The “Protestant work ethic” – and its emphasis on long hours at work and accumulation of wealth and material resources – is not all it’s cracked up to be.
But there is an alternative: a “Catholic work ethic” that recognizes the need for balance between work and leisure, with leisure including time for family activities, relaxation and spirituality, says Paul Voss, president of Ethikos, a consulting firm based in Atlanta that helps retail, manufacturing, government, transportation, health care and other business clients focus on the human side of business.
Voss was scheduled to be the keynote speaker April 19 at the annual awards luncheon of the Catholic Professional & Business Club in Omaha. He also is an associate professor of literature at Georgia State University in Atlanta, where he teaches courses on Shakespeare, Dante, Machiavelli, business ethics, Renaissance literature, and the history of the book.
Before his presentation to the business club, the Catholic Voice spoke with Voss about the Catholic perspective on the nobility of work, problems with today’s hard driving business culture and materialistic society, and the importance of making time for leisure:
Q: You’re a proponent of a Catholic work ethic. What does that mean and how does it differ from what we experience in today's American culture and work environment?
Yes, that’s a good question. Of course, I’m playing off of the phrase “the Protestant work ethic,” made famous by Max Weber a hundred years ago. In that essay, he argued that there was something quintessentially Protestant about the American work ethic, the drive, the 60-hour weeks, the accumulation of material resources, the quest for wealth. He decided that this had to do with the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Morgans, and their Baptist and Presbyterian upbringing.
The Catholic work ethic is something very different. The Catholic work ethic would suggest that the purpose of work isn’t just to secure financial remuneration, but the purpose of work is actually to secure leisure. We work in order to provide time where we can have leisure to be with our families, to pray, to love, to eat, to relax, to rejoice, to engage in sports.
The measure of a life for a Catholic ought to be what we do on our leisure time, not what we do in our work-a-day world. How do we spend those moments when we are with our family and within our community? That’s what I mean by a Catholic work ethic.
Q: Materialism and consumerism tend to drive modern economies. Are there specific ways that we can resist those tendencies?
Well, listen, I’m not saying that we’re immune to this in our family, as well. There’s this thing called getting and spending, getting and spending, getting and spending. Two or three years ago, we realized that we have enough stuff. I mean our house is full of stuff. Stuff is readily available. Stuff is fun, but it loses its panache after a week or a month.
We just came up with a zero sum game rule. For everything we acquire, we have to give something away. We can’t increase our storehouse of stuff anymore. It helps you prioritize things, and helps you de-clutter. Every family has to negotiate that their own way. I think it’s pretty clear from the literature that happiness, that notion of human flourishing, does not come from stuff.
The more stuff we gather together does not correlate or cause an increase in tranquility, peace, love, harmony, or what we call human flourishing and happiness. That’s a myth that advertisers have tried to perpetuate for hundreds of years, really. We’ve bought into it. Previous generations bought into it.
We like nice things. Everybody likes nice things, but if we think that these nice things are a substitute or going to cause happiness, that’s when we’re going to be disappointed. Clearly that’s not how it works. Material things do not provide happiness. Experiences can, but certainly material things cannot provide us sustaining, abiding, long-term happiness.
Q:You’ve spoken about five “awakenings” in life that shape a person’s priorities. What are those and how should they influence one’s perspective on work and career?
Those aren’t my ideas. I’ve taken those from Josef Pieper, the fabulous Catholic theologian who wrote in the last century. He said there are five moments in our life that he called awakenings or stirrings. That they can bring us out of our routine. You’ve heard the metaphor before, “caught in the rat race.” We’re on the treadmill, we are stuck in a rut, or we’re hitting a wall. He looked at five things, including love, prayer, philosophy, beauty and death. These are the five awakenings.
Anybody who’s experienced the death of a loved one, a friend, a mentor, realizes that can awaken you. It can stir you from your complacency. It’s a “memento mori”; it’s a remembrance of death. It’s there. When we come to those realizations, we sometimes resolve to try and do more with our life. Beauty, for example – we’re so full of technology and so accustomed to the urbanization of the world, that sometimes we neglect beauty in our life.
At our house, for example, every single night – and we have five children, a big table, and it gets a little crazy – we insist that there’s a candle placed in the middle of the table and some classical music in the background. Not because we’re pretentious, but we want to remind ourselves that there is something beautiful about the repast, about breaking bread. Those small moments of beauty, capturing a vision of your wife’s face or a sleeping child are moments that can awaken us, to remind us that work is a means to an end. The end is to secure time with your family and those people that you love.
These awakenings help us break free from that rut or help us when we hit a wall. Here’s what research tells us. After 30 years of consistent work, many people feel that way. Many people feel they have hit a wall or they’re stuck in a rut. It’s just natural. Sometimes it’s called the mid-life crisis. It’s not a crisis per se, but it’s a gradual awareness that life is just a series of task after task after task. You need to be awakened from that. Those are the awakenings that I am talking about.
Q: The church has always taught that work is noble and contributes to one’s human dignity. How does today’s work environment tend to thwart that vision?
Well, of course, that goes all the way back to the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve worked. There was dignity. There’s nobility in work. Work does two things. Work certainly enables. It enables us to pay our bills and to have homes and pay tuition, but it also ennobles. The good work ennobles us, whether it’s completing a Sudoku puzzle, a crossword puzzle, or finishing your task at your job, work ennobles us. We are here to reflect that kind of nobility. Sloth is one of those sins that has crept into our society.
The bigger problem, it seems to me, is the workaholism. The 24/7 connectivity that we have. People are never really free from work. They are doing emails and texts. It’s at 9:00, 10:00, and 11:00 at night. They’ve become virtually associated with their job 24/7. Studies tell us that the last thing a person touches at night, and the first thing a person touches in the morning, is their cell phone. We are so wed to that technology that it does dehumanize us. It does connect us in ways that will have sometimes a pernicious impact on our soul and on our mental health.
Q: The church’s universal call to holiness urges laypeople to act as leaven in the workplace and in society. How can Catholics bring their faith into their work lives?
Yeah, that’s a tricky thing, because many of us aren’t our own bosses. We might work in … Oh, I don’t know, public universities like myself. We might work in organizations that don’t have a clear religious dimension. I’m always reminded of a quote that’s often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. He didn’t actually say it, historical record doesn’t prove that he said it. It seems something he might say. He said, “Preach the Gospel every day; use words if necessary.”
I think the best thing to do is just to try and live your life according to the call to holiness. The notion that married men and married women ought to act like married men and married women. The kind of word choice that you use is indicative of a state of mind.
I do think there’s something to be said for civil behavior. For doing what you say, saying what you do, and keeping your promises. People resonate with the good, the true and the beautiful. By behavior, you can demonstrate what is good, true and beautiful. Some of the best, most effective and efficacious evangelizers I’ve ever seen don’t even use words. They just lead by example.
I think that is something we could all do, whether we’re out there in one environment or another. We could all be very cognizant of how our behavior might impact what other people think about us as Catholics.
Q: Are there any additional ways that people can ensure that their work enriches their lives more than just financially – enriching their family, their community, their own spirituality?
The cutting edge or the most current research on this seems to in the last 10 years say, find your passion, find your passion, find your passion. Well, yes and no. You can be very passionate about something. I’m actually very passionate about football, but I’m not going to make my living in the NFL. I’m too slow and too old.
If you can find a way to conjoin your passion with your aptitude or your skillset, then you’re going to be more engaged in your work. We tend to like things that we’re good at. If you can find your aptitude … the church provides a really beautiful word for this. It’s called vocation.
When we hear vocation, we almost always assume that it’s for the priest or the religious. The fact of the matter is we all have a vocation. We’re all called to do something. Now, the tricky part of it is that vocation differs from person to person. Secondly, they are hard to determine. Thirdly, they materialize or manifest themselves sometimes late in life. Fourth, we have to have some aptitude for it.
What we think our vocation might be when we’re 18 or 25 may not harmonize with what our vocation is when we’re 35 or 40. Then you have to have the courage to pivot or to shift into a new position. If you can find passion and couple it with skill or strength, then you will really find what we call your vocation. If you love what you do, you never have to work a day in your life.
That is how you can integrate it. Listen, if you’re miserable at work, it’s almost impossible not to carry some of the misery home to your family at night. It’s really, really hard to spend half of your waking hours in a situation that is miserable, and then come home being light of soul, happy, compassionate and loving. It’s incumbent upon us as men and women to find those jobs that will allow us to grow in compassion, love and tranquility.
Q:That brings us to the concept of making the most of the leisure time you have. In other words, it sounds like you’re talking about “quality of life.”
Yeah, I mean, listen, on the seventh day, everyone knows the story. God rested. There’s a reason why on the Sabbath we’re told to rest. It’s good for the heart. It’s good for the mind. It’s good for the body. It’s good for the soul. Human beings don’t flourish if they’re working seven days a week, 365 days a year. It’s just not possible to grow in a humane way when we’re under such duress.
I do think that the church is wise in providing feast days for us and on the church calendar moments of abstinence are followed by moments of wonderful celebration and festivity. We celebrate feast days in our family. We have a little party for St. Joseph, St. Luke or for St. Thomas Aquinas. We do these things, because it’s in rejoicing and in celebration that the fullest complement of our family life can be recognized.