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What the Catholic Church teaches about purpose for work

Every person and job — whether menial or massive — has dignity and worth

Published: May 2, 2024   
Father Taryn Whittington, associate pastor of St. Joseph Church in Conway and an instructor at the House of Formation in Little Rock, reads about the purpose of work from the Catechism of the Catholic Church in his office at the Spiritan Center in Conway April 11. (Aprille Hanson Spivey)

CONWAY  — When God created Adam in the garden of Eden, he had a job for him — “The Lord God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it” (Genesis 2:15). 

From the start, humanity, made in the image of the creator of the universe, was made for work. When work is done correctly, it is intertwined with our core purpose in life — to glorify God as his beloved sons and daughters. 

However, the concept of work has changed drastically since Adam cared for paradise on Earth. Today, there are several pitfalls in how society and individuals view work. Sometimes, it becomes a person’s identity, consuming their life. Or, someone might ignore the idea that every task, whether collecting trash, entering data, sitting in a daylong meeting or saving a life, has dignity because of the person doing it. 

“We are coworkers in God’s creation,” said Father Taryn Whittington, an associate pastor at St. Joseph Church in Conway, St. Boniface Church in Bigelow (New Dixie) and St. Oscar Romero Church in Greenbrier and an instructor at the House of Formation in Little Rock. “There was a carpentry theme from the beginning — God crafted the world, so it’s not at all surprising the Son of God was in the home of a carpenter, a creator in that way. Whether we are making things with our hands, doctors, writers, the creative efforts we put out there imitate God the way we interpret our Father. … What we do can be to sanctify the part of the world we’re working in and, in turn, sanctify us. The work we do can lead us to God.” 

In celebrating the feast of St. Joseph the Worker May 1, lay Catholics can reflect on the divine purpose for work and the dangers of idolizing work.


What is purpose of work? 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has several references to work and its purpose, including: 

  • “Work honors the creator’s gifts and the talents received from him.” (partial, catechism, 2427) 
  • “In work, the person exercises and fulfills in part the potential inscribed in his nature.” (partial, catechism, 2428)
  • “Everyone should make legitimate use of his talents to contribute to the abundance that will benefit all and to harvest the just fruits of his labor.” (partial, catechism, 2429)

Spiritual gifts can build up God’s kingdom, even in a secular job. Father Whittington said, for example, if a customer service worker treats others with respect, it can easily brighten someone’s day. Sharing God’s love in that way impacts the world.

“I knew a surgeon who was at Christ the King (Church in Little Rock). When he was performing surgeries he said he’d always ask the patient before the surgery, ‘Can I pray with you?’ No one ever said no. Who knows where they were at in their faith life,” Father Whittington said. 

But it doesn’t always have to be that overt. “Sometimes, it could be with you and your coworkers — you’re a person everyone knows they can count on; you’re good to them. They might think, ‘What is it about this person that makes them different?’ … Maybe you pray before you eat or wear religious items. (Faith can) influence how you do a job.” 

It can be easy for people to find meaning in a job they love. However, if a person works at a job they hate to support their family, that too is sacred, prioritizing their vocation to family. Father Whittington added there is also no shame in choosing a job with a higher paycheck.

“There’s nothing wrong with being well-compensated with a hard job. It’s a matter of, 'What do I do with that?’ ‘Am I a good steward of the money I’m making?’ ‘Using it for the good of the family and the world around me?'” Father Whittington said. “When you have a chance to make a good living and have the skills and passion for it, it’s not just OK to do it, but it’s probably God’s calling you to that, and you should do it.” 

Father Mike Schmitz, a well-known speaker, author and podcaster, explained the concept in a 2017 Ascension Press video, “Straightforward Career and Job Advice,” detailing how God made humans for labor, leisure and love. Work has dignity because of the person who does it. 

“One of the purposes of work is to get you paid, so you can go on living because the goal of life is not work; the goal of life is living,” Father Schmitz said. “The goal of life is not just to do the job and give me identity; that's the other trap, remember. The goal of life is to be able to say, ‘How do I live with my labor, but also in leisure and also live in love with others and with the Lord?’ And if your job pays you so that you can live, that's the meaning. That could be, very, very simply, the meaning of your work.” 

Jeff Hines, diocesan director of the Office of Faith Formation, said it is a “mistake to see our work life separate from our life with God.” Even though it can be human nature to separate our experiences — work, faith, family, friends — into boxes, God wants to be intimately involved in every facet of our lives. 

“The Church likes to use the words ‘integral human development’ to describe the fact that our life with God is integrated into our work life and vice versa. Jesus wants to be an electrician. He wants to be a nurse. He wants to be a journalist. He wants to be whatever you choose to be,” Hines said. 


Spiritual dangers of work 

Societal pressures can push someone to make their job an idol. In the catechism, it states, “Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God” (catechism, 2113). 

“If you say to yourself, ‘My life is going to be meaningless if I don’t have this job,’ that’s a good example of making work an idol. One day, you’re going to retire. Some people retire and don’t know what to do with themselves because that was everything,” Father Whittington said. “Or, they’re laid off if their industry goes under, and if you’ve made that everything, it’s the thing in and of itself that gives you meaning, it can lead to desolation. It’s not serving God, family and neighbor.” 

Father Whittington said the parable of the prodigal son is an example of self-worth. Both sons “viewed their value to their father in transactional terms,” with one son staying loyal to work on the farm and the other treating him more as an “ATM,” he explained. 

“The father did want them working on the farm but valued them primarily as his children. … We are received that way, as God’s children,” Father Whittington said. “And once we understand our value doesn't lie in our successful careers, that cannot be taken away from us.” 

God also calls us to do a good job, pursue excellence and be ethical in our work, according to a 2021 Ascension Press article. The catechism states that “work poorly done” is considered “morally illicit,” just as is “paying unjust wages” (catechism, 2409). 

Above all, Father Whittington said having a fruitful career can be a blessing if viewed with the proper perspective. 

“Having a good and fulfilling career is a wonderful thing for both men and women. As great as it can be, we have to realize our worth is never dependent on that. It’s going into a job you love and realizing that one day you won't have that, that my sense of worth would survive losing this job,” he said. 

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