Work Ethic

Thinking tonight about Duffy’s “Stripping of the Altars” and the Henrican Reformation: focusing on the cultural shift away from a Catholic, community village/farmland surrounded and supported by the Church’s feasting and fasting, work day and holy day schedule, to a Protestant, urban, individualistic culture, devoid of fasting or holy days (other than Sunday). The idea that most of the week was some religious holiday or other whereon work was lessened or forbidden so that everyone could hear Holy Mass, say prayers, go to the local saint’s shrine, etc, went away and was replaced by the idea that Church was on Sunday and the rest of the week was for work.

Work required jobs, jobs require concentrations of people, farm-gobbling became the thing and mobs of landless people moved to the already booming cities. This same process continues now, 500 years later, almost entirely unchanged. The biggest change is that divorcing work from the ethical structures crafted by religion has left the Job as the realm of social darwinism. We call this the Protestant Work Ethic: work hard and you will succeed. The Protestant originals would add “and this is a sign of God’s blessing…” but even without God it continues. It’s not the ethics of work, it’s an ethic developed from the idea that work is required – and all else must give way to work.

As the Protestant Ascendancy began to weaken in the 19th and 20th centuries, the gaps were filled in by Catholics and Others, but the culture as molded by the predecessors began and continues to mold the successors. Not one Spiritual but Not Religious, not one None, not one Atheist is uninfected by the original sin of the capitalist west: the Protestant Work Ethic. We all know that we must work until we literally drop. Those of us rare enough to have retirement plans have to realize that we are essentially being made to work twice as hard to pay now for what we will get later: it’s not free money, you know.

Work quotas, once the bane of the factory worker, are now able to be applied to even the office minion and the basil. The job, no longer a function of your person or your vocation, is now an urgent necessity for your rent or food. Yes, this has been so for a while, but it has never been so until recently in all of history. Your local serf’s Lord had an obligation to care for the families, to provide food, to see their children well cared for. This is no longer the case: I’m obligated only to give you a paycheck. We call this Libertarian business, but it is solid Calvinist economics.

Are are made wage slaves, to use the Marxist term, by a culture that has no Catholic religious obligation and no sense of noblesse oblige. If I earn money, it is for me to do with as I wish. I can found a charity for my tax benefits and to export my personal ideology, or I can avoid that and invest wisely and run businesses into the ground as write-offs. Only in England did the wealthier Anglicans have this same sense and they cared for their servants as well as the townsfolk around them. Even this culture began to die off after the World Wars. A culture which no longer taught the religious obligation to care for those beneath one began to rely on the state to do it and, in the end, the folks not taught the religious obligation took over the state as well, and saw no reason for the state to do it either.

It is no wonder that we are surrounded by the wealthiest of cultures that is at once terrified of the poor and unable to care for them.

Now even “good Catholics” believe it is the state’s obligation to care for the poor, but run their apartment buildings or coops as if they were Robber Barons from the Gilded Age. Retiring empty nesters can’t wait until the last child leaves so they can turn the extra bedroom into a garden shed or a guest slot instead of moving a poor person into it. Whilst people like me pride ourselves on living alone, but thus fritter away our income as if it were “my income” and not something God has given me to care for the poor. If this sentence confuses you, pooling income and lowering demands or expectations results in a superfluity of resources that can be shared with others.

Along with this odd, Protestant economy we have adopted the Protestant idea that you’re not the boss of me. Catholics of previous eras knew that God had created a social hierarchy not because those higher up were closer to God, or better, or less sinful, but rather because any sense of trickle down required the idea that some be higher up. Ronald Reagan’s Voodoo Economics failed to work because we have an American Idea that no one is better than anyone else. We have created a society that mirrors the Protestant idea of Church. We may all have different functions, but in the end, we all stand equally before God (or the state) as individuals. Just as no Protestant can get the full sense of this phrase, Regard not our sins but the faith of your Church… neither can any non-Catholic or Non-Orthodox imagine a place where there is no place as “my income” but rather “what God has given me to care for you…” (and the more Catholics and Orthodox that get infected with the aforementioned Original Sin, the fewer will even understand those phrases).

We take comfort in the idea that wealth per se is a sign of blessing, and that I can do whatever I want with God’s blessings. We find encouragement in Mid-20th Century political ideas confused with moral statements and fail to see that even Marx had some Christian influence.

In the end, we have built a society where I can be blessed by God (or random datapoints I have manufactured) without any sense of obligation to you save only in the occasional penny tossed your way either by taxes or else by my choice for manual charity. The last thing we want is a reminder that we have an empty bed someone could sleep in, empty shoes someone could wear. In those cases we’d rather share our superfluity with a thrift store that can give us a tax receipt than with the beggar at our step. Thus turning even the tools of care into a benefit for ourselves and misusing the blessings God gave us.

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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