Volume > Issue > Economics & the Theology of Work

Economics & the Theology of Work


By Robert N. Bellah | November 1984
Robert N. Bellah, an Episcopalian, is Ford Professor of Sociology and Comparative Studies and Vice Chairman of the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

Ed. Note: The following constitutes Robert N. Bellah’s testimony before the committee of the Na­tional Conference of Catholic Bishops drafting the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter “Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy.” The first draft of the pastoral is to be released this month.


Criticism of your writing a letter on the econ­omy is to be expected, but it is not an indication that you are mistaken to do so. The idea that the church should speak only on “spiritual” issues and not on the ethical implications of social and eco­nomic policy is a gnostic idea wholly at variance with historic Christianity. If Jesus had spoken only on “spiritual” issues and not on the ethical issues of his day, he could not have announced the com­ing of the reign of God which it was his very mis­sion to do. What you should fear is not criticism but the lack of criticism. When Fortune Magazine defines capitalism as “reliance on impersonal mar­ket forces,” and implies that economics has noth­ing to do with ethics, and economic policymaking nothing to do with distributive justice, it condemns itself in advance as believing idolatrously in an amoral economic system immune to ethical criti­cism. Fortune’s position illustrates why Christian ethical witness about the economy is necessary. It also illustrates why that witness will not be receiv­ed happily by all.

But if criticism is to be expected, so too, I think, is a great deal of gratitude. Americans are concerned about their society and their economic system. Millions of them will appreciate a clear statement of Christian principles applied to these issues. With their pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace,” the Catholic bishops made a contribution not only to Catholics but to Protestants, Jews, and secularists. The appearance of that letter marked a great day in the history of the religious presence in American life. It brought hope to millions of our most thoughtful and responsible citizens. If the same kind of leadership the bishops gave on the question of peace could also be given on some of the central issues of our economic life, it would be an enormous step forward in our public life. The debate, of course, will continue. But I am convinc­ed that the seriousness and profundity of the de­bate will be greatly enhanced. When Christian wit­ness and the dialogue among citizens come togeth­er, we are drawing on the greatest strengths of our tradition.

I am not sure how you are dealing with the four areas of special concern that have been out­lined in some of the preliminary discussion. I see the issue of work, both in its theological dimen­sions and as an issue in our present society, as the thread that ties the four areas together. On the ba­sis of interviews carried out for the past six years by a research group associated with me, I would say that work has at least three meanings to Amer­icans.* Work may be a job, a career, or a calling, or perhaps all three. The job, the career, and the call­ing all have their dignity: all are valid forms of work and so fall under the theological analysis of Pope John Paul II in Laborem Exercens.

But the job and the career, when they come loose from the idea of the calling, are subject to distorted meanings from which flow some of the deepest problems of our society. A job is primarily a way of making a living, of supporting oneself and one’s family at a decent standard of life. A career is a progress through life marked by advancement and increasing responsibility. In addition to making a living, a career brings social standing and prestige. In the strongest sense, a calling constitutes a practi­cal ideal of activity that makes a person’s work inseparable from his character and his life. It includes the self in a community of practice and judgment whose ongoing activity has meaning and value in it­self, not just in the output or profit that results from it.

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