Human Work: Occupation and Vocation

Human Work: Occupation and Vocation

Human Work: Occupation and Vocation

To the first human couple God entrusted the task of subduing the earth and exercising dominion over every living creature. The dominion exercised by man over other living creatures, however, is not to be despotic or reckless. Rather, he should cultivate and care for all the goods created by God.

Despite some claims to the contrary, work is part of the original state of man. It precedes the fall and is, therefore, not a punishment or a curse. However, it does become toil and pain because of the sin of Adam and Eve, who break the relationship of trust and harmony with God.

Work is a source of the conditions for a decent life; it is also an effective instrument against poverty. However, we must be careful not to idolise our work or to become a slave to it.

In his teaching Jesus tells us that we should appreciate work, and this is no surprise given that he himself became “like us in all things, devoted most of the years of his life on earth to manual work at the carpenter’s bench” (John Paul II Encyclical Letter, Laborem Exercens) in the workshop of Joseph, to whom he was obedient. Consider also the time when Jesus condemns the behaviour of the useless servant who hides his talent in the ground and praises the faithful servant whom the master finds hard at work at the duties entrusted to him (Matthew 24:46).

Each Christian has a duty to work and we are charged by the Apostle Paul to make it a point of honour to work with our own hands, so as to be “dependent on nobody” (1 Thes 4:12), and to practise a solidarity which is also material by sharing the fruits of our labour with “those in need” (Eph 4:28).

St John Chrysostom said that idleness is harmful to man’s being, whereas activity is good for his body and soul. Christians are called to work not only to provide themselves with bread, but also in acceptance of their poorer neighbours, to whom the Lord has commanded them to give food, drink, clothing, welcome, care and companionship. According to St Ambrose, every worker is the hand of Christ that continues to create and to do good.

The industrial revolution presented the Church with a critical challenge which led her Magisterium to respond both forcefully and prophetically through the Encyclical Letter Rerum Novarum in 1892 by Pope Leo XIII. The Church needed to respond to the question of workers’ rights in an environment of increasing exploitation and ideological manipulation (both socialist and communist). Rerum Novarum is a heartfelt defence of the inalienable dignity of workers, connected with the importance of rights to property, the principle of cooperation among the social classes, the rights of the weak and the poor, the obligations of workers and employers and the right to form associations. The publication of Rerum Novarum was timely as it gave momentum to labour-related legislation for the protection of workers, above all children and women; to instruction and to the improvement of salaries and cleanliness in the work environment.


Capital before Labour?

Of course, while work is important, there can never be any justification for putting the interests of capital before labour. No reference to the interests of capital , the demands of competition, or the rigours of globalisation can justify demeaning, exploitative wages and working conditions. Pope Benedict summed this up perfectly when he said: “I would like to remind everyone, especially governments engaged in boosting the world’s economic and social assets, that the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity.”


The Right to Rest from Work

The Church teaches that rest from work is a right. God rested from His work on the seventh day and so we too, as men and women created in His image, are to enjoy sufficient rest and free time to allow us to tend to our family, and our cultural, social and religious life. On Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation we must refrain from “engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body” (CCC 2185). Sunday is a day that should be made holy by charitable activity, devoting time to family and relatives, as well as to the sick, the infirm, and the elderly. It is also a day for avoiding the excesses of mass entertainment.

Public authorities have a duty to ensure that citizens are not denied time for rest and divine worship, and employers have an identical obligation with respect to employees.



Full employment is a mandatory objective for every economic system oriented towards justice and the common good, and the Church considers unemployment as a “real social disaster” (JP II Encyclical Letter Laborem Exercens). Society must appreciate that those who are unemployed or underemployed suffer the profound negative consequences that such a situation creates in a personality and they run the risk of being marginalised within society, of becoming victims of social exclusion. This not only strikes young people, but also women, less specialised workers, persons with disabilities, immigrants, ex-convicts, the illiterate, and all those who face greater difficulties in the attempt to find their place in the world of employment. Systems of education, support and training must be put in place to afford people the best opportunity to gain employment and to remain there.

Although the State doesn’t necessarily need to guarantee the right to work of every citizen it does have a duty to “sustain business activities by creating conditions which will ensure job opportunities, by stimulating those activities where they are lacking or by supporting them in moments of crisis” (JP II Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus).


Family Friendly Policies

Work is important for the family as it ensures a means of subsistence and serves as a guarantee for raising children. With this in mind it is necessary that businesses, professional organisations, labour unions and the State promote policies that, from an employment point of view, do not penalise but rather support the family. For example, travelling great distances to work, working two jobs, fatigue all reduce the time devoted to the family. Situations of unemployment also have material and spiritual repercussions on families, just as tension and family crises can have negative effects on productivity in the workplace. It’s important that the feminine genius be appreciated in all expressions of life and society, therefore the presence of women in the workplace must be guaranteed.


Child Labour

The Church condemns the terrible violence that is child labour. Pope Leo XIII summed up the dangers in the Encyclical Letter Rerum Novarum: “in regard to children, great care should be taken not to place them in workshops and factories until their bodies and minds are sufficiently developed. For, just as very rough weather destroys the buds of spring, so does too early an experience of life’s hard toil blight the young promise of a child’s faculties, and render any true education impossible.”


Migrant Workers

If a country decides to welcome migrant workers it must ensure that it doesn’t treat them as second-class labourers. In no way may migrant workers be exploited and in their work they should receive the same rights and wages as local employees. At the same time, conditions that foster increased work opportunities in people’s place of origin are to be promoted as much as possible.


Just Wage

All workers are deserving of a just wage; that is, a wage that is enough to ensure a livelihood for himself and for his family and to allow him to participate comprehensively in the life of society. Whilst it is difficult to determine the exact amount of a just wage there are a number of considerations that should be taken into account. One is the function and productivity of the individual. Another is the economic and social setting. Trade unions can play an important role in this and the State can also play a secondary role by guaranteeing a minimum wage.


The Right to Strike

The Church’s social doctrine recognises the legitimate right to strike “when it cannot be avoided, or at least when it is necessary to obtain a proportionate benefit” (CCC 2435). The right to strike should only be utilised when all other methods for the resolution of disputes has been tried but proven to be ineffectual. It must always be peaceful and can never be accompanied by violence and it can never be contrary to the common good.


Trade Unions

The Magisterium of the Church recognises the fundamental role played by labour unions in defending the vital interests of workers employed in the various professions. There is usually an imbalance of power between employer and employees and the Church appreciates the need of workers to consolidate their forces in trade unions. The right to found trade unions is a human right.


Next: Economic Justice and Welfare