Working For Life

2 May 2010 | BUILDING COMMUNITY

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, the world is still reeling from the economic uncertainty that characterised the latter part of the first ten years.

The collapse of the international money markets renewed fears of a global recession and there was a palpable feeling of helplessness among nations and individuals. The spotlight fell on employment, with redundancies an inevitable result of the downturn. Shrinking economies and consequent insecurity of employment always impact on family life and the good of people.

While New Zealand seems to have weathered the storm better than some countries, complacency and the self-centred "I'm all right" attitude can change that. We must avoid settling for less or minimum damage to the welfare of persons, just because the situation is worse in other countries. We must learn and become wiser from this extremely close encounter with disaster.

An alarming feature of this period, this global crisis, that crippled multi-national businesses and panicked stock markets, is that much of the damage was caused by individuals, some acting naively, others grossly irresponsibly, in the management of other people's investments. Greed, and total disregard for, or perhaps ignorance of, the Common Good, combined to bring the world to the brink of financial ruin.

As Bishops, responsible for the pastoral care of the Catholic community and concerned, as citizens, for the good of all New Zealanders, we believe it is timely to offer some direction towards recovering a sense of connectedness in a world given over to individualism. We want to emphasise the particular relevance for today of the concept of the Common Good, and to reinforce the inherent dignity of work, by reaffirming the priority of work over employment and of men and women over work.

Work and Life
Work is essential for life, for human life and for the life of our planet. Work stands out for its indispensible contribution to both progress and preservation and lights the path to human fulfilment.

Work is what we do. Work helps to make us who we are. Work has a dignity of its own in that it expresses the self-worth of a person, something that can never be reduced to an economic value.

From earliest times, "work" has been recognised as intimately linked with what it means to be human. There is a natural tendency to "work" - to explore new frontiers, to expand knowledge, to produce and to harvest, to overcome difficulties, to unravel mysteries, to develop personally and socially.

Catholic tradition confirms this with its understanding that every person is made in the image of God, the Creator, and has been called to share in the work of creation. The opening pages of the Bible describe God "at work" and announce the divine command that "man" - male and female - is to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it." - Genesis 1:27-28

Work is most often identified with employment, but it is much more than that. Employment, as the word suggests, employs or uses the skills, talents, strength and stamina of a person to achieve something, to get something done.

Employment ties people to one another with rights and responsibilities, rules and regulations. Employment implies exchange: I do something in exchange for a wage or some other mutually agreed return.

Work, however, happens regardless of employment and exists prior to employment. Every living organism lives to work and works to live. Survival, no less than development, demands that we be constantly "in working order". The brain never totally "sleeps"; the mind is always "at work".

Work draws a person into collaboration with others, in that it has a definite social component, but work and the need to work should never be the means of exploiting anyone for another's gain. When our work connects us with others, any advantage should be mutual.

Work, Life and Dignity
Dignity is a quality within a person or something that demands honour. Every person has a God-given dignity, having been created in the image of God and called to share in God's dominion over creation. The dignity of work comes from the intrinsic dignity of every worker. Those who work are to be respected and cared for because of that intrinsic dignity. They must not be exploited, taken for granted or, when circumstances prevent them from working, abandoned or tossed aside.

That every human being has an inalienable dignity and that human life and all of creation are sacred, are truths we hold to be indisputable. God entered human history in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word of God. This Word took on flesh and became one of us so that we proclaim of God, "touched by your hand our world is holy." - Opening Prayer, 17th Sunday Ordinary Time

It is this Word who gives life and purpose to all that exists. As the Book of Genesis tells us, God said...and it was done...and God found it very good. [Genesis 1-2] Work is inherent in the Word, alive with energy, power and creativity. We can see this in our own communication with one another: the power of our words to build up or tear down, to bring a smile to a face or tears to eyes, to hurt, to help...

Jesus said, my Father is always working and so am I...[John 15:17], when questioned about healing on the Sabbath. To heal, restore, renew, make whole again, reconcile, forgive - were central to his ministry and are features of creativity. Creation is never a once-only action but is constantly "at work", holding in being, encouraging life, intimately involved in the cycle of life, death and resurrection. As partners in the creative work of God, these same features must characterise our work.

Work and the Common Good
Not to work is to deny a basic human need and to neglect the needs of the earth.

Not to be able to work is both a human and an environmental tragedy. To be denied access to work, or to accept a level of unemployment as necessary for economic stability, are scandals of the highest order.

St Paul saw the significance of work for human life and human society when he wrote, If anyone refuses to do any work let them not eat! - 2 Thessalonians 3:10-13

The meltdown of business confidence that sparked the most recent economic crisis, had immediate global influence. This immediacy, leaving no part of the world unaffected, reflects the expansion and sophistication of today's technology that has made a village of our planet, Earth. As mentioned earlier, so connected is the world economy, that the misjudgement - culpable or not - of even a few financiers can spell disaster for many, if not all. The Common Good is now a factor that cannot be ignored in any work or trading relationship, nationally or internationally. Foreseen or not, this is the outcome of global networking.

Nearly 80 years ago, Pope Pius XI observed that economic policies fostering unrestrained competition, are likely to prelude the pursuit of self-interest, to the point where wealth translates to power and "despotic economic dictatorship". His observation has a prophetic ring to it in the light of our current situation. These economic dictators, he noted, were "often not owners, but only trustees and managing directors in invested funds which they administer according to their own arbitrary will and pleasure." [Quadragesimo Anno: The Social Order, 1931. Pope Pius XI. Paras. 88, 105,109]. Such an abuse of trust places all work in jeopardy, in that it threatens both the security of employment and the credibility of employers. It contributes nothing to the good of the community and cannot even guarantee the good of the individual.

Terrorism and natural disasters, aided by mass media, are also teaching us about the oneness of life on Earth. Acts of terrorism, earthquakes, droughts, famines, tsunamis, bush fires and other events which, in the past, would have affected only their immediate surroundings, are now observed within minutes by the whole world through our advanced communications technology.

We are experiencing, in many negative, life-threatening ways, a sense of oneness and interdependence on a scale unprecedented in history. While they can overwhelm us with their horror, their size and frequency, they present an opportunity to set a new course, to reconsider our relationship to one another and to our world. They can turn our minds and hearts to the good of others which can be promoted by the same technology that exposes us to lawlessness and ruin.

Work as Gift
Pope Benedict XVI, recognising the "globalisation" of society, points out that it is not sufficient for the people of the world to content themselves with being close neighbours. We have to accept one another for what we really are: sisters and brothers. - Caritas in Veritate, No 19

To do this requires a change in attitude, a decisive movement away from a myopic vision of life where "I" am at the centre of everything, to a more inclusive approach, a true "out-look" where the concerns and needs of others become my concerns too. "Looking out" for one another will bring about a more generous exchange, including a gifting of self, which is much more than simply letting go of what I no longer need.

This, in turn, will ensure a more equitable distribution of the earth's abundance and a consequent greater sense of responsibility for one another and the earth itself.

If work contributes indispensably to the quality of a person's life, and if a person's life has a natural tendency to develop in relationship with other persons, then "my work" must never be thought of as being for me alone. Nor can I regard work as being my own creation. In the invitation to partner the Creator in caring for all that exists, God has gifted work as a creative, healing and renewing resource.

In his 2010 Peace Message (Jan. 1), Pope Benedict stresses this from another angle. He points to the protection of creation as a means of cultivating peace. Looking out for one another will impact on the way we treat the environment which supports us. The Pope challenges us to take up what he refers to as the "responsibilities of stewardship". - 2010 Peace Message, No 6

Stewards acknowledge they work in collaboration with others; that they are interdependent, not independent operators. To see yourself as a steward of God's creation is to acknowledge a position of great privilege. What you do or fail to do has consequences not just for yourself but for all in your care. Pope John Paul II urged a greater sense of "solidarity" among peoples for the good of all and Pope Benedict reinforces this by linking the current environmental and ecological crises and their implications for the human right to "life, food and development", with his call to act responsibly by using our gifts with others, for others and for our world.

Work and Life-Style
In practical terms, Pope Benedict asks us to consider life-style changes that will encourage a greater awareness of how connected we are with every aspect of life. We make this our own call to all New Zealanders.

  • We are a "consumer society", living under the pressure to buy more and more. Tempting deals, offering credit with years of no interest payments, lure people into purchases they could well live without and into debt many find impossible to repay. There is a huge difference between wanting something and needing something. Changing one's life-style as a consumer, could begin with the question: Do I want it or do I need it?
  • As consumers we may think we are helping to keep people employed. On the contrary, we are ultimately contributing to profits which do not necessarily benefit the workforce. Sales targets are set higher and higher each year simply to increase profits and returns to investors, profits becoming the priority regardless of the effect on those in the production line, whether they are on the factory floor or in executive offices.
  • As consumers we are also responsible for much of the waste that litters and pollutes the environment. Greater sensitivity to this will make us better caregivers.
  • A predilection among investors for income derived from capital seems to have characterised the economic climate of the first years of the new millennium. The property market boomed and share prices soared. Banks and finance companies were only too happy to lend huge amounts to individuals for speculative dealing. The personal security that was built on this approach, which amounted to "let my money do the work instead of me", proved extremely insecure, leading to business failures and bankruptcies when the system crumbled in 2008. Learning from this will encourage a change in the way I see myself in relation to the rest of society. I cannot afford to think only of myself; I am part of a greater whole.
  • New Zealanders continue to be urged to save for their retirement and there is increasing concern that the Government Superannuation, payable to those over 65 is not sustainable in the long term. "Saving for my retirement" - while a good and prudent principle - can strengthen the focus on self-interest and blind us to the fact that there will always be people unable to achieve such support on their own. Social security - ensuring that no one in need is left without adequate assistance - must remain a priority for our policy makers. A life-style that endangers the life or the livelihood of anyone else, or that is lived without regard for the ability of others to survive, can hardly be equated with a Christian way of life.
  • Pope Benedict reminds us that self-respect is crucial for healthy living and for enabling us to play a full and productive role in society. Young people cannot be asked to respect the environment if they are not helped within families and society as a whole, to respect themselves. [2010 Peace Message, No.12]. Work that is demeaning, working conditions that show minimum regard to health and safety, wages that do not reflect the value of the work being done, do not help the worker to feel good about herself or himself. The life-style within the work environment needs to be such as to speak unequivocally of the value of every person engaged in the production process.
  • A worrying trend has been the description of beneficiaries as "clients" or "customers", and the assistance they receive as "products". In hospitals, patients can be referred to as "units" or even as "beds". This is the language of business. Social welfare and health care are about helping people; it betrays itself when looking after people in need becomes equated with the cut and thrust of a commercial enterprise. [see The Unravelling of the Social Welfare Net - Caritas, 2008]. When these "clients" and "units" are identified as sisters and brothers - part of my family - everything changes.
  • A major shift in the way we live our lives and regard our work comes with the realisation that all "possessions" are, in fact, gifts. Life and all it contains; the soil, water and air; all our abilities, our capacity to think and plan; the uniqueness of every person; everything that is - all is gift. The response to this awareness can only be profound and humble gratitude. The only consequence of gratefulness is to take care of the gifts; not to hoard them for they belong to all, but to use them wisely for the benefit of all. As an individual, I should see my uniqueness as a special gift, one that is somehow needed for the good of all creation.

Conclusion
Most of what we have shared here can be dismissed as empty words, unless the reader is motivated by belief in a God who is Creator and First Mover in a universe of life and action; a God who calls creatures into a working partnership to nurture, develop and protect the gift that creation is. As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ is the visible expression of this Creator, revealing in his own person a God who is love. Just as love gives and forgives, the God of Jesus Christ never ceases working to ensure that gifts abound and life flourishes. Each person has a unique part to play in this partnership; through prayer and attention to life, that part can be found and fulfilled.

A strategy of those dissatisfied with Jesus, those who feared his popularity with the masses of ordinary people, or who felt their position threatened by his words and actions, was to attempt to discredit his ability. They would say, We know him as the carpenter's son, implying that a person carrying such a heritage could hardly be credible as a teacher or leader.

But it was precisely through the "work of human hands" that Jesus built his own community. Fishermen and tentmakers, coppersmiths, weavers, vinedressers, government officials, farm workers, men and women labourers of all kinds were among his first and most influential followers. He gave us the supreme example of how important it is to contribute to life through the gift of self.

This is why Christians hold work as a most sacred trust and name the carpenter, Joseph - husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus - as the patron of all workers. The Church honours this patronage especially during the month of May and we choose this time, in 2010, to salute every worker - every person - and affirm work as a basic human right and responsibility.

Work is a jewel among gospel values. It points to our link with the Creator, and our partnership in God's loving handiwork.

Feast of St Joseph the Worker 1 May 2010

John Dew, Archbishop of Wellington
Denis Browne, Bishop of Hamilton
Peter Cullinane, Bishop of Palmerston North
Patrick Dunn, Bishop of Auckland
Colin Campbell, Bishop of Dunedin
Barry Jones, Bishop of Christchurch