As the secular world becomes increasingly coarse and public authorities require certain businesses to recognize abnormalities contrary to the Gospel, the workplace can generate a multiplicity of challenges for Catholics. Can a Catholic drive a bus with racy ads on its side? Can a computer programmer write code that he knows will be manipulated to spread evil on the web? Can pharmacists work for a company that sells immoral products? Can an HR employee list “his pronouns” on his email rider? Can a teacher or professor conduct his classes in good faith knowing that immorality is being promoted in the adjacent classroom?
For guidance on how to work morally in an amoral setting, we can turn to Pope St. John Paul II’s exposition of the lay vocation, Christifideles Laici, where he encapsulates in a single sentence how Catholics ought to live their vocation as workers. “The lay faithful must accomplish their work with professional competence, with human honesty, and with a Christian spirit, and especially as a way of their own sanctification.” (43)
St. John Paul’s instruction concerns the work itself, and the manner in which we perform that work. Taken together, what we do and how we do it, while following the structures of the natural world and within its ethos, receive new life within the broader context of God’s Providence.
First, the work we do requires professional competence. Faith in the Triune God does not impact the workings of machines, computers, medicines, accountancy, tailoring, athletics, science, or lab equipment. These function according to the natural order, not the supernatural one. Hence, a Catholic performs these functions as would any other person, believer or not. So, when it comes to work, as the French philosopher Étienne Gilson put it, “piety never dispenses with technique.”
A holy barber who gives lousy haircuts, or a devout butcher who does not cut or store meat properly, need not receive our patronage.
The difference between Catholic workers and others comes not from the work itself, but from how the workers perceive their tasks. God “hast arranged all things by measure and number and weight.” (Wis 11:20) When we do some human task well, be it balancing the company’s checkbook or cleaning the office, we bring glory to God in whose providence the task has a role, however tiny. For all people, “hard work is its own reward” insofar as it brings a job to completion; we rightly marvel at a fine finished product as we would at a sunset.
But for Catholics there is the added satisfaction of knowing that the work pleases the Creator who, in ways that transcend human understanding, directs it toward a greater supernatural purpose.
Second, while the final products may not reflect the worker, the manner in which a work is performed absolutely should distinguish Catholics from others. St. John Paul mentions two standards: we should work with human honesty, meaning we follow the rules inherent in and associated with a given form of labor.
The medical field, for example, requires standards for doctors to meet as well as regulations for using medicines properly. Similar expectations exist in other fields for all kinds of practitioners, from ranchers to computer programmers. Catholics will adhere to justly defined standards and ethical practices wherever they find themselves.
Of course, Catholics don’t have a monopoly on human honesty; any worker is potentially capable of that. The essential characteristic of Catholics is to perform their works with a Christian spirit, which includes consciousness of doing God’s will at every moment and showing genuine charity to all those we encounter. Supernatural charity, since it comes from God and leads back to Him, is far greater than ordinary human goodwill.
Through charity to our coworkers and customers, we contribute our widow’s mite to God’s plan of salvation, so that we help others to become “God’s sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” (Eph 1:5)
With human honesty and Christian spirit, St. John Paul adds, Catholics ought “to make the workplace become a community of persons respected in their uniqueness and in their right to participation.” (43) The workplace environment reflects the attitudes of the workers within it. Ideally, Catholics serve as spiritual leaven that helps a healthy workplace to rise. More likely, though, Catholics’ faith-filled spirit provides, within a difficult or even hostile work environment, a ray of hope for others seeking light amidst the darkness.
In today’s amoral workplace, Catholics must be strong for themselves and for others, ever conscious that “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Pt 5:8) To the questions above, there are no easy answers. In most cases, with our livelihoods in the balance, we are forced to endure an uncomfortable tension between the faith we strive to live and the faithless world in which we live.
But we ought not lose hope. St. John Paul, coming of age in Nazi and then Soviet-ruled Poland, knew how to keep the light of Christ burning while surrounded by deep darkness. He reminds us that the work we do and how we do it contribute to our sanctification. Our Lord promised not the easy road, but the road to Calvary.
As the workplace poses ever more fundamental challenges to our faith, we can still do our Catholic thing, recognizing that part of working in a post-Christian world includes carrying the Cross. Through Christ’s Cross, God’s sanctification is poured out upon us. This reality is our recourse during challenging moments at the workplace. As we step back from our work to look at God’s providential picture, we hear our Lord’s exhortation: “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
*Image: Christ on the Way to Calvary by Titian, c. 1560 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]. Simon of Cyrene is about to take up the Cross.
You may also enjoy:
Pope Leo XIII’s The job of Christians
+James V. Schall, S.J.’s On Jobs