Human Work is part of the original state of man. God, the omnipotent Creator fashioned man in his image and invited him to a dominion over other living creatures and to care for the earth. To man, God entrusted the task of subduing the earth and exercising dominion over every living creature. This dominion exercised by man over the earth and other living creatures, however, is not to be despotic or reckless; on the contrary he is to cultivate and care for the goods created by God which he is a receiver. These goods were not created by man, but have been received by him as a gift that the Creator has placed under his responsibility.
Cultivating the earth means not abandoning it to itself; exercising dominion over it means taking care of it, as a wise king cares for his people and a shepherd to his sheep. Work is not an idol nor a punishment or curse. It becomes toil and pain because of the sin of Adam and Eve, who broke their relationship of trust and harmony with God. The prohibition to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil reminds man that he has received everything as a gift and that he continues to be a creature and not the creator. It was precisely this temptation that prompted the sin of Adam and Eve. They wanted absolute dominion over all things, without having to submit to the will of the Creator. Work occupies a place of honour because it is the source of riches or at least of the conditions of a simple and decent life and is, in principle, an effective instrument to eradicate poverty and better humanity.
However, one must not succumb to the temptation of making an idol of work, for the ultimate and definitive meaning of life is not to be found in work. Work is essential, but it is God and not work who is the origin of life and final goal of man. The awareness that ‘the form of this world is passing away’ (1 Cor. 7:31) is not an exoneration from being involved in the world, and even less from work which is an integral part of the human condition, although not the only purpose of life. Thus, all are charged to undertake their work in style of Christ and make it an occasion for Christian witnessing and commanding the respect of outsiders. By human work, man shares in the divine art and wisdom. As such, he makes creation, the cosmos already ordered by the Father, more beautiful.
He summons the social and community energies that increase the common good, above all to the benefit of those who are neediest. Work to this, is not to be considered as an “opus servile” but always as an “opus humanum”. Human work proceeds from the person. As such, it not only proceeds from the person, but it is essentially ordered to and has its final goal in the human person. This procession gives room for the objective and subjective sense of Work. It is objective when it is the sum of activities,energies, resources, instruments and technologies used by human person in production and in exercising dominion over other creatures. Hence, it constitutes the contingent aspect of human activity. It is subjective when it is the activity of human person (in his dynamic capabilities) in performing varied actions that are in line with the work-process and in correspondence to his personal vocation.
It is performative in character. ‘Performative’ in the sense that it does not depend on what the human person produces or the type of activity he engages or undertakes but strictly on his dignity as a human person. Thus, the subjectivity of human work gives to it a particular dignity which does not allow that it be considered a simple commodity or an impersonal element of the apparatus for productivity. Work is expressive. It remains an expression of the human person who receives the goods. It is an “actus personae”. Any form of reduction materially or economically that reduces the person (worker) as a mere instrument of production would end up hopelessly disfiguring and distorting the essence of work and stripping it of its most noble and basic human finality.
Thus, the Human person is and remains the measure of the dignity of work. “The subjective dimension of work must take precedence over the objective dimension because it is the dimension of the person himself who engages in work, determining its quality and consummate value. If this awareness is lacking, or if one chooses not to recognize this truth, work loses its truest and most profound meaning. In such cases which are unfortunately all too frequent and widespread work activity and the very technology employed become more important than the person himself and at the same time are transformed into enemies of his dignity”. Thus, independent of its objective content, work must be oriented to the subject who performs it because the end of work is the human person (Work is for man and not man for work). In its subjective sense, work cannot exclude its social sense.
By this, work is naturally connected with that of other people (Work with other and work for others). Hence, the fruits of work offer occasions of exchange, encounter, synergy, relationship and fraternal bond. Work cannot be evaluated in isolation of its social tenet/ character. “For man’s productive effort cannot yield its fruits unless a truly social and organic body exists, unless a social and juridical order watches over the exercise of work, unless the various occupations being interdependent, cooperate with and mutually complete and complement one another”. And what is still more important, unless mind, material things and work combine and form as it were a single whole. On our parts as human being, ‘work is an obligation’.
Man must work. Work in the sense that the Creator has ordered it and in order to respond to man’s need in maintaining and developing his humanity. It is a moral obligation to his neighbour and to the society at large. “We are heirs of the work of generations and at the same time shapers of the future of all who will live after us”. In doing this, we are conformed to our identity as creatures of God (created in God’s image and likeness) and receivers of His goods. Finally, in the turbulence of the time and in our approach to work, we are reminded not to idolize work but live and act as receivers of goods while upholding our dignity as human persons.
• Fr. Emmanuel Onunkwo is of the Catholic Archdiocese of Onitsha, Nigeria