These days, socialism of one sort or another seems to be on the menu again, and it presents itself as the friend of the worker. Many executives and operatives of labor unions seem eager to agree, lending their political support to candidates who promise to re-order society to benefit the worker. As we mark that holiday weekend that is the US version of what in Europe and elsewhere happens on “May Day,” the first of that month, it is good to reflect on what Christ reveals to us about human labor.
Pope Saint John Paul II spent almost forty years of his life living under various forms of socialism in his native Poland – first National Socialism from 1939 -45 under the German Nazi occupation, then Soviet socialism under Russian occupation and their puppet regime until his election to the See of Peter in 1978. In 1981, eight years before the latter’s collapse, he issued his encyclical Laborem Exercens on the meaning of human labor.
The Church finds in the very first pages of the book of Genesis the source of her conviction that work is a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth. An analysis of these texts makes us aware that they express ... the fundamental truths about man, in the context of the mystery of creation itself. These truths are decisive for man from the very beginning, and at the same time they trace out the main lines of his earthly existence, both in the state of original justice and also after the breaking, caused by sin, of the Creators original covenant with creation in man. When man, who had been created in the image of God ...male and female, hears the words: Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, even though these words do not refer directly and explicitly to work, beyond any doubt they indirectly indicate it as an activity for man to carry out in the world. Indeed, they show its very deepest essence. Man is the image of God partly through the mandate received from his Creator to subdue, to dominate, the earth. In carrying out this mandate, man, every human being, reflects the very action of the Creator of the universe. (no. 4)
John Paul II never was exactly easy to read. I remember struggling with his encyclicals as they came out; so rich their thought, so complex their philosophical grounding. But did you catch that? Human labor is the activity in which man reveals his identity in the image and likeness of God, the creator.
One of my favorite things about being pastor is getting to know the various workers – craftsmen, contractors, and artisans – who do the work to maintain the fabric of our parish; for example, the HVAC contractors who installed and maintain the heating and cooling equipment in our rectory and church. I love what they do for us, and I love getting to know them who do it. I guess Pope Saint John Paul II would remind me that it is because in their work they reflect all they have in common with our Divine Creator. I would acknowledge that it is much easier to see the resemblance in them than it is in, say, bureaucrats – even church bureaucrats!
Unfortunately, socialism, in or out of fashion, reduces labor and therefore the human laborer to a merely material reality. This overlooks fully half of human identity, the spiritual reality, and results inevitably in the devaluation of human labor and the destruction of human dignity. History reveals socialism’s “perfect” 100% record on this front, whenever, wherever, and by whomever it has been implemented. Workers can recognize that is a false friend, indeed.
So, as we celebrate Labor Day by refraining from labor, let us thank God for revealing our likeness to Him in our work, but also most perfectly in His Son; and make that the measure of anyone who claims to be our friend.