It was in post-World War II Poland that a positive turn occurred in the theology of work.
For centuries Catholicism, with some important exceptions, gave pride of place to worldly abandonment, including a degree of disdain for normal work. In the prevailing Catholic understanding a saint-worthy spirituality meant intense contemplation which required a retreat from ordinary workaday obligations. This attitude was derived in part from Hellenistic and Gnostic influences. It was also partially a byproduct of too close an association between the church’s princes and royalty.
Poland was in ruins following World War II—industries destroyed, cities demolished. During six years of war, over six million people died. Poland, with a long history of aristocracy, was now receptive to a Marxist ideology of work. In this context Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski (1901-1981) wrote a remarkable retreat manual, Duch Pracy Ludzkiej (The Spirit of People’s Work). This relatively unknown book was translated into English in 1960 and published in Dublin, simply titled Work. In 1995 a New Hampshire publisher released it as All You Who Labor and also as Working Your Way into Heaven. This year it appears again in the United States by way of EWTN Publishing in Alabama, titled Sanctify Your Daily Life.
In recent months several U.S. Catholic bishops have launched a program or campaign to revitalize the church in their area. These efforts focus on under-utilized buildings, a relative shortage of clergy, low participation of young adults in liturgy and insufficient funds to maintain important ministries, especially Catholic grammar schools. Wyszynski approaches the revitalization project differently. Instead of starting with the church’s own internal difficulties, he mulls over the rebuilding society by way of a Christian vision of work. (As an aside: The U.S. publishers of Wyszynski’s book reflect our country’s individualistic self-help culture with titles and subtitles like Your Way and Your Life. The book’s original thrust is more about improving society or perhaps the synergy between social renewal and virtuous Christians.)
To develop his theme Wyszynski must first heave aside a common but mistaken reading of Genesis that says work is a punishment for original sin. “Even before the fall,” he writes, “people had to work, for they had to dress paradise. Work is therefore the duty of people from the first day of life. It is not the result of original sin; it is not a punishment for disobedience.”
And then Wyszynski gives brilliant insight into a new theology of work. The perfection of things through work perfects the person doing the work, he details. Embedded in the very process of work itself is a prior plan. Workers can find a set of virtues in the work process, varying with the type of work. Thus good work requires that we follow and respect work’s own strict and binding rules. It takes the practice of various virtues to “bring our will into conformity with the laws and techniques of work,” Wyszynski concludes. All work has an interior spiritual aspect.
Wyszynski’s book includes meditations on several work virtues. Work well-done perfects society and each worker. Good intentions or exquisite management theories do not somehow spiritualize shoddy work, much less exploitation.
In summary: Work serves as a mirror to our true self and to the real character of society. “Without external work, we could not know ourselves fully,” says Wyszynski. In our work “we discover the good and evil in ourselves” and in itself work is a spirituality.
U.S. Catholicism has challenges. Absent a thorough theology of work that relates to real jobs, to actual family life and to neighborhood sidewalks there will be insufficient attraction between Catholicism and young adults. Repositioning parishes and adopting new pastoral language is not enough. A spirituality of work that is accompanied by methods for social improvement has a chance of displacing our culture’s vacuous sloganeering, its impersonal work environments and its mistreatment of so-called economic losers. Is anyone thinking about a U.S. Catholic theology for work? Does anyone have a pastoral program for young workers?
Droel is the editor of Pope John Paul II’s Gospel of Work (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5). It continues this consideration of Poland’s contribution to work theology.