The Dignity of Work and Original Sin

It doesn’t matter what economic system a country uses, the “haves” inevitably accrue power to the disadvantage of the “have-nots.” 

Communist utopianism promised a world where this did not happen. But the actual outcome is that communism, by its very nature, vests so much power in government that the abuse of the people it governs is built into it.

The utopian fantasy of unregulated capitalism is that everyone will have an equal chance to build a heaven of his or her own. What happens in actual practice is that those who get there first accrue so much power for themselves that they can and do pervert government to their ends, destroying their competitors and shutting down opportunity for everyone but themselves.

Democracy’s utopian fantasy is that the people will be able to prevent either of these abuses by their use of their power to replace those who govern through elections. In reality, those who “have” can afford to pay for the vast expenses of modern-day campaigning, thus putting their puppets in office and subverting the power of the people.

The reasons for these failures don’t lie in the economic systems or forms of government themselves so much as in their naive assumptions about human nature. You cannot build a just society without taking into consideration the fallen nature of human beings.

I don’t know of any theory of human interaction that even begins to explain the data of thousands of years of human society except the theory of original sin. It fits our human reality like the proverbial glove.

Pope Francis preached on the dignity of work a few days ago. The occasion was the Feast of St Joseph the Worker. Work is an essential component to a fulfilled and happy life. Work is the way we master the world and advance our civilization. It gives shape to our days and provides us with the goods that are necessary for our survival in this life.

Jesus worked. He was God in human flesh, but He did not disdain to work at the humble craft of carpenter. That imbues work with a dignity that lifts it above the curse of Eden. Work that is shaped by our humanity and that serves our inborn need to create and grow civilization, does far more than sustain our bodily needs. It is the mechanism by which we shape a better us, and a better world.

However work that is placed on people like a yoke on an ox is an assault to their dignity as people made in the image and likeness of the living God. Likewise, avoidance of work to live off others, whether that means idling away the years on the largesse of parents, or living on the government dole — and I include many corporations in this as well as individuals — is also an assault on human dignity that wastes human potential.

Pope Francis spoke about a recent tragedy in which many people were killed because of an employer’s disregard for their safety. Profits, he said, can never be more important than human beings.

That is the Christian viewpoint. It is also one of those points where many stalwart supporters of Church teachings back up and start arguing.

There are fault lines along which contemporary Christians try to bargain with God and get out of obeying what the Gospels make clear they should do. Almost always, these fault lines occur at points where the Church teaches about the dignity of human beings.

Whether the question is gay marriage or abortion; profits that kill or pornography, that answer from those who want to do these things is always the same. I am right and God is wrong; I will do as I want, they proclaim. Many times, the people who are so arrogantly trying to teach morality to God are the same ones who wear out their index fingers pointing out other people’s sins.

Self righteousness is not righteousness.

Every single one of us, me included, needs to be reminded of that on a daily basis.

From the Vatican:

Pope Francis: We are Living an Ecumenism of Blood
I'm Going to Michigan to Speak for the Babies
Fr Longenecker's 12 Reasons Not to Debate Internet Atheists, Plus 6 of Mine
Saints Who Were Martyred While Celebrating Mass
  • Bill S

    I agree with everything said except for the concept of original sin and our fallen human nature. It is inconsistent with the theory of evolution. If all life evolved from lower forms and man evolved from apes, then there was never a time when humans were more noble and then experienced some sort of fall from grace. We were never any better than we are now.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Evolution is only a tool Bill. It does not explain much of anything, really. When people try to stretch it to its illogical conclusions by making it a universal unifying theory of all human behavior, they arrive at a very ugly, narrow and destructive philosophy. What you are describing is nihilism. Have you ever read Neitzche? The so-called new atheists are just his weak copy cats. Unlike him, they do not have the courage to take their convictions all the way down the road to their dead, dead end. They try to sugar-coat the big zero, which, of course, is a practical impossibility. There is a reason for this, I suppose. Neitzche’s nihilism and his honesty about it, took him to the dead end and left him there.

      You need to get wiser Bill, before you destroy yourself.

      • Barbara

        Dude, how can you not believe in original sin? It is the one Catholic doctrine for which there is a prodigious amount of evidence. Look at the human race!. Humans are the only species whose natural appetites are completely out of joint. Animals kill rivals or sometimes mates, humans commit genocide. Animals eat until they are satiated. Humans eat themselves up to 500 pounds. Animals sometimes eat or kill weak offspring. Humans kill their offspring because they don’t want to look like a Wal-Mart mother buying big jars of mayonnaise.

        I honestly think, Bill, the reason you don’t believe is because you don’t want to believe, because believing is hard, because you have inherited a moral framework from secular culture which is so deeply ingrained it would be like having your skin torn off to change it. So you hang about, outside the door without going in, because to go in means to be like and to think like the people your moral framework tells you are evil. Your moral framework hangs this on such a miniscule amount of issues, all related to sex:, gay marriage, abortion, etc. This is what depresses me about this culture we live in. The whole complex fabric of Judeo Christian ethics has been rejected, not because of anything it lacks, but because Baby Boomers don’t want people telling them where to put their wangs.

    • vox borealis

      Of course, a real evolutionary theorist would never talk about man being “better now” than ever before, because evolution theory does *not* hold that species evolve to get better and better. Rather, species evolve (the theory goes) to better fit their current environment. They are neither better nor worse that what came before, merely better suited to the conditions at the moment. And should conditions change again, the species will be forced to adapt or simply die out.

      Now, one often hears armchair evolutionists—and even some old time social Darwinists—throw around such ideas as man being better now than ever before. It represents a misunderstanding of evolutionary theory, an efforts to graft evolution onto one’s own presentist biases. I mean, really, it is awfully self-serving to think that we humans have now achieved some sort of developmental apex, following an unbroken trajectory of improvement, which justifies virtually ignoring and/or scoffing at everything that went before.

    • Theodore Seeber

      Glad to see while I was out at my State KofC convention, several others made the point.

      NOTHING in evolution explains anything at all. It’s a mechanism and an engineering method, nothing more. Atheists who put anything else into it are doing so entirely on faith.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      And on the original sin standpoint: I think that is clearly a parable of a hunter-gatherer society viewing agriculturalists for the first time.

      Especially when you get to Cain and Abel- Cain is still killing Abel today in the Amazon.

  • Bill S

    “Evolution is only a tool Bill. It does not explain much of anything, really.”

    I don’t know how you can say that. If it is true, which I believe it is, it explains everything. It replaces theistic explanations and makes atheism plausible. Religion is also a product of its own evolution. Everything evolves.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      It doesn’t do anything except provide an partial explanation for the mechanism God used when He was creating all of creation. It doesn’t actually explain the ultimate origins of anything, including inert matter, and it certainly does not satisfy as an explanation of all human thought and activity. You either haven’t read the attempts at doing this or you didn’t fully understand just how monstrous their conclusions are and how incompletely they explain anything.

      It’s very important for atheist evangelists to pretend that evolution cancels out belief in God rather than being compatible with it. One of Dr Dawkins’ many passionate denunciations that I’ve read was of Pope John Paul II’s statements that evolution and Christianity are compatible. Every atheist I’ve ever met would much rather discuss the Westboro Baptist Church than Christian thinking of this type. I think the reason for this is that it endangers their shaky world view.

      If you’re hanging your ideas about atheism on evolution, you need to think some more. They don’t track.

      The truth is that God gave us minds that are capable of unraveling how He did things and of comprehending the created universe. But if that was all there was to us, we wouldn’t be much. We also have the capacity to sense the transcendent. We are caught in time, but we are aware of that which is outside time. We are finite, but we know that there is an infinite. This other, spiritual, side of us is also essential to unraveling the universe. It is that which you seek to deny with this over-emphasis on evolution.

      Evolution, like all science is a tool. It changes and develops and is never absolute. But it is simply us, slowly building our understanding of what is already there. We did not create the laws of physics. We did not create evolution. We simply unraveled things about them and strung them together into a coherent answer to certain questions about the natural world.

      God is the creator of those things. He made us different from any other created thing I know of in that He gave us the minds to understand and the souls to sense the true nature, both of the created universe, and the infinite and transcendent that is beyond that.

      Atheists ignore at least half the ability that human beings have, meaning this ability to know the infinite, because it does not fit with their blind belief that there is no god. At the same time, they twist the meaning of their understanding of the natural world in order to buttress that theory.

      That is not science. It’s a kind of oddball religion. Nothing takes more blind faith than believing the “teachings” of the new atheists Bill.

      • pagansister

        I’ve often wondered if God is actually the creator of everything—did He/She also create other life forms on other planets that are so far undiscovered by us, on this puny planet Earth? Are we humans the only “intelligent” (sometimes not so much) life in the entire universe?

    • SteveP

      Now you’re stuck, BillS, explaining to us the evolutionary purpose of telomeres – why would a cell that limits itself be selected?

      • Theodore Seeber

        Funny, I can answer that- but for my purposes, this is one of the reasons I prefer evolutionary engineering to other attempts (which of course, means I’m a theistic evolutionist- engineering, even done with evolution, requires that Divine Engineer).

        The obvious purpose of a telomere is to prevent a non-sapient species from overrunning their environment. In a materialist sense, if there was no death from old age, we’d be living on a planet with a population pushing 300 billion by now.

  • Manny

    I definitely support the sentiment. However I cannot come up with an acutal legal job in today’s world that would classify as “an assault to their human dignity.” Of course I could say porn star or abortionist, but that because I think those “products” should be illegal. May I have an example or two?

    I’ve also seen studies (OK just one that I remember) that showed that over a generation there was quite a dynamic fluctuation of wealth between families in the US. Concentration of power is over hyped. Generational poverty seems to be reserved for those who pass on an “on the dole lifestyle” to their children.

    We need to create jobs because I agree; the worst thing for a human being is to not have one. That is the greatest indignity.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      I think the Holy Father was referring to the factory that collapsed in Bangladesh. I think there are many instances of dehumanizing work, a good number of which support multi-national corporations. Also, I think that the work conditions of many people in this country qualify, particularly among those who are brought into this country illegally. We have quite a bit of human trafficking for labor as well as sex trafficking. I imagine there is more. This is just off the top of my head.

      As for creating more jobs, that would be a lot easier if we hadn’t exported our industrial base. I believe that is the cause of our “jobless recoveries” we keep having. We need to think about how to undo that travesty which has been done to the American people.

      • Manny

        I wasn’t clear in my comment above: I meant I couldn’t come up with such a job in today’s world in this country. Yes, I’m sure there are working conditions in other countries that would qualify. And perhaps some illegals do something that might be inhumane here. Again I don’t know what that might be. I’m sure the news media would love to expose it. So let’s get the media to shed the light of day. I want to know what job in this country is undignified.

        • Rebecca Hamilton

          Actually in this case, the media is in the bag for the abusers.

          • Manny

            The media supports big business over workers and unions? That’s news to me.

            • Rebecca Hamilton

              Here in Oklahoma they certainly do. You will never see a fair presentation of how business exploits immigrants in the press in this state. It’s probably different in New York.

            • Theodore Seeber

              Absolutely- they know who pays their bills (hint, big media don’t work for you- they work for their advertisers).

              • Manny

                I guess that’s news to me. Next time the NY Times, CNN, and the Washington Post puts out another pro-union story I’ll just have to tell them they are not following what everyone thinks they typically put out. It’s only me that notices.

                • Theodore Seeber

                  I’ve never actually seen them put out a truly pro-union story of the form “All workers deserve to be in a union”. Been quite the opposite near as I can tell, on the lines of “if your business is unionized, your costs will keep going up, greedy unions”.

        • Dale

          Manny, perhaps the jobs in the US which might be considered “undignified” would include migrant farm labor or meatpacking plant. The work is dirty, difficult and dangerous in terms of short term and long term health. The pay is low and the employer benefits meager to non-existent. This why such jobs rely heavily upon illegal immigrants.

          There is nothing inherently undignified about any work, whether it be picking strawberries by hand or working in a Bangladeshi clothing factory. However, the working conditions and the compensation to the employees may constitute an assault on human dignity.

          • Manny

            Dirty and difficult do not in my mind constitute undignified. Dangerous would. I don’t know the accident rates for farming and meatpacking. Anything that requires cutting instruments can cause accidents. The pay is low, and yet people risk their lives to cross the border for them. I don’t know how the pay is determined, but all pay ultimately comes from what the consumer is willing to pay for the product. The company that produces the product doesn’t care what it charges, as long as people will pay for it. Produce profit margin is very low as it stands.

        • Theodore Seeber

          Just go to your local McDonald’s and talk to any member of the staff over the age of 40.

          • Manny

            I know a mcdonald’s manager personally. He’s the brother of one of my oldest friends. He’s pretty happy with his job. For his educational level (I’m not even sure he graduated high school, but he at least has a GED) You’re not confusing part time workers, who are mostly school kids, with full timers?

            • Theodore Seeber

              A few of the managers are- but I was thinking about the fact that in my city, you can’t get hired to work at McDonald’s unless you speak spanish so that you can communicate with the kitchen, and of course the older folks that also take those jobs because there is nothing else available and then get scheduled for under 20 hours a week so nobody has to pay their health insurance.

  • Imelda

    This piece reminded me of a lesson from years ago – work ennobles man. Man has to exert effort to make himself a better person – be it in the realm of his economic, physical, or spiritual well-being. It is just sad that there are those who exploit this truth. Bless Pope Francis for highlighting the distinction between work that ennobles and work that enslaves.

  • Bill S

    “The truth is that God gave us minds that are capable of unraveling how He did things and of comprehending the created universe.”

    Believing in and studying this concept of “God” with a capital G does not lead me to the Christian God but to an intelligence that has yet to be figured out and described by science. Turning to the Bible and the Catholic Church to fill the gaps left by science is just a lazy way to reconcile these gaps. It is the “God of the Gaps” approach, which doesn’t work for truly rational people.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      I’m not talking about a “God in the gaps” approach (a phrase Dr Dawkins swiped from Bonhoeffer without giving credit.) I am saying that God — and not evolution, or the “god particle” — is the unifying, universal explanation for everything. I’m putting evolution back in its place. It is a tool in God’s toolbox. Nothing more.

    • Theodore Seeber

      More like a “God of the sub-etha” argument than a “God of the gaps” argument, if you are familiar at all with Pre-Einstienian physics.

  • Bill S

    “God — and not evolution, or the “god particle” — is the unifying, universal explanation for everything.”

    That would mean that all of the “Godless” science that happens all around the world involving millions of participants is totally missing the most essential truth that it’s all about God. He has been elevated from a tribal god who didn’t want his people following any other gods to the end all be all. You could say that our concept of God has itself evolved from simple beginnings to the universal explanation for everything. I can see how that could happen.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      It doesn’t mean that at all. As Spock told McCoy “restrain your leaps of illogic!” What it means is that God is the originator of all that is.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      I just re-read this- Bill, I think you have hit upon something: it wasn’t God who evolved- it was man and our understanding of the infinite.

  • Theodore Seeber

    I know of an economic system that has built in, the basic dignity of anybody to work.


  • pagansister

    Rebecca, what’s happening? :-) Obviously you (or Patheos?) has changed the method of commenting here. What happened to the 31 comments?