Human Work in Catholic Social Teaching
a. Good work
“Work is a good thing for man—a good thing for his humanity—because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being.’ ”
Work, much like the Sabbath, was made for man, and not man for work. It is a good. And not only is work good, but it is also an obligation:
“Work is, as has been said, an obligation, that is to say, a duty, on the part of man. . . Man must work, both because the Creator has commanded it and because of his own humanity, which requires work in order to be maintained and developed. Man must work out of regard for others, especially his own family, but also for the society he belongs to, the country of which he is a child, and the whole human family of which he is a member, since he is the heir to the work of generations and at the same time a sharer in building the future of those who will come after him in the succession of history.”
Because he senses these goods, we can assume that under normal circumstances man desires to work. He is not inherently lazy, as the social pessimists would have us believe. He feels compelled to action through the drive to develop his faculties and exercise his personality through productive activity. This is what work is for, and it is through the fulfilment of this purpose, and not merely by providing for material needs, that work is considered good. Devoid of these “supra-economic” benefits, work is not good because it is no longer human. Considered as a means of material production and nothing else, work becomes mere mindless toil.
The fact that in modern times men are taught to be grateful for any kind of work whatsoever, simply because it is more or less “productive,” is evidence of an idolatry of work. That it is possible for there to be work which is productive yet not good does not find a place in our thinking, but it is found in Christian philosophy. C.S. Lewis acknowledged it, and not many would call C.S. Lewis a pessimist:
“…the great mass of men in all fully industrialized societies are the victims of a situation which almost excludes the idea of Good Work from the outside…Unless an article is so made that it will go to pieces in a year or two and thus have to be replaced, you will not get a sufficient turnover. A hundred years ago, when a man got married, he had built for him (if he were rich enough) a carriage in which he expected to drive for the rest of his life. He now buys a car which he expects to sell again in two years. Work nowadays must not be good.”
Lewis provides two examples—prostitution and advertising—which he classes together as analogous (although not morally equivalent). The point is that for work to be good, it needs to fulfill certain subjective needs of the human being in addition to producing a good effect in the material world.
b. Subjective and objective purposes of work
Distinctions are important, and since the battle against modern ideology is mainly a battle for lost distinctions, a significant part of our project is the re-introduction of subtlety into the economic framework. This is of particular importance when we are discussing the value of human work, which, unlike purely mechanical “work” as executed by machinery, must be considered from both its subjective and its objective points of view, each of which have a legitimate purpose.
The objective meaning of work is the most familiar to us, and in fact it is often the only meaning which has been retained in the present day. Its meaning is embodied in the command to “subdue the earth” and finds expression in the cultivation of crops, the domestication of animals, and the perfection of technology for the purposes of forming the material powers of creation according to man’s will. The great successes of science and research, fully embraced by the Church within their proper limits, each play a part in the realization of the objective meaning of work.
If we turn now to the concept of work in its subjective sense, we find ourselves in territory that seems a bit more alien to us. And yet, returning to the command to “subdue the earth,” which pertains to the objective meaning of work, we realize that it is only in the subjective sense that we can understand why man is given this command. By what right does he subdue creation? Here we find that the objective meaning presupposes a responsible subject, which is to say a person:
“Man has to subdue the earth and dominate it, because as the ‘image of God’ he is a person, that is to say, a subjective being capable of acting in a planned and rational way, capable of deciding about himself, and with a tendency to self-realization. As a person, man is therefore the subject of work. As a person he works, he performs various actions belonging to the work process; independently of their objective content, these actions must all serve to realize his humanity, to fulfil the calling to be a person that is his by reason of his very humanity.”
The truth that the “sources of the dignity of work are to be sought primarily in the subjective dimension, not in the objective one,” are at the heart of the Christian tradition. We must ask first if the work is human, and only then can we begin to measure its industrial efficiency. Our ignorance of the priority of the subjective element, which is to say the primacy of the person in work, is further evidence of the inversion of principles which takes place once the economistic mentality grips a civilization.
c. Direct and indirect employers
Another useful second distinction, the absence of which has proven particularly harmful in application, is between direct and indirect employers:
“The distinction between the direct and the indirect employer is seen to be very important when one considers both the way in which labour is actually organized and the possibility of the formation of just or unjust relationships in the field of labour.”
It has become the custom to acknowledge only the direct employer, so much so that today when anyone deals with the concept of employment, this is the only type of employment they mean. If we re-introduce the concept of the indirect employer, we are immediately forced to acknowledge the very real interdependence between nations, as well as between individuals within a nation. What, then, is the meaning of these two terms?
“Since the direct employer is the person or institution with whom the worker enters directly into a work contract in accordance with definite conditions, we must understand as the indirect employer many different factors, other than the direct employer, that exercise a determining influence on the shaping both of the work contract and, consequently, of just or unjust relationships in the field of human labour…The concept of indirect employer includes both persons and institutions of various kinds, and also collective labour contracts and the principles of conduct which are laid down by these persons and institutions and which determine the whole socioeconomic system or are its result.”
While the indirect employer is composed of a certain aggregate of social and political elements, it is nonetheless a distinct entity which must be acknowledged for the role it plays in economic action. And because both the direct and indirect employers have legitimate roles, they also have their respective duties which must be fulfilled simultaneously:
“The responsibility of the indirect employer differs from that of the direct employer—the term itself indicates that the responsibility is less direct—but it remains a true responsibility: the indirect employer substantially determines one or other facet of the labour relationship, thus conditioning the conduct of the direct employer when the latter determines in concrete terms the actual work contract and labour relations. This is not to absolve the direct employer from his own responsibility, but only to draw attention to the whole network of influences that condition his conduct. When it is a question of establishing an ethically correct labour policy, all these influences must be kept in mind. A policy is correct when the objective rights of the worker are fully respected.”
“The concept of indirect employer is applicable to every society, and in the first place to the State. For it is the State that must conduct a just labour policy.”
In short, because political society forms the overarching framework in which labor agreements, working conditions, and wages are determined, it has a responsibility above and beyond that of the “direct employer” when it comes to the formation and direction of those agreements. This is a necessary consideration before proceeding to the specific agreement between employer and employee—the agreement called the “labor contract.”
d. Agreements between employer and employee
In our discussion of justice we distinguished between commutative, distributive, and social justice. The direct agreements between employer and employee fall under the domain of commutative justice, which is the justice of exchange and is the most basic order of economic justice. However, these agreements must meet certain conditions beyond “mutual consent” in order to be considered just. They are not automatically just simply because the employer offered the contract and the employee accepted, for the right of the worker is not something determined by the worker himself, but is determined by an objective standard:
“Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.”
In addition to commutative justice, this contract must be capable of taking into consideration the requirements of distributive and social justice. This is the “political logic” which must participate in and guide all “economic logic”:
“Economic life undoubtedly requires contracts, in order to regulate relations of exchange between goods of equivalent value. But it also needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics, and what is more, it needs works redolent of the spirit of gift. The economy in the global era seems to privilege the former logic, that of contractual exchange, but directly or indirectly it also demonstrates its need for the other two: political logic, and the logic of the unconditional gift.”
e. Stakeholders over shareholders
We would also be remiss if we neglected to mention the role of investment in the contemporary economic situation, which is acknowledge by the Church in its teachings. In order to consider it properly, however, we must introduce a third distinction, pointing out the difference between shareholders and stakeholders.
“Without doubt, one of the greatest risks for businesses is that they are almost exclusively answerable to their investors, thereby limiting their social value. Owing to their growth in scale and the need for more and more capital, it is becoming increasingly rare for business enterprises to be in the hands of a stable director who feels responsible in the long term, not just the short term, for the life and the results of his company, and it is becoming increasingly rare for businesses to depend on a single territory. Moreover, the so-called outsourcing of production can weaken the company’s sense of responsibility towards the stakeholders—namely the workers, the suppliers, the consumers, the natural environment and broader society—in favour of the shareholders, who are not tied to a specific geographical area and who therefore enjoy extraordinary mobility. Today’s international capital market offers great freedom of action. Yet there is also increasing awareness of the need for greater social responsibility on the part of business. Even if the ethical considerations that currently inform debate on the social responsibility of the corporate world are not all acceptable from the perspective of the Church’s social doctrine, there is nevertheless a growing conviction that business management cannot concern itself only with the interests of the proprietors, but must also assume responsibility for all the other stakeholders who contribute to the life of the business: the workers, the clients, the suppliers of various elements of production, the community of reference.”
The variety of points made here cannot be explored individually in detail, but should serve to illustrate the need to make the intended distinction in our economic considerations. That corporate entities can be pressured by “absentee” proprietors with little or no long-term interest in the enterprise and no ties to the geographical area of the business makes for a problematic arrangement for those persons most directly involved in a business’s future.
 C.S. Lewis, “Good Work and Good Works,” The World’s Last Night and other essays.