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!