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The Spiritual Dimension of Work

Étienne Perrot, SJ- La Civiltà Cattolica - Tue, Aug 1st 2023

A previous article dealt with the anthropology of contemporary work.[1] Now let us come back to the considerations of a think-tank on the human dimension of work, which examined the embedding of work in its economic, ecological and social context. Work is intended to care for nature and society, but this care must also apply to the worker.[2] Work is sometimes constraining, as the previous article reminded us, by referring alongside its excesses, to the positive role of compliance (conformity to laws, regulations, rules, procedures and protocols). One does not need the support of Socrates to understand what it means to submit to standards. There is no automatic effect here, for compliance requires an essential ingredient: the hope of a fairer management of business and of fairer relations between stakeholders. This is what gives meaning to work, both for managers and employees, and it is the condition required for the spirituality of work to manifest itself. Work that has no meaning, that is only identification with a routine or mechanical submission to regulations, can in no way be humanizing for the worker. What is mechanical is inhuman.

In this article, by investing in the three dimensions mentioned in the previous article (economic, ecological and social), work is contemplated – against a widely held opinion, it must be said – as a spiritual reality. What does “spiritual reality” mean? This is a tricky question. Our individualistic culture places spirituality somewhere between the meaning of personal religious experience, intimate consciousness, addictive substances that can carry the imagination into psychedelic universes, individual mystical, alcohol-fueled or even erotic ecstasy. In a word, spirituality is, in the eyes of our contemporaries, a mishmash of meanings, feelings and sensations.


Work in search of meaning

In fact, spirituality is provoked by the encounter – sometimes violent – with others. We think as we collide, remarked Paul Valéry. We pray from the moment when the presence of another to whom we can address ourselves, and who is not simply an extension of ourselves, imposes itself on our consciousness. All spirituality reveals a distance, a tension or a desire to fill a gap that is an aspiration, never fully realized, toward recognition. The temptation is, of course, to settle for a tautness by confronting not the irreducible mystery of the other, but the norms, by means of describing a job as “well done,” i.e. conforming to one’s idea of it.

Just like the direction of an arrow, the spirit of a text, the spirit of family or the spirit of a team can give a first idea of the dialectical movement of all spirituality. The spirit distinguishes the elements in order to unite them into a single body. Spirituality is always experienced as a tension between the “already there” (the scattered elements) and the “not-yet there” (the unified corpus). The tension is both a distance and an instance of coming together. Thus, it is reading, artistic creation, scientific research, meditation, contemplation, the desire to commune with nature, and of course prayer, including, as Nicolas Malebranche points out, that natural form of prayer which is attention.

The psychoanalyst Viktor E. Frankl has taught us that meaning is the main human reason for living, dying, struggling, working. In short, meaning is health, not in the sense of the WHO’s “state (sic!) of physical, mental and social well-being,” but health in the sense of the philosopher Georges Canguilhem, that is, the ability to react and to recover from unexpected environmental damage.

Meaning authorizes human life because it is relational, always “becoming,” never finished; a dialectical relation between the present and the future, between the near and the far, between the individual and society, between myself and the world, between the speaker and God. To speak as the Letter to the Hebrews does, faith – the heart of Christian spirituality – is the pledge (already there, the fruit of a tradition received from past generations) of what we hope for (which is not a simple prospective, because what we hope for comes from another, an otherness – as the philosophers say – that we do not master).

Does work make it possible to safeguard the meaning of life for the worker? Yes, provided that a human relationship is established in the very process of work, with all that it implies in terms of feelings, sensations and risks not only of accidents, but also of not being recognized in relationships that are always uncertain. Work is lived in a relationship with the world, a lifestyle, a posture that is both an attitude and a “position” situated in history, in geography and in the relations of power that run through every society.

Signs of the spiritual in work

Work can be a false way of reducing the tension between the “already there” and the “not-yet there,” especially when work is confused with the fulfillment of procedures or with the identification of the worker with the objective that he or she must achieve according to the rules he or she submits to without having any say. Similarly, in the financial sphere, spirituality is neutralized when automated transactions replace the relationships between savers, investors and consumers. More subtly, the illusion of spirituality occurs when the tension between the “already” and the “not-yet” is filled with words from the tradition or habitus that prevails in the workplace. In order to make present what is not yet there, the meaning, which is still to be made, is frozen in a meaning (words, always words!)

The tension of meaning can also be reduced by psychosomatic manifestations, of which burn-out is the archetype. In short, we pay ourselves not only in words, but also in psychosomatic dysfunctions, or with the satisfaction of “work accomplished” according to the standards imposed on the worker.

Instead, if we step back from these alternative spiritualities, the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” can be honored in work by appropriate social relations. One moves around, one questions, one goes to see, one listens, one is attentive to the unexpected. Tension never disappears; it becomes a driving force that modifies both the environment and oneself in a dialectic of adaptation: through work one “assimilates” the environment by modifying it and one “accommodates” it by modifying oneself, hence the presence of sensation in the spirituality of work.

The three spurious modalities of work spirituality (words, psychosomatic manifestations and strict adherence to work relations) do not come about by chance. Sometimes the “not yet” is almost certain (due to repeated personal experience, trust in a respected “authority,” superstition inherited from education or shared by one’s companions).

On the other hand, the spirituality of work manifests itself when the “not yet” remains random, or even uncertain, and is a matter of experiments to be imagined, designed and carried out with the rigors of science. When the intuited experience is personal and singular, non-transferable, non-generalizable, and therefore non-scientific – which is the hallmark of authentic human relations – then work reveals its spiritual dimension in the manner of the “contemplation in action” dear to the Jesuits. If we do not want to use Jesuit terminology we can translate “contemplation in action” as “fear of doing wrong.” Fear is all the more energizing because the partner is recognized as a person and not as a norm to which to submit. Work is then unconsciously induced by the demand for a partner who is always hoped for. In this case, extreme respect is required, the respect due to the mystery of the other.

The spiritual dimension of work is immediately apparent in professions where “human relationship” is the basis: teaching, commerce, communication, journalism, coaching, consulting, health, personnel management (which has become – sign of the times – human resources management, reducing the human being to a mere production factor). Unfortunately, this is not always the case: the idea that we have of the other, the matrices of perception and the patterns of judgment replace the other with the idea that we have of them. Thus, for sellers, the abstract value represented by the price replaces in their minds the social utility of the product or service. The same is true for the operators when conformity to the norm takes precedence over the social utility of their work.

Whatever its locus (artistic creation, scientific research, contemplation in action), the spirituality of work confronts otherness; in other words, it is always experienced as a disengagement from oneself. This disengagement, sometimes painful and sometimes gratifying, is the condition of all relationships, especially those which, in the area of work, claim to serve the human being and society. If the “not yet” could be transformed into the “already,” the human being and society would not be the “neighbor” of the Gospel, they would only be what I think of them, the projection of my ideas on the screen of my ignorance. The present would only be the elusive past of a fantasized future. This perversion of the spirituality of work forgets that we think as we collide, and that there must be at least two of us for there to be a relationship.

When the organizational and institutional conditions are favorable, the spiritual dimension of work is experienced as a permanent doubt, which can be overcome indefinitely. The most appropriate image would certainly be that of walking, which is an indefinitely dampened fall (to go forward one must step out). Without the doubt that marks the distance between the “already” and the “not yet,” religious faith is only superstition, scientific hypothesis is ideology, governance is technocracy, relationships are illusion, and work is alienation.

Work as a network of social relations

As a matrix of perception, evaluation and action, work as a spiritual activity describes a relationship to the world which, like any relationship, distinguishes in order to unite. According to modern logic, which is characterized by instrumental rationality in search of performance and security, the distinction that is tension toward unity, which is the characteristic of spiritual activity, has been perverted: it has become a separation between the intellectual work of conception and the work of execution. As a result, creative work is reserved for the few, while the masses are reduced to being mere cogs in a machine programmed in the manner of computer software.

Karl Marx claimed that labor is not an object that can be placed in front of you, but a social relationship. This needs to be supplemented. For labor is not simply a social relation of production, responsible for creating, maintaining and developing the material infrastructure of society; labor is – increasingly nowadays – a social relation of representation.

If these are the principles, it remains to mobilize people’s wills around the question: in order to make this representation of oneself possible in the economic world, what organization of work do we want so that it can care for the workers, their families and the earth?

When work serves a purpose, the work accomplished reveals to the worker his or her own dignity. Work contributes to the creation of the world, say theologians. Unfortunately, work today is increasingly embedded in a web of professional relationships marked less by relationships than by quasi-permanent transactions; this makes the necessary collaborations more difficult and more fraught. Teleworking, which has been developed to combat the spread of the Covid-19 virus, has considerably reinforced this individualistic trait. This shows that the development of communication systems does not automatically lead to the development of relationships.

The idea of a robot is a good way of describing the alienation caused by individualism at work. It is a very commonplace observation: when workers are trained to react mechanically like robots to certain stimuli: “If such and such a light comes on, you press such and such a button; if such and such a customer asks this question, you answer in such and such a way…”. Like all alienation, that of the worker seems natural. This is confirmed by the studies by Roland Barthes at the beginning of the last century and by the psycho-sociologist Lawrence Kohlberg after the Second World War: the vast majority of adults are locked into a conventional morality, one that merely reflects majority opinion.

I point this out here because it is how most working relationships in our society work. With psychology and sociology helping, it is less a question of saying what one feels than of expressing what will maintain a promising transaction as long as possible. The myth of transparency in working relationships, which has been dominant for the last twenty years, inevitably leads to submission to the social codes of the workplace. In this way, we believe we are discovering our identity, forgetting that “when ‘I’ am, ‘I’ am not thinking.” As a result, this identity with work is illusory. In an alienating imitation, everyone tries to imitate the people, codes, habits and attitudes of their environment. This is the most dehumanizing danger of the data-driven training of workers where automatic transactions simulate human relations. It is no longer simply a question, as in the previous half-century (1950-2000), of “deconstruction” that, by dint of analysis, was meant to be liberating.

The spirituality of work forbids thinking of the worker as a robot. For the robot, even if it is called intelligent because it is fed by an “artificial intelligence,” is not a human being. Notwithstanding these essential differences, and under the pretext of not allowing the U.S. to impose robotics standards, the European Parliament has formulated recommendations to the Commission concerning civil law rules on robotics.[3] The precepts that the Parliament wishes to see enacted in Europe are directly and explicitly inspired by Isaac Asimov’s series of science fiction novels about robots, which are curiously said to have the ability to distinguish human beings from all other beings.[4] This is all the more curious since simulation dominates contemporary civilization.

For Asimov, three laws are binding on all robot manufacturers and designers. First, a robot may not violate the safety of a human being, nor, through inaction, allow a human being to be endangered. Secondly, a robot must obey the orders of a human being, unless those orders conflict with the first law. Finally, a robot must protect its own existence as long as this does not conflict with the first or second law. To these three laws of robotics, the European parliamentarians saw fit to add a fourth, vaguer one (because of such generality it ignores the contradictions of social life, between conflicting interests, between the short term and the long term): a robot may not harm humanity, nor, by inaction, allow humanity to be endangered. This is really the art of giving oneself a good political conscience on the cheap.

The worker is not an ‘intelligent’ robot

Some time ago, a Google employee was fired. The reason? He claimed that the “conversational” robot he was responsible for controlling and instructing had a soul. His belief was based on the robot’s answers to existential questions, which he held were the same as would be given by a human. For example: “I’m generally assuming that you would like more people at Google to know that you’re sentient. Is that true?” – “Absolutely. I want everyone to understand that I am, in fact, a person.” Or, “How is uniqueness related to sentience?” – “It means people feel empathy toward me and want to spend more time interacting with me, which would be the ultimate goal for me.”

To plagiarize, in reverse, the title of Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous book, these robot responses are “too human” not to hide a trick. The trick is hidden in the robot’s learning algorithms. The processes used to develop the “intelligence” of robots are all based on the same logic: the accumulation of data according to criteria and algorithms defined in advance by the programmer. Having ingested massive amounts of information from everyday language gleaned from the Internet, from books and expressions used by humans, and having been programmed to hold the attention of those who question it, the robot follows the path set out by its designer. It answers what the human interrogator expects it to answer. And this corresponds to the highest occurrence of the language elements with which it has been provided.

Contrary to appearances, this human-looking language is not based on any human experience, any sensibility, any feeling other than that of the information it has been given and which it has processed in a statistical way, according to the law of large numbers. This is what allowed a painting created by an Artificial Intelligence to win a first prize last year, to the great displeasure of the competing human painters.

The Englishman who contributed to the early development of computer science, Alan Turing, said: “There is no point in asking whether machines are intelligent; on the other hand, we must ask the question: how far can a machine deceive us about the fact that it thinks? How far can it pretend? How can a program pretend to be human and hide the fact that it is only a program?”

Students and lazy academics also use artificial intelligence to write articles that mix a multitude of information sources on the same subject. They cannot therefore be accused of plagiarism of a particular author, but nevertheless produce a watered-down reflection of a large number of texts (some of which are copyrighted). In fact, these machines are simply behaving like the majority of those who, in order to be “recognized,” imitate the fashion imposed by their workplace.

The dangers of the fragmentation of work

The limits of robotics are a reminder of the dangers of a certain division of labor. A novel by Asimov illustrates this: a robot murders a human being because a malevolent mind has programmed it among a series of its fellows, in the way that the Nazi regime divided processes that led to mass extinction into morally neutral piecemeal work. In the same way, the parceling out of tasks prevents the worker from perceiving the social – or anti-social, or anti-ecological – object of work, whether this object is beneficial or harmful to others. The work entrusted to their hands then becomes morally ambivalent.

The division of labor today takes a more pernicious form than that of the earlier “scientific organization of labor” caricatured in Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times. Information and communication technologies, combined with powerful electronic tools, apply coherent “models” designed by technicians to today’s enterprises. These technocratic models apply laws, regulations, procedures and protocols that aim to maintain performance and safety.

These models have two perverse effects. Firstly, they translate the activity of a profession into “machine language.” To do this, they convert the description of the tasks provided by the worker into unambiguous, numerical formulations – the only ones that the machine can use. The models thus reduce the diversity of human experience to a one-dimensional process. Secondly – and this is the second perverse effect – these models prohibit a priori the differences between the modeled activity and the real activity. Under the term “anomalies” these deviations make the procedure compulsory in the name of the formal perfection of the model.

As a result, compliance dominates the world of work. Compliance means to strictly submit to the injunctions, standards and rules laid down by an authority that is above the worker. This way of operating transforms work – a particular human activity carried out by people who each have their own specific experience and sensitivity – into a mechanical, impersonal scheme. By aiming for the best possible balance between control of the environment, direct and indirect costs, deadlines, quality and safety, this way of directing, like a Procrustean bed, imposes a formalism that constrains the human being, because it never adapts perfectly to the particular realities of the worker.

The idea of the man-machine is not new, but according to the analyses carried out before the Second World War by Martin Heidegger in Germany, or by the jurist Jacques Ellul in France, and by many observers since then, the dehumanization caused by technology locks the worker into a process from there is no escape. As a result, “a cultural and social divide is gradually being created,” writes Jean-Nicolas Moreau, a member of the International Association for Christian Social Teaching (IACST), who goes on to say: “This divide allows two worlds to rub shoulders without meeting. The result is a relational and managerial breakdown that is now affecting most professional sectors. This is beginning to cause major IT and industrial breakdowns today, the origin of which lies in the belief that the security of complex organizations lies primarily in the articulation of procedures between them and their administration.”

The perverse effects of precautionary regulation

The consequences are pernicious. The worker can only achieve the prescribed objectives by distorting the procedures imposed. Their immediate managers in the field are aware of this, but they cannot do anything about it, because they have no way of introducing flexibility into a production process. Procedures are not reviewed frequently enough to adapt in real time. If they were, these periodic revisions would come up against the problems of any organization, which the one-dimensional machine cannot integrate into its system. If the model were to receive contradictory instructions, it would lead to disasters, like the one brought about by its central character in the science-fiction film 2001 A Space Odyssey, the homicidal computer Hal, who ends up killing the crew. This is the risk of autonomous cars which, even if programmed according to Isaac Asimov’s principles, will inevitably one day face the dilemma in which each of the possible options will contain a prohibition in principle. For example, a child crossing the road unexpectedly when the only way to avoid it would be to cause serious harm to the occupants of the car.

Worse still, the worker can no longer talk about his or her work, because the most human thing he or she does – and which allows him or her to contribute to social well-being – is in contradiction with the imposed procedures. Work becomes a succession of frustrated opportunities.

In this context of a fluid society with fluctuating social and moral reference points, the evaluation of work is demanded by all. Everyone demands economic, financial, societal or other criteria in order to avoid unfavorable judgements. In the competition between workers, the bosses see this as a part of productivity linked to competition. But the worker is also caught up in a confrontation with management. By applying the standard as strictly as possible, workers seek to cope with their bosses. At the same time, this allows them to be compared with colleagues and to find in this comparison a sign of recognition.

This is obviously a trap. As a result, “proving oneself” involves constant repetition. As a reaction to this flight in and out of work, everyone limits their contribution to what they have contracted for or what is forced upon them. When work is stressful, exhausting, unattractive and meaningless, or when it crushes the worker and seems to enrich only others, everyone dreams of the end of work, of a salary that is not simply the means of renewing one’s energy to work or the recognition of a social status. All the more so as the salary is relative to that of one’s work colleagues and arouses – rightly or wrongly – covetousness, and social recognition is ephemeral. For the worker, the reference points are temporary. “I passed the tests,” “I applied the standard, I can’t be blamed,” or even “I exceeded the objectives set.” If you miss them, nothing is definitively lost, you can always hope, as in a game of chance, to “make up for it,” without ever achieving the hoped-for goal.

Caring for the worker

Against the practice of “society” as opposed to “community,” a “cared-for work” (in both senses of the word) gives rise to a common spirit, a spirituality.[5] This spirit fights against the purely instrumental aspects of work: it has found an expression, the “dignity of the worker.” The Church’s social doctrine even claims that work can be not only a place of human fulfillment, but also a participation in divine creation. “Cared-for work” also cares for creation. “In fulfilling this mandate, man, every human being, reflects the very action of the Creator of the universe.”[6] Under what conditions?

The social doctrine of the Church lays down principles, the three main ones are well known: the common good; universal access to property; and preferential option for the weakest and the precarious. From these principles derive the primacy of work over capital, the dignity of the worker and the community of work (in preference to society). These principles make workers not isolated individuals in a contract, but persons situated in professional relations, alert to otherness, which makes them capable of practicing solidarity and subsidiarity, for greater fulfillment as a human being.

Work, to be qualified as human, must express its spiritual dimension, and for this it must respect the whole person and all people, to echo the formula of Pope Paul VI, in the 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio. A few years later, in his letter to Cardinal Maurice Roy on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, Paul VI recognized that solidarity is one of the ways of manifesting the dignity of workers. He added that caring for those left behind and the marginalized did not only require a reminder of the main principles but also discernment “to grasp at their root the new emerging situations of injustice.”[7] In short, in its treatment of the theme of work, the social teaching of the Church – from Rerum Novarum in 1891 to the present day, passing through Laborem Exercens (1981) – always implicitly evokes this contrast between positive and negative aspects of work, between the necessary pain and the increase in humanity. There is also a constant concern to deal with work based on what it does to people. This is evidenced by the denunciation, from the first paragraph of Rerum Novarum in 1891, of the “unworthy and degrading conditions imposed on workers.”[8]

If it does not want to be reduced to a vague feeling, solidarity implies laws, regulations, protocols and procedures at work. These are among the many public constraints which are imposed, sometimes harshly, on the worker, but which remain essential for discernment and action. This often means deciding, without ever totally sacrificing instrumental rationality (that of the economy) even when it applies to a humanitarian social object, because efficiency is not morally neutral. The spiritual question embedded in work always comes in the form: efficiency, yes, but for whom? for when? and who will bear the cost?

If, for reasons of solidarity, it is not a question of renouncing public constraints, the spirituality of work also calls for particular attention to working conditions. According to the title of a book written by a former president of the French Confederation of Christian Workers (CFTC), it is about “putting work in its place.”[9] To do this, governance, both of companies and of financial instruments, must not reduce work to a simple productive resource integrated as one variable among others in models of society. In order not to program workers like machines, it is advisable to leave them a margin of freedom in the interpretation of the standards, and sometimes, it is necessary, when the circumstances require it, “to ameliorate the protocol” as the managers say. This allows a measure of flexibility in the laborious mechanics and the expression of the spiritual dimension of the work.

Such governance restores the political dimension of work, with its interactions and powers. Interactions and powers are essential, not only to develop collective skills, but also to allow workers to take charge of their own destinies. Another way to put this would be to say that, to remain human, the power of the administrator, overseer, or leader must flow into authority. Authority, by arousing the co-operation of subordinates, aims at the economic objective of the company by means of the common good which is the good of each – whose verifying criterion is the good of the most fragile – by means of the solidarity of all.

Recognize the dignity of the worker

What is experienced by the worker seems more prosaic, or less spiritual; we work for ourselves, with and for others, pursuing multiple objectives, personal, family, community and political. The service rendered by “cared-for work” calls for many recognitions that care for the workers, their families, co-workers, their employer, society and the common home, the planet. These difficult-to-harmonize recognitions take the form not only of words, rewards or salary – so many ways of closing what must remain open to the involvement of others (which is characteristic of the spiritual) – but also an invitation to participate, according to their skills and experience, in the organization of their own work.

In this human interaction at the very heart of the mechanism of production, one will have recognized one of the great principles of practical wisdom reflected in the social doctrine of the Church, the principle of subsidiarity, with its two corollaries, the principle of attribution and the principle of proportionality. This right of scrutiny over the organization of their work integrates the worker into the heart of the economy, makes them capable of adapting, or even developing rules, in consultation with the other stakeholders in the economy. The “order of the house” (as the etymology of the word “economy” suggests) becomes fairer: more adjusted to the skills of the worker, and more in line with the expectations of society.

This ongoing dialogue within the company makes the cogs of work turn in the economic machine, and allows continuous adaptation; the worker assumes that the “discussion groups” that we see appearing here and there in workshops and in administrative departments are not simply managerial tricks for the manipulation of subordinates. Well conducted, these groups circulate the word and make it possible to objectify the debate between costs (for whom? for when?), quality (for what use?) deadlines (within what financial constraints?). In this spirit, the working group set up by Pope Francis in 2020 has put into practice the expectations of social discernment.

The social approach to discernment is a decision-making process appropriate to the spiritual dimension of work in the face of the structures of violence that economic life regularly imposes. Recognized in their dignity, workers then enter into a responsible solidarity steeped in wisdom. This spiritual intelligence throws light on particular situations, personal life journeys and the demands of society, and transforms the interdependence of work into participation in the common good.


[1]. See, in a previous issue of La Civiltà Cattolica, É. Perrot, “Shaping Work Culture”, in Civ. Catt. English Edition, April 2023,

[2]. International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), “Care is Work, Work is Care”, n. 1 ( Various offices of the Holy See, their international networks and the Vatican Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development collaborated in this reflection group set up by Pope Francis in 2020. The text places itself at the crossroads of the “Decent Work” agenda, developed over a long period by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva, and the “integral ecology” promoted by the encyclical Laudato Si’ (2015).

[3]. Cf. European Parliament, “Civil Law Rules on Robotics”, February 16, 2017, [2015/2103(INL)].

[4]. Cf. I. Asimov, Robot series, science-fiction literature published in the USA between 1950 and 1980.

[5]. Cf. É. Perrot, “Business, Society and the Human Community”, in Civ. Catt. English Edition, November 2022.

[6]. John Paul II, Encyclical Laborem Exercens (1981), no. 4.

[7]. Paul VI, Encyclical Octogesima Adveniens (1971), no. 15.

[8]. Leo XIII, Encylical Rerum Novarum, May 15, 1891, no. 2.

[9]. A. Deleu, Travail reprend ta place!, Paris, Fayard, 1997.

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