02/28/2013 06:01 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

Work, Two Popes and Freud

Work is a spiritual experience. Since Joseph Ratzinger was five years old, he knew that his life's work would be with the church. It was not just an occupation, but a way for him to serve his greater community and find fulfillment in his life. As he steps down now as Pope Benedict XVI, he does so because he feels he can no longer perform the duties necessary to fulfill his position. It is not because he has saved a nest egg on which he can safely retire, but because he feels he can no longer do his job.

For much of my life, I thought of work as a means of monetary gain. Work was a way for people to make money, to escape poverty, not a way to find spiritual fulfillment. A veteran of the war on poverty, I saw jobs for all as the necessary answer to dependence. But then came Pope John Paul II's Encyclical, "On Human Work." Its importance and impact cannot be overstated.

The war on poverty was 15 years old when Pope John Paul II issued the seminal Encyclical, a pronouncement both startling and profound in its linking work, dignity and spirituality. As a veteran of that war from its beginning, and as a Jew, I was stunned by this exposition on the value of work. With the words "The church is convinced that work is a fundamental dimension of man's existence on earth" the whole idea of work became a theological one -- tied to spirituality and the meaning of life. The Pope went on to assert that since man is made in God's image, that he should imitate him in working and resting, and wished that he present his own creative activity under the form of work and rest. Lastly, he linked work to the foundation for the formation of family life which is a natural right and something man is called to.

If we examine our country today, the two conditions of unacceptable unemployment and the vast number of children living in single parent households becomes sacrilegious in light of the teachings of the encyclical. Not just that people are poor or that families are disintegrating, but that in the eyes of God a sin is being committed. Do we ever look at this that way? I think not. We seem incapable of moving past polemics and politics to addressing the purposefulness provided by work. Perhaps our deadlocked political system might gain from reflection upon the spirituality expressed in the encyclical.

Now the present Pope has decided to give up the work of being the church's leader. Considering that work is an expression of God's will, this has to be an extreme act of selflessness. He has faced the place we will all have to yet he could have stayed on to the end. This is a monumental act of self-sacrifice which will resonate with the church's followers-and others.

What are we to make of Pope John II's message and the unselfish behavior of the current Pope? First, if work is a way to become God-like, we now support dependence over work. In our hope to be humane, we have been growing a culture addicted to government dependence. There are now more people receiving a check from the government than pay taxes. This is, in most cases not the recipient of aid's fault. In our efforts to be benevolent, and win votes, we have sacrificed the ennoblement of work for easy government support. As a startling example is the dramatic rise in disability payments. This is quite quizzical given the improvement of health care in the country. I have written separately that if we took money from welfare and poverty programs and put it towards jobs for those who could work, we would be able to create enough work for all and have trillions left over.

And of Pope Benedict? Perhaps his selflessness might be a beacon for politicians focused only on their reelection. Might the message that denying people work for personal benefit is a sin? Could we now begin to frame the arguments for how to get people working again in a spiritual and religious message? "In God We Trust" is engraved in so much of America. Could we not, now, perceive the goal of work for all as God's work, not the fodder of empty campaign rhetoric?
And if you are not religious, listen to Sigmund Freud (an atheist): "Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness". Our leaders must take the acts of selflessness of Pope Benedict, the importance of work written by Pope John Paul II and Freud's identifying work and love as the center of our humanness and search their souls for ways to get us there.