Spirituality of Work Conference II: Why Do We Work?

Why Do We Work? A Market View

I’ve worked with a lot of men and women on spiritual weekend programs called Retreat Weekends over the past 30 years. On many occasions during group discussions on these weekends I’ve asked the retreatants, “Why do you work?”

Almost always the first answer is, “To earn a paycheck.” “I have to pay my bills.” Then I would ask a second question, “Why do you work?” This was usually met with silence. Then someone would say something like, “Another reason I go to work is I enjoy the people I work with.” I would ask a third time, “Why do you work?” This really caused some anxiety. I could almost hear some of the folks thinking, “What does he want?” “What is he driving at?”

Once in a while someone would answer, “I go to work because it’s what I was trained to do, and my work makes me feel good about myself because I’m using my talents and education.”

“Good,” I’d say.

Now one more time, “Any other reason you go to work?” Sometimes someone would finally say, “I work because I enjoy helping my customers, I feel like I’m making a contribution to the good of others.”

In the language of the marketplace work is quite simply a cost/benefit contract in which each party fulfills his or her own needs first…


Vignette (Man or Woman)

I need to pay my bills, you the employer needs to have this work done… I can do it. So we enter a contract to have me do what you need done, you pay me, and I pay my bills. In simplest terms work is collecting a paycheck. My goal is for me to maximize my earnings and act in my self-interest alone.

This is the market mind-set. We are self-interested seekers no matter what. Economists call this the “rational actor theory.” Milton Friedman, a noted and influential guru of the market place, praises self-interest as being a central motivating force of the marketplace. He also counsels an unsentimental, competitive approach to the business world.

Listen to his words:

… A view that has been gaining widespread acceptance is that corporate officials and labor leaders have a “social responsibility”… The market- mindset sees this view as a fundamental misconception of the character and nature of a free economy. In such an economy there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game…

Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundation of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible. Maximize profits… both for business and for labor. That’s what work is all about.

Why do you work? To maximize your earnings? This in turn allows you to live the life style you want to, to follow your dreams, to buy stuff that will make you happy. A simple, easy way to understand “work.”

A Christian Understanding of Work

Why do we work? Is it just to make a buck, purely utilitarian? Is work just a self-interested contract between employer and employee?

Christian reflection and teaching on work has developed over the centuries and gives us a much deeper appreciation of work. In the Roman Empire world of the early Church (100 CE and beyond) work or manual labor was done by slaves. Work was a slave’s labor. In the middle ages (by 1000 CE) work was the means of survival. The Catholic Church taught that work was a noble endeavor and could enrich people.

The Benedictine Religious Order was very influential at this time, and it taught that work was also a preparation for our spiritual life, which was all-important. In the sixteenth century Luther and Calvin developed very positive teachings on work. In our modern times there have been a number of views of work. Marx taught that work was good, a creative production of our humanity. Freud thought of work as an evil, necessary to live our lives. The Catholic Church since the time of Leo XIII in the 19th century has developed a broad, positive teaching on many aspects of work and the economy.

Regarding how business firms operate in the economy, Catholic teaching stresses that besides being concerned with the maximization of profits for the firm’s owners/stockholders, the firm needs also be concerned about the stakeholders in the firm…the interests of the employees, customers and even the community in which the firm is located. The benefits of legally sanctioned firms – limited liability and perpetual existence – come at a cost.

The firm is also responsible to the public, and not just to maximizing the wealth of the investors. The “social responsibility” of the firm is a factor taken into account in many business firms today. For example, Starbuck’s Coffee has available at their U.S. stores’ counters a brochure which outlines Starbuck’s commitment to Social Responsibility.


Catholic Images of Work

With regard to Catholic images of work I would now like to turn to some of

the recent teachings of the Church.

Pope John Paul II issued his Encyclical on work, entitled Laborem Exercens,

On Human Labor, in 1981. Developing comments made in the Second Vatican Council’s The Church in the Modern World, John Paul presents a vision of the values of human work, or what might be described as a spirituality of work.

I would describe “spirituality” as the way a person daily lives out her or his values and beliefs about, and understanding of, the meaning of life – what life is all about? A “spirituality of work” describes how a person lives out her or his beliefs, values, and understanding of life at their workplace. Let’s take a closer look at what John Paul presents regarding the “spirituality of work.”

Building on the thought of paragraph 39 of Vatican II’s The Church in the Modern World, John Paul recognizes that our human labor in some way contributes to the building of God’s Kingdom. He says:

Earthly progress must be carefully distinguished from the growth of God’s Kingdom. Nevertheless, to the extent that the former (earthly progress) can contribute to a better ordering of human society, it is of vital concern to the Kingdom of God…Let the Christian know the place his work has not only in earthly progress, but also in the development of the Kingdom of God, to which we are called through the power of the Holy Spirit and through the word of the Holy Gospel.

(Parentheses are mine.)

We Christians fulfill our vocation, our call as disciples of Jesus, in our daily work, as well as the rest of our lives. What we do flows from who we are – and for us Christians, we are disciples of Jesus, trying to follow in his footsteps.

Nicolette Meade