine.  He started out a carpenter. Let’s start at home.  Or better yet, at work.


*Image: The Carpenter’s Shop in Nazareth by an unknown Bolivian artist, late 18thcentury [Brooklyn Museum]

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.