By Michael Rossmann
When I tell people that I was a double major in economics and theology at Notre Dame, almost invariably people respond, “Wow, that’s an interesting combination.”
I was the only student with this pair of majors among my 2,000 classmates, so people are understandably surprised at my choice. Still, if theology is “faith seeking understanding” and if our faith is relevant not only for an hour on Sunday but for all aspects of our lives, then theology can inform how we structure our lives economically. Theology can ask questions about the economy and how it affects people’s well-being that may not arise within the discipline of economics itself. Catholic social teaching, at times referred to as the “best-kept secret” of the Catholic Church, similarly indicates that popes, bishops and theologians can engage in reflection not strictly confined to matters of religion.
In working with people struggling to find work during the Great Recession and its comparatively high unemployment rates, in talking with friends who face dim employment prospects, and in reading about joblessness around the world, I am convinced that work – or, especially the lack of work – is particularly relevant for contemporary economic and theological discussions.
Unemployment has taken a significant toll on certain segments of the population, including young adults. Many have cited the high unemployment rate – about 25 percent – among young people in Egypt as a reason for the recent revolution there, and yet more than 20 percent of workers in the U.S. who are 25 years old or younger are unemployed as well. That’s not counting those who went to graduate school to avoid the difficult job market or took part-time work because they could not find something else. Many recent graduates have not found work or have taken jobs that do not utilize the degrees they just received. There are currently about five unemployed persons for every job opening.
As bad as the employment situation is here, in Spain the unemployment rate for young adults is over 40 percent, and thousands of young people have taken to the streets in protest there. We have not yet seen the full consequences of so many people in their formative years who are ready and willing to work, but not able to do so.
Many see a job as something one does to pay the bills or provide for one’s family, and the unemployed certainly face great financial difficulties. The value of work, however, is much greater than this monetary, instrumental dimension. We do not work just to get a paycheck; we need to work, to be creative, to use our minds and bodies, to have a sense of meaning.
Catholic social thought as distilled in papal encyclicals and bishops’ statements reflects a threefold moral significance of work. The U.S. bishops in their 1986 pastoral letter “Economic Justice for All” note that work is the ordinary way people meet their material needs, but also a primary way we exercise our capacity for self-expression and self-realization. Work enables people to participate in and contribute to the larger community. Blessed Pope John Paul II in his 1981 encyclical on work described a spirituality of work and how through work we can become more closely united with Jesus, who himself was a worker. Seeing work as central to one’s personal realization and spiritual growth, John Paul II referred to unemployment as “evil” and a “real social disaster” when it reaches such high levels.
While unemployment is often seen as an economic issue, it is a matter for theological reflection as well. Of course, knowing what best to do about unemployment or the other pressing social issues of our time requires more than consulting the New Testament or Thomas Aquinas; economists and policy makers play an important role. Still, the reflection on work in Catholic social teaching, which sees work not just as a means to an end but also as an invaluable way by which we express ourselves, participate in community, and grow closer with Christ, helps to elucidate the significance of work and the gravity of our current employment situation. This understanding can then inform how we prioritize different economic considerations and act as a society during this difficult time.
(Michael Rossmann is a Jesuit scholastic at Loyola University Chicago and a 2003 graduate of Regina Catholic Education Center in Iowa City. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org).