ASK FATHER: How much “work” on Sunday?

From a reader…


I know we are to abstain from unnecessary servile (manual) labor on Sundays. How strict should we be with discerning whether the labor is “necessary” or not? For example, can mere convenience justify a small amount of light manual labor? How do we respect the Holy Day without being Pharisees?

The Third Commandment of the Decalogue instructs us, for our own good, to honor the Lord’s Day – now Sunday – and to keep it holy.  We do this in two ways.  Positively, we offer God pleasing worship, especially through Holy Church’s sacred liturgy.  Negatively, we avoid activities that are considered “servile labor”.  What “servile labor” is is a matter for debate for most of us.

Man is born for work.  Work is good.  Not all work is toil.  Recreations can be “work”, but they aren’t toil.  Not all “servile” work is physically strenuous.   What to do?

The original intent behind labor that “servile” was to allow for common people, even serfs, servants, slaves, to be able to fulfill the commandment.  Hence, it was strenuous, physical labor.  These days lots of labor is less physical and more mental: desk work.  However, if it is a matter of employment, it probably constitutes “servile” labor and should be avoided unless it is necessary and we avoid scandal.  Farmers at a critical point in the harvest can work.   Being an emergency law enforcement dispatcher is not manual labor in the old-fashioned sense, but it is something that is necessary.  Being a firefighter is okay. Being a checkout gal at a grocery store is not overly physical, but it is servile labor and should be avoided, unless she is trying to feed her children in hard times, etc.

We should avoid activities that hinder us from rendering God what is His due according to the virtue of religion.

Household chores are probably to be avoided, unless you have to patch the roof because water is coming in.  Some people find gardening a pleasure and even meditative.   I don’t think that taking out the trash constitutes a violation of the Lord’s Day, though shifting concrete blocks for the new shed or taking down that dead tree on the south forty probably would be.

I think we have to use common sense.

Common sense is reiterated on our old manuals of theology!

For example, in Sabetti-Barrett I read:

Licita sunt opera liberalia, opera communia et opera aliqua quae videntur servilia, sed requiruntur ad quotidianum usum, victum, necessitatem et dispositionem corporis, vestium vel domus, ut coquere cibos, sternere lectos, verrere domum, et alia quae commode differi vel anticipari aut non possunt aut non solent.  Ita ex praxi communi et sensu fidelium.

Liberalis, an adjective, means “things concerning man’s free condition; noble, honorable; bountiful, generous”.   It can also mean “concerning Liber” the Roman name for Bacchus, the god of drink.. which opens up some possibilities.

Permitted are uplifting works, common works and some works which seem to be servile, but which are required for daily utility, sustenance, the need and ordering of the body, of clothing or the home, like cooking food, making beds, sweeping the house, and others which cannot or should not be conveniently differed or anticipated.  So, according to common practice and the sense of the faithful.

“Common practice and sense of the faithful”… well… that doesn’t help much these days.

It goes on to say:

Inter liberalia connumerandus est usus machinae ad typis scribendum aptatae.

Among the uplifting there can be counted the use of typewriters.

I suppose that means for writing letters and so forth, but not for work.  These days it also surely means use of the computer for writing good things and phones for texting good things.

The same manual permits sculpting and painting (not the garage).  You can probably (probablius) also grind grain!

There is some discussion of how much time one can do chores or labor.  If the work is really hard, two hours cold be allowed.  If not so hard, then three.

There are also some things which one can in in charity.  For example: taking care of the sick, burying the dead, helping a particular poor person though probably not “the poor” in general, which is an interesting distinction.  I recall that one of Screwtape’s tactics was to get people interested in “the poor”, rather than the needy person next to you.

Some things we can do out of piety.  For example, working in the church to clean or decorate, but not to construct or make the ornamental features of the church building.

Would working on a Sunday for parish festival fit in this category?  Hmmmm.

There are things we can do out of necessity.  You can form your own examples.   A surgeon can operate to save a life, for example.

So, consider all the elements and make the choice!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    I’ve wondered about this issue a lot. There are also household projects and chores which would normally seem servile, but on a Sunday afternoon with all my family home together I can do them with my young boys and it becomes fun and family time (even though we may technically doing a “work” I would at another busier time to grudgingly alone). Some of these tasks seem to return back across the threshold from servility to lesiure or recreation.

    If my job was brewing beer to make a living, I wouldn’t want to be brewing on my day off. But if brewing beer is a hobby and it’s a fun family activity I can do with my kids (brewing, not drinking) then I think it’s a great family recreation for a Sunday afternoon (especially in my line of work where Sunday might be the only uninterrupted block of time the whole week).

    In the same way I wonder if recreational woodwork is really “servile” in the classic sense. If I can build Legos for fun with my kids on Sunday, why not a chair for the pleasure of doing so as a family project? Mowing lawn always seems like it would be servile, but what about moderate amount of landscaping which is voluntary and again may have a recreational/family time aspect?

    To me the “servility” aspect seems to be speaking about the “drudgery” of a manual labor that isn’t critically time-dependent, again like mowing the lawn. Just do it another day. I also think the hobbies we indulge in on Sundays should not draw us away from our families after Mass. If I spent all day golfing for fun after Mass and never saw my family this wouldn’t seem like a good Sunday activity.

  2. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    The other issue I wonder about is the morality of making use of OTHER’S servile labor on Sundays.

    For example, shopping at the grocery store on Sunday when the trip could easily wait till another day. Shopping requires a lot of servile labor to occur on Sunday by others and keeps those people from their families. Are we causing others to sin by engaging in purchasing which requires others to work on Sunday?

    Could we shop at, say, a Muslim or Jewish butcher or bakery? Are they obliged to avoid servility on Sundays even though they deny Christ?

  3. TonyO says:

    I offer another distinction for consideration: the doing or making of things that are worthwhile in themselves versus those that are worthwhile only for some other purpose. So, typically, truly _servile_ labor was normally for some other purpose served, not for its own sake – though the categories are not exactly parallel.

    The reason I offer it is this: the study of difficult things might be something about which one might wonder “is it labor” or not. Obviously, if you are undertaking to study liturgical music on Sunday because (a) you love that music in its own right, and (b) you want to glorify God more perfectly, then this is a fitting pursuit for Sunday. But if you are faced with studying for a class in applied calculus to fulfill a degree but where you know you will never use it again, and the only reason you would ever study it is solely to meet the other requirements – maybe it’s not fitting for Sunday?

    In a similar vein, if you are a teacher who teaches core subjects constituting a liberal education – the education suited to a free man, including philosophy and theology, studying on Sunday those subjects that are worth knowing in their own right (especially, but not only, theology) seems reasonable. But if you are teaching mechanical engineering, grading 20 exams on Sunday seems less like doing something worthwhile in its own right and more comparable to the servile labor of a servant than like reading St. Anselm’s proof for the existence of God for philosophy class.

  4. Gilbert Fritz says:

    Interesting post.

    A slight quibble: “Man is born for work. Work is good. ”

    We were born for leisure, for contemplation. Work is good only insofar as it helps to achieve this end. In and of itself, it is not a good thing, though it is necessary to achieve good ends. Before the Fall, we were meant to be creative (tend the garden) but it was not going to entail toil; toil was a curse.

    [Review your notes: work is good. Toil is not. There is a constant tension between the active and contemplative. Augustine describes his struggle to find otium in negotio.]

  5. CradleRevert says:

    The flip side of this that I often struggle to find the middle ground of is situations where you put other people in a position to work. For example, eating at restaurants or filling up the gas tank in your car on Sundays. Since this puts others in a position where they are doing servile work, are these to be avoided also? Often times, some of my family members like to go golfing on Sundays during the summer, or bowling during the winter. While these activities themselves are recreational, this does put the people working at these establishments in positions of doing servile labor. Should these be avoided also?

  6. APX says:

    I think people are over-thinking this. [Perhaps. But it’s good that they want to do the right thing in the sight of God.]

    Necessary manual labour is allowed (ie: shovelling/salting your sidewalk/church parking lot/walkway so that those who are walking don’t fall and break something, or some other act of charity for someone such as serving food, working at a Hotel, working at a Correctional facility, police work, medicine, etc.)

    Even if something is a recreation for you, but is still manual labour, it is not permitted according to the CCC because part of Sunday rest is supposed to be resting the body in order to rejuvenate it for the upcoming work week. Schoolwork, however, is not Included in that, which is good news for many students cramming to write their term papers this weekend before they’re due on Monday.

    It’s funny how many Traditional Catholics have no problem shopping on Sundays, however. When I was growing up in the 90s retail stores weren’t open on Sundays (except Zellers, which my mom boycotted with a vengeance for that very reason), except for grocery stores for a few hours of the day. Then the law changed allowing retail stores to be open from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, requiring less people to work Sundays. Then Wal Mart and its Lawyers came along when Boxing Day fell on a Sunday and wanted to be open longer hours to make more money on their Boxing Day sales and challenged the law and won, allowing stores to be open unrestricted hours on Sundays. If Catholics stopped shopping on Sundays, stores would be open for less hours, or even not at all if the cost of being open exceeded what they would make that day. It’s the only reason my employer is closed Christmas Day.

  7. TonyO says:

    APX, I hate to tell you this, but stores have been open on Sundays for a lot longer than since the 90’s. I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s and most of them were open by the 70’s, if not earlier.

    You are right that Catholics should be avoiding shopping on Sundays, generally. But unfortunately even if Catholics did so, except for in very select places, this would not affect the store owners’ decisions to be open, (at least in the US) because 4/5 of the shoppers are not Catholic. They would generally be profitable with 4/5 of the populace considering Sunday a shopping day. You would need the ratio of non-shoppers to shoppers much higher, like 1:1 or so.

    I would like to see stores (and restaurants, gas stations, and other places) at least move in the right direction, of being open fewer hours. Actually, I think it would be sufficient (for now) if only 1/4 of these businesses were open on any given Sunday, and simply rotate which one: if there are 4 gas stations at a freeway exit, have only one open each Sunday of the month, with each of them taking a different Sunday. However, anything like this would take cooperation between businesses, and would end up being considered against the anti-monopoly laws.

  8. Gilbert Fritz says:

    [Review your notes: work is good. Toil is not. There is a constant tension between the active and contemplative. Augustine describes his struggle to find otium in negotio.]

    Hi Father,

    Is not all work oriented to leisure? The way I understood it is as follows. Like many things, work is not good in and of itself, but only insofar as it is oriented to a good end. Our ultimate end is the contemplation of God; we are active here only so that we (and others) may be at leisure. Everything else is oriented towards this final end, so all work and all activity ultimately serves contemplation, friendship, and leisure.

    Is this correct?

  9. JesuCorSanctissimum says:

    I greatly appreciate this post and comments. One of the strongest memories from my childhood was the sadness on my father’s face at the ending of the ‘blue laws’ in my hometown. He wasn’t a particularly religious man, but believed “there should be a day when everything just stops!”

    Sunday has been reduced to anything goes,’just cram Mass in….’

    I want to chime in with others who seek direction regarding activities that involve another’s work like restaurants and movies; I’ve always been uncomfortable with those and haven’t participated. However, pressure from my teens is tough:(

  10. capchoirgirl says:

    Love this post and the comments. I’ve been wondering about this very thing for awhile now. I try to avoid shopping on Sundays, although it’s not always successful.

  11. un-ionized says:

    Some people work weekends because they are offered more pay.

  12. un-ionized says:

    One important thing we can do is opt out of Sunday delivery from Amazon, it’s a scandal how the postal service people who make the deliveries are treated. Not order from them at all?

  13. When the mule falls in a hole, yea, you can fish him out on the Sabbath.

  14. hwriggles4 says:

    I have probably noted this before, but as a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s, organizers of sport leagues NEVER had Sunday games scheduled on Sundays until after 1300 hours, and the majority of our games (soccer and baseball) were on Saturdays. Swim meets were on Saturday mornings (usually lasting from 0700 to 1300 during June and July), and Sunday was the only day we didn’t have swim practice. This schedule gave parents and children of all denominations a chance to attend Sunday morning religious services.

    Today, friends who have kids tell me that it’s common to have a game on Sunday as early as 9:00 am, and I have had kids in CCD class skip because they have a game. Organizers argue “well, that is the only time the field is available. ” While some kids and adults can make Sunday evening or Saturday night religious services (A Baptist church near where I live has Saturday night service too – it’s a large church too) it’s up to the parents to get them there – and for parents to go with their children.

    Several Scout troops make an effort to be back from a campouts in time to attend either a late morning or early afternoon service (some come in uniform), and some attend a Sunday evening Mass. Years ago I worked 60 to 70 hours a week and I would normally attend Sunday evening Mass . When I was on a graveyard shift, I would get off work at 7am Sunday morning, go home, shower, and clean up so I could usher 9:15 am Mass. After Mass, I would go home and go to bed.

  15. That Guy says:

    Noted APX’s comment: “Schoolwork, however, is not Included in that, which is good news for many students cramming to write their term papers this weekend before they’re due on Monday.”

    No source was given for this exception, so I’d like to understand the rationale for why it would be acceptable for students to toil away at their homework on a Sunday, while I expressly forbid doing chores, or allowing my wife (a teacher) from grading papers, answering emails from parents, etc. How is doing homework not toil, unless we’re talking about studying religion? Why would students not also need Sabbath rest from their studies?

    We have encouraged our children to finish their schoolwork on Friday nights and Saturdays to free them up for leisure activities on Sundays. We’ve even consulted our pastor and the principal of our parish school, and happily, they agree- so tests are generally not given on Mondays (so as to not have students feel pressured to study on Sunday). Exceptions are made for religion assignments and tests, but in general, this has brought great benefits to our family:
    – It has enhanced our children’s time management skills
    – It has taught our children to at least think about the choices they make in keeping the 3rd Commandment
    – It has increased the peace in our home- no having to edit kids papers or help them with math
    – It has freed us up to do other more fruitful things like a family rosary, pilgrimages, and watching football (I know… it can be a bit of a vice these days, but it does bring us pleasure and brings us together in the living room to root for our favorite teams.)

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