Work and the Dignity of Workers: An interview with Cardinal Peter K. A. Turkson

Francesco Occhetta, SJ

 Francesco Occhetta, SJ / Church Life / 26 September 2018

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Work is a central theme in the pontificate of Francis. In Evangelii Gaudium (EG), he uses four words to describe it: “free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive” (EG 192). This is a foundational, programmatic statement that Bergoglio had already made in Buenos Aires in June 2003, commenting on the encyclical on work by St. John Paul II, Laborem Exercens (September 14, 1981).

To explore the theme of work in a universal perspective we spoke to Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, prefect of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development. His experience and his role within the Church are a testament to his authority: born in Wassaw-Nsuta on October 11, 1948, he is the first native Ghanaian cardinal; ordained metropolitan archbishop of Cape Coast in 1993, he was president of the Ghana Catholic Bishops’ Conference (1997-2004), relator for the Synod of Bishops for Africa (2009), and president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (2009-2016).

Your Eminence, according to Scripture, work is the participation of humans in the “creative act” of God. How do you define the dignity of work and of the worker within the social doctrine of the Church?

The Old Testament presents God as omnipotent Creator, who makes humankind in his own image, and tasks them with working the land and taking care of the Garden of Eden, where they have been placed. God invites them to cultivate and cherish what he has created, and what they have received as a precious gift, for which the Creator has made them responsible. Work is part of the original condition of humanity, preceding the fall; therefore, it is neither a curse nor a punishment. It becomes an effort and a source of suffering due to the sin of Adam and Eve, who break their trusting and harmonious relationship with God. Work, therefore, is part of God’s design for humanity since Creation, and is an integral part of human dignity.

When we talk about the dignity of work, we must take a step back and consider the dignity of the worker, who is the architect of the work itself. The social doctrine of the Church recognizes an objective component to work, defined as the labor that is brought into being, and a subjective component, constituted by the worker as a human person. The subjective dimension of work must take precedence over the objective, because it is the person who brings work into being. The subject of labor is the human person – created in God’s image and likeness, in unity of body and spirit, singular and unique. Depending on whether the dignity of the working person is respected in the context of employment, we talk of work that is decent and human or, on the contrary, indecent and inhuman. In Caritas in Veritate (CV), Benedict XVI defined decent employment as “work that expresses the essential dignity of every man and woman in the context of their particular society: work that is freely chosen, effectively associating workers, both men and women, with the development of their community” (CV 63).

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