Human Work Has a Transcendent Value

God and My Work: A series on the role of the laity in the Church. Part 6.
by Father Luis Garza, LC | Source: Catholic.net

Before offering some ideas to introduce religion into work, it seems necessary to clarify some points on the value of work. The problem can be posed as follows: if work and human activity in general is worth nothing for the Kingdom of God, if it has no supernatural importance, wouldn’t bringing God into work be something extrinsic, like giving a good purpose to something that does not have it in itself? If, on the other hand, it does have supernatural value, do we win graces with our work?  And if so, with what kind of work?  And does this take the place of our Christian commitment to evangelization and a holy life?

But we can also ask about the presence of Christians in the field of work. Is the work of a baptized person the same as the work of a non-baptized person?  In any case, is the duty of being leaven in the world limited to abiding by ethical standards?

This question provoked a very rich discussion in theology after the Second Vatican Council. There had been a lot of research and writing on what was called the “theology of hope.” Many Protestant authors like Moltmann and Ernest Bloch wanted to explain what hope meant for our lives. Protestants generally begin their investigations with assumptions taken from Kant. Thus, they make a distinction between what is empirical and knowable from what is non-empirical and, in their minds, unknowable. God's promise as realized in the resurrection of Christ is non-empirical in the sense in which a material event or fact of this world is empirical. Therefore, they say, the resurrection can only serve as an example to guide us, not as a reality with a true impact on our life. Man, they conclude, assumes that his personal story will not end in failure, but he has no secure certainty about it, and this truth does not have any kind of substantial impact on his life.

In the end, for these authors, the fact of salvation in Christ does not really touch their lives, and does not redeem history. Man’s fulfillment is in a purely human progress; it is in his personal history, so that’s where he should work to achieve his goals and desires. This is completely mistaken, because what happens is that without Christ, there is nothing worthwhile in history, nothing that defines it to the depths, and what man builds can have no possible transcendence. This is, in a certain way, the Marxist trap of offering man the mirage of a false fulfillment in human history and in progress.

Some Catholic authors reflected on this “theology of hope” and wrote many books and articles at the beginning of the 1970s on the “theology of progress.” These works offered one of the bases for the “theology of liberation.” Many of these theologians were able to overcome the trap of Marxism (I am thinking of Fr Juan Alfaro, whose courses at the Gregorian University I admired). Others, sadly enough, were not.

The objective was to try to find the value of human work. What is progress?  Is it something fatal that leads man to abandon his eternal destiny?  Must developed societies necessarily be distant from God?

In “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the Grand Inquisitor explains that the tempter of Christ makes him see that freedom, free thought and science, have cast humanity into darkness, and that it would have been better if Christ had accepted what the devil proposed. That way, humanity would have followed him without questioning anything, and would not have entered blindly on the path of progress. In the Grand Inquisitor’s opinion, it was a great error to give men the chance to make progress by themselves.

This is directly opposed to Revelation. When Yahweh ordered man to rule the world, it was never assumed that the world was a reality outside of his creative and salvific action. If it were, all of man’s progress and action would only be limited to having a good time here on earth and getting through the time between conception and death with as little suffering as possible. In truth, the Church would not have much to say about the things that are most important in the lives of men.

Now I want to explain why this is not the case. The human person is conceived in the world, and he lives out his personal story in the world. In fact, the world reaches its highest purpose in man.

It is man who gives meaning to the creation of all of the beings, as Psalm 8 says so well:

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have ordained;
What is man, that you are mindful of him? and the son of man, that you care for him?
For you have made him a little lower than the angels, and have crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet.

Although we can hypothetically think of man outside of the world because he was made for his own sake, this is only a hypothesis. In reality, man cannot live without the world, since it is the place where he is fulfilled as a man. In fact, it is in the world that his corporal being acquires meaning. It is also in relation to the world that he acquires self-knowledge and discovers his radical dignity and understands that he is essentially different from both inanimate and other animate beings.

But we also know by Revelation that the mystery of Christ (incarnation, death, and resurrection), gave value to all creation and re-established the harmony it had before original sin in its relation to its Creator to the point that awaits the final moment of all things being restored in Christ (cf. Gaudium et Spes, n. 45). But this mystery of Christ also has another meaning that we cannot forget. Christ’s death tells us that in order for creation to be redeemed, there must be a rupture, a radical separation, so that with the resurrection, it will be restored under a new form. The coming of Christ has given meaning to man’s history because it projects it toward eternity. Through him, we know that there is redemption, and that at the end of it all, we can look forward to a life with him.

Vatican II, in n. 48 of Lumen Gentium, summarizes all these ideas in one of those immortal paragraphs: “The Church, to which we are all called in Christ Jesus, and in which we acquire sanctity through the grace of God, will attain its full perfection only in the glory of heaven, when there will come the time of the restoration of all things (cf. Acts 3:21). At that time the human race as well as the entire world, which is intimately related to man and attains to its end through him, will be perfectly reestablished in Christ (cf. Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:20; 2 Pet. 3:10-13).”

Hope is a reality, not just an example, as those Protestant authors thought. And we do not go through life without knowing where it is leading us, but we know the end because Christ already entered into that end, in a moment in history. For this reason, our efforts in life have meaning and they have meaning in a particular way because we no longer have a history that is self-sufficient or detached from creation and other human beings. Our work and everything we do should be under the sign of charity, since this is the way that Christ taught us to relate to our brothers and to everything around us. In this way we can truly build the civilization of justice and Christian love, which Pope Paul VI insisted on so much.

We can conclude that the progress of man, and therefore, human work, has transcendent value. However, we should not confuse progress with the Kingdom of Christ. The Kingdom of Christ is built with grace, and God is the one who builds it through human beings. However, human progress is not outside of the action of grace if Christian charity animates it and gives it form. The world, then, is not a juxtaposed reality that is somehow extrinsic or outside of the action of God. Rather, it is the field where man can exercise his Christian mission of being leaven in the dough.



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