Sunday, October 09, 2016

On Avoiding Servile Labor

The third commandment enjoins us to honor the Lord's Day and keep it holy. This command is part positive, part negative - positively, it commands us to worship God and devote this day to Him in a special way; in a negative sense, it prohibits us from engaging in certain activities that are traditionally referred to as "servile labor." 

However, what exactly constitutes servile labor is usually not spelled out except in the most general terms. To a large extent Christianity has never adopted the Judaic practice of compiling exhaustive, definitive lists of exactly what is and is not prohibited (e.g., exactly how long one can travel in a day, what household items can be used and what can not, how much weight it is acceptable to lift, etc). Christianity, being a faith of the spirit and not of the letter, has tended to prefer very general guidelines, leaving the specifics to the (presumably well-formed) conscience of the individual and the customs of the times.

Just because Christian tradition has tended to leave much of this to the individual's conscience does not mean there are no guidelines at all. Before the modern age, Catholic catechisms featured very helpful, concise lists of activities generally considered inappropriate for Sundays and Holy Days. This sort of instruction has generally disappeared from catechetics and homiletics since the Council.

Protestants, of course, working from an exaggerated dichotomy between the "freedom of the Gospel" and "legalism" have generally eschewed any restrictions on Sunday activity whatsoever. Work of all sorts is usually accepted; Most Protestants I speak with on the subject consider the prohibition of any work whatsoever on Sunday to be a Jewish legalism. Protestants do not even believe going to church on Sunday is an obligation - in fact, I know Protestants who will occasionally stay home on Sunday morning intentionally just to prove that they have no obligation to attend to any communal worship on Sunday. 

Of course, there is no obligation to attend Protestant worship; this applies only to the Catholic Mass, but we are speaking here only of principle. The point is that contemporary Christianity generally has very little sense of anything being unacceptable on Sunday, both among Catholics and Protestants.

Being Catholic, we have nothing to say about what Protestants choose to observe on Sunday; their unfortunate ubiquitous dualism between "works" and "freedom" is too radical for most to have a balanced approach to the question. But from a Catholic perspective, it would be helpful to return to the traditional concept of "servile labor." 

Servile labor traditionally means any sort of work that is heavy manual labor, or such work as in a given society people commonly associate with strenuous effort and do not engage in when they have the freedom to avoid it; it is work you do "for a living", versus something you might engage in for recreation, education, or the worship of God. I want to share - in an informal way - some of my attitudes towards this aspect of Sunday and some rules of thumb I follow in assessing what is and is not "servile labor." This is all just my own approach; I don't claim it's authoritative in any way.

I personally apply the label "servile labor" to any sort of job or chore that is strenuous. For example, I would personally not work on a home improvement project on Sunday. Tiling the bathroom, shingling a roof, pruning trees - in my household, these sorts of projects are off limits on Sundays. Even if they are not "for a living", they are just too strenuous and physical for me to feel comfortable doing them on the Lord's Day. It seems incompatible with the concept of rest.

In the modern age, however, it is not as helpful to focus on the "manual" aspect of servile labor, because a great many people no longer engage in any sort of strenuous physical work. Rather, I find it more helpful to associate servile labor with that which you do "for a living" - i.e., your job. Thus whereas in the old days farmers were encouraged to abstain from farm work on Sundays, nowadays it is common for Catholic business people to abstain from phone conversations relating to business or looking at work emails on Sunday, even though these actions are not strenuous physically. Even so, I think this is a good modern adaptation of the principle. I avoid anything work related on Sunday.

What about strenuous physical sports? In this case, I think it is alright, because, say, getting all worked up and sweaty playing basketball is still clearly recreational - it is merely strenuous recreation, and I think that distinction is important. Now some will immediately say, "But what if it is recreational for me to tile my bathroom or hang siding on my house? Should that not be allowed by your criteria?" To that I say, "Friend, if you can truly tell me that the tiling of your bathroom or the siding of your house is truly and solely a recreational pursuit, then be my guest, I suppose." But I don't know anyone who undertakes a home improvement project just for fun and without any utilitarian reason.

In general, I avoid anything that seems like a "chore." I have mentioned home improvement sorts of projects; I also avoid more routine chores. Doing laundry. Chopping firewood. Mowing the lawn. Vacuuming the house. Washing the windows. Weeding the garden. Going grocery shopping. This also includes homework; my kids are forbidden from doing homework on Sundays, and I will not grade student homework on Sundays. Anything that is a "chore" we avoid. 

However, we do make one exception - chores that have to do with simply maintaining basic sanitation and cleanliness are allowed. If the trash is overflowing, I will still take it out on Sunday. If the sink is full of dirty dishes, of course I wash them. I don't vacuum the house in general, but if the kids were eating popcorn and make a mess, of course I vacuum it up. So essentially anything that is like, maintaining basic sanitation and cleanliness we will do.

I will do other sorts of "work" that is recreational. I obviously blog on Sunday. I will spend time writing or working on books. I will exercise or do things for personal fulfillment. 

I often get the question on whether or not it is alright to go out to eat on a Sunday. The objection is that when we go out to eat, we are forcing other people to work on Sunday (i.e., the waitstaff, cooks, etc. who staff the restaurant). I suppose this question comes up because it is so common for people to go out for breakfast after Mass that it is a very common quandary.

I personally have never objected to going out to eat on Sundays and Holy Days. Feasting is a way the Holy Day is celebrated, and often times Sunday is the only everyone in the family is home from work and able to go out together. It is celebratory. Now, it could always be argued that it causes the restaurant staff to work. Perhaps. I assume they would be working that day whether or not I came in to the restaurant. I also assume - generally - that people who are working on Sunday morning are not Catholics anyway, so I don't scrupulize too much over whether they are doing unnecessary work on Sunday. At any rate, the concern has never stopped me from enjoying breakfast with my family on a Sunday. 

I do, however, try to support businesses that close on Sunday. 

One final thing: even though the disappearance of a real catechesis about the Lord's Day is a post-Conciliar phenomenon (perhaps with the exception of St. John Paul II's Dies Domini), do not be tempted to think that flaunting the prohibitions against work on the Lord's Day is something modern. As far back in history as one can find homilies, one can find examples of preaching against servile labor on Sundays. Even in the "golden age" of the 13th century, surviving homiletics reveal that working on Sundays and Holy Days was endemic; several chapters in the Fioretti of St. Francis are devoted to describing the misfortunes of peasants who worked on Holy Days. It is certainly not a post-Vatican II novelty. So please, no comments about how in the "old days" no Catholic would have ever dared work on Sunday.

We also should remember, in the Middle Ages there were many more days that were considered Holy Days where work was prohibited - so many so that many common folk complained about not having enough time to finish their work. I cannot cite the source, but I remember reading in one scholarly work on medieval calendars that in some places as many as 100 days out of the year were nominally supposed to be work-free. This was, of course, excessive, and by the 13th century many of these days were no longer being observed. This cluster happened as a result of the accumulation of universal and regional festal days over the centuries; it was not until after Lateran IV and the reforms of the late Middle Ages that the status of many of these feasts changed to make their observance more manageable.

Anyhow, such are my hodge-podge of random thoughts on the duty to abstain from servile labor on Sundays. Any comments or thoughts are welcome. Pax.


Athrun Atreides said...

In our office, there is a unit that is supposed to be staffed everyday, including Sundays.

We are supposedly given the opportunity to reserve the days of the weekend wherein we can report for work in that unit.

However, as a lower-level staff member, I am not given the opportunity to avoid Sundays, as the other higher-level staff members are given priority.

That is, they have selected four Saturdays and two Sundays, leaving me with no choice but to choose the remaining two Sundays.

Therefore, I have no choice but to report for work on Sundays.

Can my justification lessen the gravity of the fact that I still did servile labor on Sunday?

Thank you.

Konstantin said...

I also read that in the Middle Ages there were at least 100 Holy days of obligation, but the author considered that something positive. Working on Sunday has always been a problem. St. John Vianney was somewhat of an Apostle of Sunday rest.

I agree with your approach regarding chores. I only do what is necessary. Once when our server group at a TLM venue that I used to attend met on Corpus Christi or another great feast day in Summer, one of the younger guys said he had just set up his new workshop that day. He is an avid DIY'er. I found that totally inappropriate.

While researching this topic some years ago, I came across a general modern tendency in moral theology that says as long as something is to be considered a hobby, you can do it. So if you like working on cars in your spare time, it's okay to do it on a Sunday, even if it involves strenuous labor. I find this somewhat strange. Older moral theologians prohibited chores such as mending socks on Sundays, so fixing your vintage car would seem to be totally off-limits.

Boniface said...
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Boniface said...


Of course! Everything I wrote presumes one is working voluntarily. If you have no choice than that changes things considerably.

Boniface said...


Yeah...well regarding the 100 days, it certainly depends on the point of view. Even if theologians or moralists thought it was a good thing, the peasants certainly disliked it. It didn't lessen their obligations. I know if someone told me I had to take a mandatory 100 days off every year, there's no way I could get my work done - and I'm not even in agriculture!

As well as the hobby question, yeah, I don't know. My personal opinion would be that if the vintage car was clearly a hobby done for recreation and not in any way utility - as in the case of fixing your regular car. But then again I don't seems that such hard work is incompatible with the notion of "rest", but then again I do not want to reduce rest to physical inactivity, because people who are in to sports, working out, biking, whatever find those activities restful in the sense that they are fun and recreational. I would probably return to the concept of "recreation" as the crux of the issue.

Woody said...

What is one man's servile work, is another's recreation time. There are people who have to work six days a week in these times. Sunday may be their only day off. It is perplexing to come up with a definition of the term "day of rest." However, I think it benefits us to consider that definition in terms of making Sunday a day of rest for God. This is a good discussion and helps us to think about keeping Sundays holy. Thanks for your thoughts on the matter.

Boniface said...

Well, the key is "recreation"

Clear Waters said...

The real thing that needs to be escaped is what has crudely been termed 'wagecuckery'. There is no connection between man and his work anymore, or what is left is a tiny and shrinking minority of professons. The entire economic system needs an overhaul for this reason along with many others.

dgh said...


I don't comment because I am a Protestant (Orthodox Presbyterian Church). But since you bring up Protestantism I respond. You should be aware that the tradition of Blue Laws in the U.S. was the product of Protestants who were very attentive to sanctifying the Lord's Day. I personally think legislating Sabbath observance is unwise. But the point is that Protestants were once among the most earnest about making Sunday a day of rest and worship. The Puritans were down right Puritanical about Sunday.

And my own communion, the OPC, still requires adherence to a Shorter Catechism which is strict about sanctifying the Sabbath. We even have two different preaching services (morning and evening) to promote Lord's Day observance.

What you say about many Protestants is accurate. But you probably wouldn't want me to generalize about Roman Catholicism on the basis of Stephen Coulbert.

For what it's worth.

Boniface said...

Thank you. Of course the Protestants used to take the Lords Day very seriously. Weren't the
Blue Laws more about prohibitions of buying alcohol and stuff like that rather than not working?

It's interesting that even then, though, they used to forbid taking days of rest for Feast Days. I remember in Massachussetts I think the Puritans passed laws mandating that people were OBLIGATED to work on Christmas and other Holy Days because the Puritans did not want any feast days other than Sunday being observed.

But at any rate my observations were based on Protestantism now, not then. And they were not based on some caricature Protestant but on actual Protestants I am friends with or have in my family. I wouldn't want you to characterize Catholics from Mr. Colbert but it would be fair if your characterization was based on Catholics you knew personally. Even then though I realize Protestantism is a very complex thing. I know that no generalization is perfect and there are always exceptions.

dgh said...


I guess what I should have said is that some (few) Protestants are as concerned about our fourth commandment as you are about your third commandment.

So I appreciated the post.

Boniface said...

I believe it. There is a general tendency across all Christendom to think that any physical, literal observances are completely optional or mitigated.

Anonymous said...

Our Lady of La Salette mentioned working on Sundays offending God & strenuous Sunday Labor causing Men to use the Lord's holy name in vain,especially on Sunday.

Leo said...

Good idea to support businesses closed on Sunday. Not all stores are willing to risk that, so I can excuse them unless they are merchandising things like condoms, then I would not shop there. Another option is to honor Monday. I see it trending in culture to substitute Monday for store owners looking for a compromise. According to Wikipedia, "the official liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church refers to Monday as the second celebration day – Feria secunda." Perhaps then Monday is a lesser tradition?

Pulex said...

"people who are working on Sunday morning are not Catholics anyway" I am afraid that restaurant staff in Italy, Spain, or Latin America would not be amused. One can argue about morning. But after the main Sunday Mass it is usually closer to lunchtime. So in the Sunday afternoon you are creating demand for Sunday work, aren't you. And for that matter, nowadays there are many industries that work 7x24 h in shifts. Which means that, other than restorans, Catholics are not allowed to work in many positions in aviation, maritime, railway, public transportation, hospitals, police, fire&rescue, etc.

James Joseph said...

Monday is traditionally a slow going day. This is particularly the case with trades involving cutting things. I know an Irsh speaker and his word for Monday is 'Day without cutting'. He says it's an old tradition to have meatshops and barbershops closed on Mondays.

TN Papist said...

I thought going to a restaurant counted as a "traditional activity" as mentioned in CC#2185.

TN Papist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TNPapist said...

I meant CCC#2187

Anonymous said...

About the high number of holidays in the Middle Ages. It's important to understand that the economics were very different. In premodern agriculture (in most of Europe) there was a limited amount of useful work that could actually be done, despite how hard the work could be. As economies become more advanced and efficient, it is possible to use more of the time. At one extreme, hunter-gatherer societies have a lot of leisure, since once you have got enough food there is little point in doing much until you've eaten it: you can't store it and you don't have crops to attend to. However, having said that, the wisdom of the Church in controlling the amount of work is needed now!

Walk On Water said...

I dont think servile work has anything to do with your actual occupation. At least I've never seen this in the old moral theology guidance manuals. In fact, it say certain people can work on Sundays because the work is not servile ie taxing and hard.