In A Theology of Work, Darrell Cosden observes that, in the modern Roman Catholic teaching on work, “the instrumental aspect of work (here [in Laborem Exercens] primarily referring to economic function) is subordinated (metaphysically and ethically) to the relational or ‘human’ aspect….”
He traces this in part to Pope John Paul II’s view that “the essential meaning of ‘kingship’ and ‘dominion’ of man over the visible world, which the Creator himself gave man for his task, consists in the priority of ethics over technology, in the primacy of the person over things, and in the superiority of spirit over matter” (emphasis mine). If this hierarchy is assumed, Cosden concludes, “the instrumental [aspect of work] is always subordinated to the relational [aspect].”
I find it disturbing that the head of the Roman Catholic church so bluntly held that spirit is “superior” to matter. Isn’t this essentially a gnostic position which the church has consistently, at least officially if not functionally, refuted?
I also hear the echo of this subordination of the instrumental aspect of work to the relational aspect in how we — evangelical Christians of North America — speak about many subjects, including work. “It’s the relationship that matters,” we may say to someone who is struggling over the intrinsic value of his work. The intent behind those words is good. We mean to encourage. We mean to point out how the worker is making a difference through his being there for his co-workers. But embedded in such a statement, at times, is the view that “what really matters is people’s souls, not what your work produces.”
Cosden would argue, it seems, such a view is not only unbiblical but unnecessary: “the nature of the ontology of work is such that it places both the relational and instrumental aspects on an equal, mutually restricting plane while it also places itself on that same level.”