A Theology of Work

Work is a sanctifying act whose end is union with the triune God as Creator. It finds greater perfection in salvation history as economies advance.

Work that Sanctifies

An organization of work has but one reason for being: love of God and neighbor. This love begins in the union of its employees with God as Creator through the perfection of their natural creative gifts, and then finds its perfection in the consecration of these gifts to the sanctification of neighbor.

Union with the Triune God

If God's image as Creator is to radiate in a person, then that person's work must be fitted to its nature and purpose as God has composed them. As with every human act, therefore, work must serve its proper end; it must employ means that are suitably fitted to that end; and the means must be virtuously applied to that end.

The proper, final end of human work is love of God as Creator, and in and through this, love of neighbor. This love is a participation in God's will that creation be in the Word to know the Father. This creative love to work beatitude is workmanship, which is the intrinsic perfection of work according to its proper end in the fulfillment of beatitude. Each kind of work fulfills its final beatific end according to its nature. Spiritual work attains beatitude directly; intellectual and material work participate in beatitude indirectly by serving the needs of spiritual labor, each according to its proper nature.

The means by which human work participates in beatitude is cooperation with God's action as Creator. This cooperation has three parts that bear the direct creative image of God and a fourth that restores this image from the corruption of sin, as follows:

  • First, a worker must determine the proximate end of the act of work by laboring to systematically define the nature of the need to be fulfilled. By this means work attains the likeness of God the Father, who is the principle of the act.

  • Second, a worker must create the means to fulfill the defined need by laboring to design a process of work that will satisfy it as efficiently as possible. By this means work attains the likeness of God the Son, who is the knowing of the principle or, in corrupted time, of how that principle may come to be realized.

  • Third, a worker must labor to obtain the knowledge and skill required to competently apply the creative process to the need. By this means work attains the likeness of God the Holy Spirit, who is the acting love by which the knowing attains its principle.

  • Fourth, a worker must labor unceasingly to improve his work in each of its parts. For the labor of continuous improvement is that by which a worker redeems, in the sweat of his face, the curse wrought by sin upon the earth. For because of sin, a worker cannot achieve the workmanship willed by God. He can only labor in an unending approach to this divine workmanship. But the love of a workmanship attainable only in heaven is the very means of human sanctification and the substance of continuous improvement.

This division of the means of work into four parts is not a division into a linear procedure simply. Rather, in imitation of God who works outside of time, these parts are to be understood as concurrently acting parts of a single act of work. All are interlinked dynamically, and all are simultaneously subject to the labor of continuous improvement.

Finally, human work attains virtue by both cardinal and theological means: for the act of work must be conducted both with prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance as with faith, hope and charity. For without the habitual perfection of intellect and will to govern action, the means of work cannot be mastered nor therefore can they be applied to cooperate with God in the divine workmanship of his creative love.

The Fulfillment of Modern Management

The best forms of management and production practice in use demonstrate the characteristics of union with the triune Creator. By understanding that the perfection of work management lies in God, an organization gains a competitive advantage in being able to discern the best management practices and employ them rightly.

Work Unfolding in Salvation History

Human work is not simply a burden to be endured, as though a punishment for sin, but rather an essential part of human nature, just as the creative power is an essential part of God's nature. God created the universe out of his infinite love; and so too, if a person is to love in God's image, he must work.

In Paradise, man did not work out of material need, since his every need was provided. Rather, Adam "tilled the ground" in union with the creative Love by which he had being. His work was a pure image of the creative Love by which God loved him.

Indeed, so close is the power of work to the nature of the human person, and thus so close to the image of God which resides in the person, that human work was one of the primary victims of sin. When Adam fell from grace by choosing himself instead of love, he also abandoned his power of work, because in Paradise -- where every material need was fulfilled -- love was the only reason for work. Yet creative love is so close to God's nature, and thus so close to God's will for the human person, that it could not be that man would not work: for then man would not love as he was created to love, and he would thus lose an essential part of his nature. Thus if Adam would not work to love, God forced man to retain the integrity of his nature by cursing the earth, and forcing man to labor out of material necessity. "Cursed is the earth in your work." (Gen 3:17 Vulg) And again: "If anyone will not work, let him not eat." (2 Thess 3:10)

The reunion of work to love rests in Christ, and the fulfillment of this reunion on earth unfolds within salvation history.

Throughout the greater part of human history, economic development left human work at a stage bound very closely to immediate necessity. Families became cold and hungry, and so they hunted and tilled the ground and carried wood and water and cooked. Throughout most of human history, work strayed only slightly from this very primitive tie to immediate material necessity.

In recent human history, however, beginning slowly with the industrial revolution, economic development has raised work from its bond to immediate necessity.

In the advanced economies of our day, we can see a fundamental change in the character of human work. No longer is work bound directly to one's immediate material needs. Rather, the work of most people has no discernible tie to their personal material needs. One builds or services or designs systems and products for which one usually has no personal need whatsoever; someone else, most often somewhere unknown, provides the particular clothing that one wears or the food that one eats.

And thus the act of work in itself -- the labor of building or servicing or designing or whatever it may be -- has been removed from immediate personal material necessity. It is now focused on the service of another, of the customer. In a fundamental sense, therefore, and within the act of work itself, the advanced economy has freed work from the original curse of sin.

Now of course human nature remains bound to sin, and the curse upon the earth remains, in that the pain of economic necessity forces most people to work even though they do not choose to love.

Still, the act of work in itself has been freed from self, in a way that liberates it to be given to neighbor as at no other time in history. This is a new freedom to love that God has patiently worked within salvation history.

This freedom is also a freedom to make work a greater instrument of sin, a pure act of selfish material greed and pride.
What remains to fulfill this new freedom is union with Christ.

Every organization is called to fulfill this new freedom to love in work by sacrificial union with Christ, in order to help sanctify its employees and its customers, and in order to become a model of an enterprise of human work that is perfected by love.