Msgr. Luigi Civardi
Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, 1961
Published on the World Wide Web with Permission of the Publisher.



Preliminary Notions 

1. Leo XIII, in his Encyclical Rerum Novarum, defined work as "human activity for the purpose of providing for the needs of life and especially for its preservation:"

In the definition are set forth the essential characteristics of work, which is at once personal and necessary. 

It is personal because it is activity of the person, an intelligent and free creature, superior to every other earthly creature. Hence, the dignity of labor cannot even remotely be compared in the productive field to any activity whatever, whether of animals or of mechanical instruments. 

Moreover, work is necessary because it is ordained "to provide for the needs of life. " After the sin of Adam, the earth, cursed by God, produced no more fruits with- out the painful labor of man. In fact, God said to sinful man: "Cursed is the earth in thy work; with labor and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life:" [Gen. 3: 17]. Thenceforth, work became a necessity and a means of life for man. 

2. Unfortunately, the dignity and the necessity of work were misunderstood by man in the course of centuries. Christ also rehabilitated work and workmen. The latter owe everything to the Divine Redeemer; not merely goods of supernatural life, but also of natural life. 

Let us consider this immense benefit by making a comparison between what work was in the pagan world and in the Hebrew world and what it has become in the Christian world, through the redemptive work of Christ, as illustrated by His example. Such a compari- son will reveal to us the greatness of the benefit and our duty to give thanks. 

Work in the Pagan and Hebrew World 

We speak of manual labor as that which requires the exercise of physical energy. In the pagan world, when Christ came upon earth, manual labor was both in theory and practice despised and looked upon as unworthy of a freeman. 


(a) The greatest philosophers-----Plato, Aristotle, Cicero-----although they were able to discover sublime truths by the power of their intellects, held this odious theory concerning manual labor: Plato teaches that workingmen must be deprived of all political rights. Aristotle considers work done by laborers ''as degrading and contrary to virtue." Cicero writes that: "All trades of workingmen are to be considered contemptible, and that there is nothing lofty about the workshop:" 

(b) Such were the views not only of men of science, but also of religion. The historian Suetonius tells us that workingmen were excluded from the forum, along with the slaves, when the high pontiff offered sacrifice in Rome. 


(a) The practice was in keeping with the theory, if not worse. Manual labor, and the mechanical arts in the vast Roman empire at the time of Christ, were practiced almost entirely by slaves, so that manual labor became equivalent to servile labor; i.e., slave labor: Now, slaves were not regarded as men but as beasts, or, worse still, as machines, as chattels. They were subjected to the most exhausting labor without any remuneration. Their only compensation was a very coarse and scanty living, just enough to keep up their strength that it might be employed in new and endless toils. 

(b) The slave had no rights before the law. He was the property of his master, who used him as he pleased. He could hire him out, or sell him to anyone, and even put him to death. Indeed, there were many citizens who hired out their slaves just as horses, beasts of burden and vehicles are hired out today. 

History tells us of peeved mistresses who killed their hairdressing slave on the spot with a stiletto for the crime, true or fancied, of not having combed their hair to suit them. History relates a still more gruesome fact, that of slaves put to death and fed to pet fishes. 

(c) The slave was not even permitted to marry or raise a family, or, rather, he could do so only if the humanity or the interests of his master permitted him. However, it was a marriage only in appearance; it was no more than a precarious union, dependent upon the will of the master, who could separate the spouses at his pleasure. 

In fact, it happened that upon the death of the master, or because of other circumstances, the husband and wife were sold to two different buyers so that their separation was brought about by the contract. 

Moreover, the union of two slaves was devoid of all dignity and of all safeguards. The Roman law declared explicitly that between slaves there could be no adultery-----everyone was free to violate their contubernium, namely the tent in which the two slaves lived together. Accordingly, the wife of the slave could be abused by anybody and the husband would have no redress. 

Furthermore, the offspring of slaves belonged to the master, like the fruits of trees and the young of domestic animals. Not infrequently, they were separated from their parents. "Can one who is a slave be a father?" asked Plautus, a contemporary poet. And another writer, Ulpian, relates that masters in order to encourage their slaves to work, would say to them: "Work, work hard and in my will I will direct my son to make a gift of your children to you." 

Jesus Christ and Work 

The rehabilitation of work was such a difficult under- taking that only the God-man could accomplish it. In fact, work was identified, as it were, with slavery, which was one of the main props of society and, therefore, deemed legitimate and necessary by the great philosophers mentioned above. Jesus Christ achieved this great boon for mankind by His doctrine and His example. 


Work, in the Old Testament, among the Jews, was not something dishonorable, but a duty. In Genesis it is said that: "The Lord God took man, and put him in the paradise of pleasure, to dress it and to keep it:" [Gen. 2: 15]. Jesus restored this ancient doctrine to honor, and perfected it. 

Above all, He rehabilitated the workingman, by preaching one Divine Fatherhood, the universal brotherhood of men, and the natural equality of all men. The patrician and the plebeian, the master and the workingman, although occupying different rungs in the social ladder, have to invoke the same Father; who is in Heaven. This doctrine lays the axe to the root of the evil tree of slavery by condemning every substantial difference between men. Expounding the doctrine of the Master, St. Peter exclaims: "God is not a respecter of persons:" [Acts 10: 34]. And St. Paul: "There is neither bond nor free:" [ Gal. 3: 28]. 


But the stupendous example of Christ proved to be even more efficacious than His teaching. 

(a) The Son of God became "the carpenter's son" [Matt. 13: 55]. Furthermore, He, Himself became a carpenter, a fellow-worker of His foster father. The Evangelist Mark, tells us that when He preached for the first time in Nazareth, His native town, His fellow-citizens who had always seen Him at work in His shop: "And when the sabbath was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were in admiration at his doctrine, saying: How came this man by all these things? and what wisdom is this that is given to him, and such mighty works as are wrought by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary . . . And they were scandalized in regard of him:" [Mk. 6: 2-3]. 

As has already been stated, some marvel that the Redeemer should have spent thirty years at the shop in Nazareth, because they believe that He could have employed those years to better advantage. They forget a great truth: In the shop of Nazareth began the greatest and most beneficial social revolution that the world has ever known: The rehabilitation of work. Such an undertaking, which wrenched one of the hinges off pagan society-----slavery-----was altogether too difficult to be accomplished by the preaching of a doctrine, no matter how sublime and authoritative. It needed the shock of a lofty example: that of the Man-God. 

After Christ handled the axe and the saw, no workingman can ever again be the object of contempt. On the contrary, he will become the object of special consideration, for henceforth every workingman will be able to call Christ by the intimate name of  fellow-worker: By his very trade, he will have a trait in common with the King of Heaven and earth. 

(b) Jesus, after leaving the shop at Nazareth, started His public mission and immediately selected His fellow-workers, the Apostles. Whence did He pick them? Nearly all of them were from the ranks of workers. The first four of them-----Peter, Andrew, James and John-----were fishermen. We have here another condemnation of the current opinion that work was dishonorable. 

The Evangelist Matthew thus describes for us the call of the two most prominent disciples: "And Jesus walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon, who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea [for they were fishers]. And he saith to them, 'Come ye after me, and I will make you to be fishers of men: And they immediately leaving their nets, followed him:' [Matt. 4: 18-20]. 

The Church and Work 

Throughout the Christian centuries, the teachings and example of Christ brought about a profound and universal renewal of society. We will here mention very briefly what the Church has done for the rehabilitation of work and of workingmen, deferring the rest for the chapter on "Christianity and Social Justice:"

1. In a society full of idlers, the Church taught from the outset that work is a duty. St. Paul, in his letter to the Christians of Thessalonica, wrote these significant words: "If any man will not work, neither let him eat." [2 Thess. 3: 10]. One must not, however, exaggerate the meaning of these words. The Apostle of the Gentiles does not mean to speak solely of manual labor, but of any work, moral or intellectual, of any occupation whatever that may in any way be truly useful to humanity. 

The commandment to work had already been given to the first man by God Himself, when He said: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread:" [Gen. 3:19]. And through Adam, God was speaking to all men. 

2. The Church taught that work is not only a duty but an honor: She always championed the dignity of manual labor: She constantly recalled, in a special way, the example of Christ and of the Apostles, and in that way she contributed to the abolition of slavery, which is one of her most notable social achievements. The great Bishop of Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom, in a century when slavery still held sway, gave this advice to Christians: "When you see a man splitting wood or another enveloped in smoke, forging iron with a hammer, do not look down on him. Peter, with girded loins, drew the net, and worked as a fisherman after the Resurrection of the Lord. Paul, after traveling over so many lands and performing so many miracles, was sitting in his shop making tents while the angels were revering him and the demons trembling before him:"

Under the inspiration of these striking examples, several Christians who belonged to the nobility became workingmen. The example of Crispin and Crispinian in the third century is well known. They belonged to a noble Roman family and had been brought up in idleness and luxury. After becoming Christians, they left Rome for France to preach Christianity. They settled in the city of Soissons, where they worked as shoemakers. 

3. The Church has always taught that work is not only a means of support, but also of expiation and of sanctification. It is a means of life, both material and spiritual. Indeed, what is sanctity after all but the imitation of Christ, and how does Christ present Himself to us but in the garb of the workingman? 

This is why St. Benedict, the father of monasticism in the West, lays down the monk's program in these words: Ora et labora [prayer and work]. The monk must sanctify himself by these two means: prayer and work-----work transformed into prayer. 

Work can and should be a means of sanctification, even outside the walls of monasteries, for all workingmen. For no matter what the work may be, when it is done with God and for God-----that is, in the grace of God and for the love of God-----it always assumes the dignity of a rite and yields one kind of bread for this world and another for the next. The sweat of one's brow becomes sacred. The workshop is converted into a cloister. 

4. In modern times the Church, through the voice of the Supreme Pontiffs, has more than once protested against the abuses of capitalism, which exploited labor by considering it as merchandise, to the detriment of the dignity of the workingman. Leo XIII, in his Encyclical Rerum Novarum, writes: "Religion teaches the owner and the employer that their working people are not to be accounted their bondsmen; that in every man they must respect his dignity and worth as a man and as a Christian; that labor is not a thing to be ashamed of, if we lend ear to right reason and to Christian philosophy, but is an honorable calling, enabling man to sustain his life in a way upright and creditable; and that it is shameful and inhuman to treat men like chattel to make money by, or to look upon them merely as so much muscle or physical energy:"

Following this up, Pius XI in the Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno deplored that employers treated "their employees like machines with no concern for their souls, indeed without giving a thought to their higher interests:"

Pius XII in a discourse to the members of the Italian Christian Workers on May 14, 1953, recommended "the care of constant and practical human relations between employers and employees, between heads of departments and workers in industry" and warned them to consider "the workingman for what he really is: Christ's brother and co-heir of Heaven." Now how can a follower of Christ mistreat a brother of Christ? 

Against the abuses of the capitalistic system, the Pontiffs likewise vindicated the right to work. In fact, as Leo XIII writes: "The preservation of life is the bounden duty of one and all, and to fail therein is a crime. It follows that each one has a right to procure what is required in order to live" [Enc. Rerum Novarum], and Pius XII in his broadcast commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum states: "To the personal duty of work imposed by nature, there follows the corresponding right of each individual to make the means of providing for his own livelihood as well as for that of his family:"

Work, therefore, is something sacred, like life, for which it provides the means. 

A practical and logical consequence of all this is the gratitude of the workingman to Christ and to His Church. The workingman has been doubly redeemed by Christ; for the future life and for the present life. If Christ had not come on earth, the workingman in all probability would today still find himself in the abject condition of pagan times. 

Labor, therefore, can retain the conquests made in the Christian world and make new ones-----as we trust-----only if society will walk in the light of the teachings and example of Christ. Otherwise, labor is destined to sink once again into the abyss from which it has been lifted up. 


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