The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers

Spirituality of Work

In ancient Greek and Roman cultures, slaves worked and freemen did not. Strenuous and backbreaking work was seen as beneath the dignity of free people and therefore expected of slaves. The ancient Jewish world answered that with a work ethic flowing from their relationship with God. The Israelites learned that God himself worked – the loving Father worked for six “days” bringing to life all that exists. Moreover, God’s creation was both a gift and a task. God’s creation was to be valued, developed, and worked to meet the needs of everyone in the community. All work contributing to the good of all contained its own dignity and worth. There was no shame in hard work; rather work was honorable and honored.

Sharing completely in our human condition, Jesus worked as a carpenter in his foster father’s shop. By the sweat of his own labors, He raised human work to a higher level of dignity. When he emerged from the River Jordan following his baptism, Jesus began, in the power of the Holy Spirit, the work of proclaiming and revealing The Kingdom of God. His teachings, miracles, parables and gathering of disciples were fruits of this work. His death on the cross and Resurrection was the supreme work of redemption for all humanity and all creation.

Through our baptism, our daily lives are also consecrated, through the indwelling Spirit, to proclaim and reveal the Kingdom of God in our midst. We obviously do this through our life of prayer, Eucharist, works of charity and actions of justice. But we are also called to reveal God’s Kingdom in all our “daily work.” In our “daily work”, Jesus walks by each of us and says, “Come after me and I will make you raise a family for God and care for a wider family beyond common blood.” “Come after me, and I will make your voice advocate for those left outside the common good.” “Come after me, and I will make you hearts of compassion, voices of justice, and hands of solidarity.”

“Human activity aimed at enhancing and transforming the universe can and must unleash the perfections which find their origin and model in the uncreated Word… In this way – that is, bringing to light in ever-greater measure ‘the unsearchable riches of Christ’, in creation, human work becomes a service raised to the grandeur of God.” (The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church #262)

Work represents a fundamental dimension of human existence as participation not only in the act of creation but also in that of redemption. Those who put up with the difficult rigors of work in union with Jesus cooperate, in a certain sense, with the Son of God in his work of redemption and show that they are disciples of Christ bearing his cross, every day, in the activity they are called to do.” (Compendium #263)

Catholic Social Teaching on Workers’ Rights

The beginning of modern Catholic Social Teaching is generally recognized as having its origin in the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum issued by Pope Leo XIII “On the Conditions of Labor”, as he sought to deal with the social issues of his day around labor. “This encyclical enumerated a number of rights: to work, to receive a just wage to support one’s family, to organize into workers’ associations, and to own private property. Pope Leo XIII set forth the role of the Church in speaking out on social matters, educating for justice, and defining the role of public authority and law in society. He argued that the three key factors underlying economic life in society are workers, productive property, and the state. A key concept is human dignity.” (Education for Justice)

“Every perspective on economic life that is human, moral, and Christian must be shaped by three questions: What does the economy do for people? What does it do to people? And how do people participate in it?” (US Bishops’ 1986 pastoral letter Economic Justice for All, #1) “The basis for all that the Church believes about the moral dimensions of economic life is its vision of the transcendent worth – the sacredness – of human beings. The dignity of the human person, realized in community with others, is the criterion against which all aspects of economic life must be measured. All human beings, therefore, are ends to be served by the institutions that make up the economy, not means to be exploited for more narrowly defined goals. Human personhood must be respected with a reverence that is religious. When we deal with each other, we should do so with the sense of awe that arises in the presence of something holy and sacred. For that is what human beings are: we are created in the image of God.” (Economic Justice for All, #28)

“What remains distinct about Catholic Social Teaching … is that the Church teaches that its principles are understandable by all persons of good will, regardless of their faith orientation. Thus, these teachings provide an articulation of those values that the Church shares with all persons and serve as a basis for our working with others for the common good.” (Education for Justice)

“The economy must serve people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected–the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative.” (US Catholic Bishops’ website)

The US Catholic Bishops offer us an Examination of Conscience in Light of Catholic Social Teaching: As a worker, do I give my employer a fair day’s work for my wages? As an owner, do I treat workers fairly? Do I treat all workers with whom I interact with respect, no matter their position or class? Do I support the rights of all workers to adequate wages, health insurance, vacation and sick leave? Do I affirm their right to form or join unions or worker associations? Do my purchasing choices take into account the hands involved in the production of what I buy? When possible, do I buy products produced by workers whose rights and dignity were respected? (More to follow…)

How Can We Respond?

On Labor Day weekend 2012, our US Bishops suggested that renewed respect for workers is the key to a renewed economy. People of faith stand with people who’ve been left behind and should seek economic renewal that makes workers and their families a central concern, according to the annual Labor Day Statement from the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development of the USCCB. “Millions of Americans suffer from unemployment, underemployment or are living in poverty as their basic needs too often go unmet. This represents a serious economic and moral failure for our nation,” wrote the committee’s chairman, Bishop Stephen E. Blaire. “This Labor Day, millions of working people and their families have urgent and compelling needs,” Bishop Blaire concluded. “I ask you to join me in a special prayer for them and all workers, especially those without a job struggling to live in dignity. May God guide our nation in creating a more just economy that truly honors the dignity of work and the rights of workers.” Find the full statement at

What can you do when you are a worker who is working for a low wage or in difficult working conditions, and you are struggling to support a family, and you are not represented by a union? Often such a worker will cry out to the Church, knowing the Church teaches that all people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages and benefits, to decent working conditions as well as to organize and join unions or other associations (1996 A Catholic Framework for Economic Life).

What can we do is support of the worker in this situation? We can listen to their complaint with respect, and assure them of our concern and our prayers. We can encourage employers to improve wages or working conditions, and lobby legislators on their behalf. Some thoughts from Clergy and Laity United for Economic justice: We believe the faith community can provide necessary spiritual and moral leadership and impart vision and courage in movements that bring broad social change to recognize the dignity and worth of all people … In California, the high cost of housing, childcare, health care and other basic needs requires a different criteria for determining poverty. Lower-income working adults and families face tough times making due in Orange County where costs for just a modest lifestyle are twice the state minimum wage – and in some cases more than four times …”

“Public assistance is increasingly becoming an ongoing wage supplement for low-wage workers, rather than emergency assistance for those who are unable to work. This impacts more than just the families who are directly involved; taxpayers, a wide range of government services, the basic social and economic infrastructure of entire neighborhoods and ultimately the California economy are all affected by an impoverished work force … As communities become aware of the fundamental link between quality jobs and quality of life, they realize that they have a vital stake in the well-being of low-wage workers and immigrants. The need of low-wage workers to earn a living wage and receive better benefits can easily be supported by a broad array of people as they are rooted in their faith and shared values … Faith leaders and congregations can play a unique and powerful role in these collaborative efforts. They have historically brought a number of vital contributions to social movements. Collectively they form a powerful force that can advance the cause of justice for the poor and for the immigrant ….”

If you would like to watch a short video on this principle or theme, please either (a) click on this link: or (b) go to, click on Beliefs and Teachings in the menu bar to drop down options, then click on What We Believe, then click on Catholic Social Teaching in the left column. When the lead video pops up, click on the upper left Playlist icon, and choose the CST 101 theme you are looking for (Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers).