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work

By Diogenes (articles ) | Sep 03, 2006

From Pope John Paul II's 1981 encyclical Laborem exercens:

The ancient world introduced its own typical differentiation of people into classes according to the type of work done. Work which demanded from the worker the exercise of physical strength, the work of muscles and hands, was considered unworthy of free men, and was therefore given to slaves. By broadening certain aspects that already belonged to the Old Testament, Christianity brought about a fundamental change of ideas in this field, taking the whole content of the Gospel message as its point of departure, especially the fact that the one who, while being God, became like us in all things devoted most of the years of his life on earth to manual work at the carpenter's bench. This circumstance constitutes in itself the most eloquent "Gospel of work", showing that the basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person.

Many homilies offered with on eye on Labor Day (tomorrow, in the U.S.) will focus on wretched working conditions or immigration problems, in order to excite pity. That's commendable, but it risks obscuring a simple but important point: work has a dignity in and of itself. Workers deserve respect qua workers.

Pity can sometimes be patronizing, to the extent it suggests the most interesting thing about a person is his misery. The guy who's doing a humble and unexciting job -- scraping rust or mopping floors -- has positive worth in Christian eyes, irrespective of his well-being. Says the Pope in the same encyclical: "The primary basis of the value of work is man himself, who is its subject."

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Sep. 06, 2006 2:55 PM ET USA

    I just saw an interview with the guy that hosts the "Dirty Jobs" t.v. show. He claims that the people doing these jobs on a daily basis are the happiest and most content people he has ever met.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Sep. 03, 2006 5:18 PM ET USA

    Actually, the quote is "The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because philosophy is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water." John W. Garnder, LBJ's Secretary of HEW. Sorry. Next time I'll Google before I post.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Sep. 03, 2006 2:41 PM ET USA

    Who was it who said a society that values its plumbers less than its philosophers will find that neither its pipes nor its theories hold water?

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