work: what is it good for? Or, have we become too human?

The pope is on vacation. Evidently he is at the papal equivalent of Camp David, or maybe Kennebunkport, the papal digs in the Italian Alps region of Castel Gandolfo. Here’s a picture:


He is apparently enjoying his vacation very much, and good for him. The Catholic World News reported on his remarks last Sunday:

The Pontiff had devoted most of his remarks at the Angelus audience to summer vacations. The break from work, he said, should provide not only “simple amusement and diversion,” but allow for true refreshment “in body and in spirit.”

Vacation time is important as an antidote to “daily wear and tear in the frenetic course of modern life,” the Pope said. He suggested that the time away from work could afford opportunities for visiting friends and relatives, reviving “those human contacts that the pace of our daily lives keeps us from cultivating.” He added that the time would be ideal for visiting the sick and the elderly, helping to break their loneliness.

Free time also provides room for cultural pursuits, the Pope continued. And he strongly encouraged vacationers to spend some time in quiet prayer and contemplation, reading of the Scriptures, and visits to monasteries or shrines.

It reminded me of a recent book that crossed my desk: Patricia Ranft, The Theology of Work: Peter Damian and the Medieval Religious Renewal Movement (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006). In the Introduction, Ranft cites John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens. So I looked it up.

Here is part of what John Paul II had to say about work (incidentally, he also wrote about while on retreat at Castel Gandolfo — it would seem it is a place conducive to reflecting on what to do):

And yet in spite of all this toil — perhaps, in a sense, because of it — work is a good thing for man. Even though it bears the mark of a bonum arduum, in the Terminology of St. Thomas, this does not take away the fact that, as such, it is a good thing for man. It is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy it is also good as being something worthy, that is to say, something that corresponds to man’s dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it. If one wishes to define more clearly the ethical meaning of work, it is this truth that one must particularly keep in mind .Work is a good thing for man — a good thing for his humanity — because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed in a sense becomes “more a human being.” [Paragraph 40]

I agree with Benedict that time away from work to devote to reflection and the cultivation of relationships is a good and needed thing. I guess my question is this: in an ideal world, would vacations still be necessary?

JP2 said that work has wrongly been viewed as “a sort of merchandise that the worker … sells to the employer” and that this “danger of treating work as a special kind of ‘merchandise’ or as an impersonal ‘force’ needed for production … always exists, especially when the whole way of looking at the question of economics is marked by the premises of materialistic economism.” [Paragraph 29]

Did JP2 think that capitalism is possible without such a degeneration, and if so, would Benedict argue that vacations are still as necessary for the reasons he outlined last Sunday?

Oh, and don’t forget about the Opus Dei — that group within RCC founded by Josemaria Escriva in 1928 that exists to change the “human work of our usual working day into the work of God: something that will last forever.” Aside from all of their mystery and lore, is the Opus Dei on to something? Would Benedict speak differently about needing a vacation from that? By the way, JP2 canonized Escriva in 2002.

Oy, I need a vacation.

So what do you think? In an ideal world where work is a spiritual and not just economic commodity, would vacations be necessary?

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