For Labor Day

Here’s a little taste of The Church’s Best-Kept Secret on the dignity of work:

Tending the Garden

Some people think work is not a gift from God, but a curse. But this is not so. God places man in the Garden to “till and keep it.” It is part of our primordial mission as creatures in the image and likeness of God to do fruitful work—part of the way in which we share in the creative work of God himself. Work has become more complicated and painful due to human sin and the curse it brings to all things we touch. Yet despite all that it has not ceased to be God’s gift. Our dignity still dignifies our work.

Note that: we do not have dignity because we work. On the contrary, our work is dignified by the fact that we who are made in the image and likeness of God do it. We do not earn the right to exist by our work. Our existence is a free gift from God. But part of that gift is the right to work and, by that work, to receive the just reward of labor and to cooperate with God in providing his blessings to ourselves and others.

This, in fact, is the primary way in which most people contribute to the Common Good. Most children are housed, most naked people clothed, most students are taught, most bellies are filled, and most neighborhoods kept in good order by ordinary people going to work, caring for their families, and doing the ordinary things people do. God wills that we be his hands-on partners in shaping the world through our work and creativity. We provide goods and services, compose songs, invent medicines, create websites, fix cars, raise children, devise faster microchips, whip up new pizza recipes, create the wheel, write plays, and bust new dance moves as sub-creators acting in the image and likeness of the Creator.

Just Reward for Labor

In return for a day’s work, what we require (and what God demands that employers give their workers) is a living wage.

What is a living wage?

A living wage fulfills four criteria:

1. Families can live at a standard of decency appropriate to their society.

The standard of decency changes and evolves over time, of course. Things that an average middle-class American thinks of as normal and ordinary, such as indoor plumbing or glass windows, would have been beyond the means of the wealthiest nobles of Richard Lionheart’s court. Likewise, there are many places in the world where clean tap water is still a dream. But roughly speaking, of course, the idea is that people of average income should be able to live reasonably on the normal spectrum of their society.

2. They do so without working undue hours.

The idea here is a balance between work, leisure, and sleep—about eight hours for each—with a day or two of rest for play and worship. Leisure, not forced labor, is the basis of culture. It is from leisure time that most of civilization has been born. Making time for play and hobbies and social pursuits and sports and goofing around is how civilizations stay healthy.

3. They do so without both spouses being forced to work outside the home (if they choose to do so, that’s another story) or children forced to work inappropriate hours or under inappropriate con­ditions.

The Church’s social thought always puts a huge premium on the good of the family and on the chance for children to be children in a secure home close, if possible, to one or both parents.

4. They do so without undue reliance on government support or consumer credit.

In other words, both employers and employees must practice fiscal responsibility. Employers must pay their employees enough that they are not forced to rely on welfare to make up what is insufficient in their pay. (So, for instance, corporate welfare in which taxpayers, not the employer, cover the insufficient wages of workers violates Subsidiarity). Likewise, workers must live within their means and learn to budget so that they can provide for their families, save for the future, and have enough to share with the community.

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