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Heigh-Ho! Heigh-Ho!

My lay Catholic friends are constantly attempting to shove me on to their therapeutic couches to try to rid me of my obsession with the clergy and the institutional church. If I edited a magazine, they say, the centerfold would be a cardinal in full regalia, suitable for framing. (But that's been done.)

I deny everything. I do go to talks by and for laity. Then I go home and write about a priest I'd met there.

But not this time. Not long ago, I went to Old St. Patrick's Church in Chicago to listen to A1 Gini, an associate professor of philosophy and adjunct professor of industrial relations at Loyola University of Chicago. Basically, Gini does for business what medical ethicists do for hospitals. He designs ethical road maps for lost business people.

Gini spoke at St. Pat's to a basement church filled with Catholics who work. They want to inject Christian values into the workplace and reduce its need for Prozac.

Gini is fast-talking and witty. He's as glib as a kitchen-gadget salesman on a summer boardwalk. But his message was serious, salted with citations from his most recent book, which he wrote with freelancer Terry Sullivan. (Heigh-Ho! Heigh-Ho!, ACTA Publications, Chicago, paper, 176 pages, $8.95)

"Be careful of what you do for a living," he said slowly, "because first we pick our work and then the work shapes us."

Gini viewed work somewhat darkly. He believes Americans are working harder than ever in jobs that do not lift their spirits. The happy few who do love their work, he said, are often addicted to their jobs. Most, he said, live in fear of being "re-engineered, downsized or riffed -- all part of the surest path to self-loathing."

The problem, it seems, is that most workers are looking for a calling, not a job. Gini cited Studs Terkel's book Working to the effect that most of us are like the assembly line worker -- in jobs that are too small for our spirit. "There is no sense of fulfillment," Gini said. "We are just putting in rivets."

Gini, who has studied the growing compartmentalization of work since 1971, has found that Roman slaves worked far less than Americans -- about 15 hours a week. In medieval times, the church celebrated some 200 holy days, all of them respites from work. Today, he finds that blue-collar workers average 50 hours a week and upper-management, white collar workers are at their desks as much as 60 hours a week.

Americans each year work the equivalent of eight weeks more than Swedes or Germans. "Only Mexico, with six, has fewer holidays," he said. "Sweden has 30." In recent years, Gini said, Americans have lost 10 hours of leisure a week, leaving only 16 hours. "We are obsessed with time," he said. "We are becoming a society of frenzy, frustration and fatigue."

Gini believes that Americans work largely to consume because they are known by what they possess. "Shopping," he said, "is now our most important form of leisure." Our country now has 4 billion square feet of shopping space, he said, in spite of the fact that the value of the paycheck peaked in 1973 and that we have to work an additional four weeks annually to earn what we did two decades ago.

However, Gini said, to live by the relatively comfortable but simpler standards of 1948, we would have to work only half the time we do now. Instead, more than 65 percent of U.S. employees work more than one weekend each month. Workers now average only 6.8 hours of sleep each night, causing an entire adult community to suffer sleep deprivation. "It is no longer Cogito, ergo sum," said. "It's laboro, ergo sum."

What Gini established through a rosary of citations, mostly from his new book, is that work itself presents an ethical dilemman. In a year when the church is proclaiming family values, it is obvious that the need to work long hours, simply to meet home payments now approaching 52 percent of some families' gross incomes, is robbing parents of quality time with their children. (According to Gini, Hallmark makes greeting cards that absent parents can slip under their children's pillows.)

The church has given a back pew to workplace issues, partly because there are few chanceries with desks that govern work. Yet, in fairness, Gini was speaking under the oldest sanctuary in Chicago. Further, the earlier versions of the U.S. Catholic Conference were groups such as the National Catholic Welfare Conference, a group involved with working and social-justice issues.

Today, at least at the parish level, there is a growing interest in work issues. There is hardly a parish worth its holy water that doesn't have some group devoted to unraveling the paradox of work or that isn't helping unemployed or changein-career people to network.

Now groups such as the one at St. Patrick's hold dinner discussions about the nature of work. "We are defined by our jobs, whether we are paid for them or not," Gini said. "No matter what we do, no matter whether we love or loathe it, our work is a defining characteristic."

Gini thinks we are tied to one of our most cherished myths: the Protestant work ethic. In fact, the ethic dates back much further. The book of Ecclesiastes says, "It is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun." St. Paul told the Thessalonians, "Anyone unwilling to work should not eat." St. Benedict said, "To labor is to pray." (Indeed, in the early monasteries, only choir monks attended daily Mass. Bells were rung at the consecration during the liturgy so the working brothers could pause in their labors. Hence, the now silent Sanctus bell.)

Pius XI wrote in Quadragesimo Anno, "Man is born to labor, as a bird to fly." Contemporary theologian Gregory Baum called labor "the axis of human self-making."

Gini believes that the lessons we learn at work become the metaphors we apply to life, a means by which we position ourselves in society and digest the meaning of existence. "Labor is both the way we explain ourselves to everyone else," he said, "and the way we define our own spot in the crowd."

The spot in the crowd can readily be defined if one is a physician or teacher, but too many workers are trapped in jobs that don't really engage them and that carry little psychic income. They process Visa cards or, as one woman said, "I arrange banquets at a hotel. I put the cherry on the cake."

Not all attendees hated their jobs. Many still like the brass plates on their office doors, but they buy lottery tickets and they came to hear Gini because they wanted to know if they could redeem themselves through work.

"I have tenure," Gini said. "I don't have to do a damn thing again." Yet it was clear that he loved his job. He is a born teacher. It is an expression of his soul.

He grew serious: "Be careful of what you do for a living. It will shape your life."
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Author:Unsworth, Tim
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 13, 1995
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