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Deacon Kyle Eller: Looking at work in light of COVID and our Catholic faith

As Labor Day comes this year, it’s helpful to look at work through the lens of the past several months of quarantines and lockdowns and through the lens of Catholic social doctrine.

Deacon Kyle Eller
Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

One thing that jumps out immediately is that many of the people whose work we have deemed essential for the past many months are people whose work pre-COVID-19 was deemed menial.

Go back a year and it was easy to find people scoffing at the idea of a $15 minimum wage that would give a living wage to people who check groceries and stock the shelves with toilet paper and flour or serve a burger from a drive-through. Probably some of those people are still scoffing, but I think most of us have gained a whole new appreciation for those workers and how important their efforts are to our collective way of life.

It suggests to me a certain unreality in the way we think about work. Market logic has a real and important place in the economy and our civil life, but unless it is guided by deeper principles, it can profoundly distort things, where we forget that cost and value are not the same thing. Some things are more valuable precisely because they are essential. As much as I enjoy them, I could easily go a lifetime without ever seeing another football game, but I could live only a short time without food. It would seem markets struggle to really account for this, in the way we value the people and institutions needed to provide these two things, one a luxury and the other an essential for life.

We’ve also seen people lose jobs on a vast scale, with countless more facing uncertainty, wondering if their job will be next. The fears that naturally arise from this should make us more attentive to the role of work in supporting family life and our personal well-being. It’s how we sustain ourselves and others.

But it’s more, because work is part of being human. In the biblical view, while the toilsomeness of work in this life is a consequence of original sin, work itself is not: It’s part of who we are and what we’re made for. God gave Adam the responsibility to tend the Garden of Eden before he fell into sin, not after. Work is good for us.

The whole context of that biblical story also is suggestive of the view Catholic social doctrine takes of work, of playing our part in respectfully developing the goods of creation as a service to the good of others — for ourselves and our families and our communities.

I think many of us have discovered that at home, because of course that vocation to work includes more than just the stuff someone pays us for.

Take, for instance, the hobby I took up seemingly seconds before it became all the rage — making sourdough bread. For most of quarantine, I have been making at least a loaf or two a week, from sourdough starters (yes, plural) I started from scratch. Nice byproducts have included sourdough pizzas and pancakes and focaccias and crackers and hamburger buns and even sourdough chocolate chip cookies. (Just ask my Facebook friends.) I’ve shared starters with friends and no doubt bored many people to despair with discussions of autolyse and bulk ferment.

I have discovered that while, like any work in this fallen world, it can be toilsome, overall I enjoy it. I enjoy the process of it, the creativity, the craft, the attention to detail, the tools and techniques, and simply the pleasure of handling the dough. I even mostly enjoy that moment of truth, when you pull the lid off the Dutch oven and discover how successful your work was.

No one is paying me for this, although some have suggested to me that they would and the thought has crossed my mind. But when I do it, I feel in my bones I have accomplished something worthwhile that day, and that joy is made complete in the happiness of family and friends who eat it.

This is surely why sourdough became an unlikely sensation in 2020, and no doubt people have experienced similar things being at home and making homecooked meals or tending gardens or working on projects that previously they “didn’t have time for.”

Quarantine has taught us a lot of lessons, and I truly hope that one of them is a deeper appreciation for the dignity of work, as a good of life, as something worthy of a living wage, as a way of showing love and a way of being human.

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected].