Colleen Simon in the food pantry

Hard work is not a virtue, I argued a few weeks ago in disagreement with recent statements by politicians.

There is a very different error – almost the opposite error – which has a longer pedigree and also needs challenging. I was reminded of it by a rather extraordinary story, and I’m grateful to Mike Dark for drawing it to my attention. In Missouri, USA, a Roman Catholic woman was sacked from a job in which she was in charge of feeding the homeless. The reason for the sacking was that she was in a same-sex marriage.

I don’t know any more about the story than the article states, so I’m not going to comment on personal details. What interests me is the combination of virtue and vice. I accept that the Roman Catholics of Missouri toe the official line by decreeing same-sex marriages immoral. Why that’s due cause for a sacking I don’t know, but clearly they thought it was.

My question is: if they are taking a moral stand against the same-sex marriage which they consider a sin, why are they not also making a moral stand in her favour, as a person performing a desperately-needed virtuous act of feeding the homeless?

Because, presumably, she was employed to do it. She did it for the money. I’m guessing here, but I can’t think of any other reason. If so, it is a good example of the error I’m referring to.

This is the error that divides up human activity into ‘work’, which we don’t want to do but gives us money, and everything other than work, which usually costs us money. Once this division of our waking life into these two categories gets accepted as the way things inevitably must be, there is nothing to stop society descending down the slippery slope of treating ‘work’ – paid employment – as a necessary evil, and therefore turning it into one.

Paid employment then changes in two ways. Firstly it becomes more and more unpleasant because society no longer expects it to consist of fulfilling activities. To see what I mean, try looking for a teacher who has more job satisfaction today than they did ten years ago. The current attitude to ‘work’ militates against any expectation that it should be a pleasant part of life.

Secondly, paid employment loses its roots in work that needs to be done. So redefined, ‘work’ consists of anything that anyone gets paid to do. This is what ‘work’ now means in the job centres and the statistics of the Department of Work and Pensions.

These trends are things that Christian authorities ought to be vigorously opposing. The idea of work as a necessary evil has a long history. It was expressed by Hesiod in the 7th century BCE and was a common view among the ancient Greeks and Romans. However it has no place in a monotheistic faith where God has provided us with a good world and the opportunity to be creative in it.

Even if same-sex marriages are harmful (and I can’t see how they can be) this change in society’s attitude to paid employment does a great deal more harm. The Catholic authorities should have praised that woman for doing a good, helpful, virtuous job, regardless of the fact that they were paying her. I realise that this makes a negative judgement on people who have no option but to do useless or harmful jobs, of which there are a great many these days. However the people forced into them either already know their unfortunate condition, or need to have it pointed out to them. I feel sorry for the people employed to spend their day telephoning us and asking us to buy something we don’t want; many of us make it quite clear what we think of them. Other people doing useless jobs may actually convince themselves that they are doing something useful – people in the advertising industry, perhaps. That woman should be held up to them as an example of a better way of life.

So whereas I think we must oppose the absurd notion that hard work is a virtue, we do need to insist that good work is a virtue.

Conceptually, treating hard work as a virtue is almost the exact opposite of treating all work as a necessary evil. Strangely, though, in the present social climate it is the same politicians who are promoting both.

Or perhaps, not so strangely. Never mind the logic; if we ask who benefits we can see why.

Both the idea of hard work as a virtue, and the idea of work as a necessary evil, are arrows in the profiteer’s quiver. They demand a decline in most people’s quality of life, in the interests of somebody’s profits. They are good for the economy. And bad for the people.