St. Joseph: Man and Worker—A Letter to Working Men

Considering our own crises in light of St. Joseph’s example, we can learn to see, even here in our coronavirus exile, an opportunity to offer a more fundamental yes to the work of God in our lives.

Detail from "St. Joseph, the Carpenter" (c. 1635-40) by Georges de la Tour []

For many, the coronavirus lockdowns may feel less like a medical quarantine and more like an exile. But throughout history, exile has been seen as a divine catalyst for reflection, repentance, and renewed readiness. We should expect it to be no less so today.

So here on the Memorial of St. Joseph the Worker, we have the opportunity to learn from the exile of Joseph the Just, a working man who was called to take God with him into the unknown. In their details, Joseph’s crises were not the same as ours today: he faced the prospect of his child being murdered and, should he succeed in avoiding that, the challenges of supporting his family in exile. We have our own crises: most immediately, we face the crisis of coronavirus and the resulting crisis of widespread unemployment, but more generally in our culture, we face a deep crisis of manhood, and a crisis of misunderstanding the vocation to work.

But these crises—ours and St. Joseph’s—are only outer shells of one more fundamental, a moment termed by Hans Urs von Balthasar as the Ernstfall: the decision point where we chose—or fail to choose—to unite ourselves more closely to Christ’s availability to the Father. And in considering our own crises in light of St. Joseph’s example, we can learn to see, even here in our coronavirus exile, an opportunity to offer a more fundamental yes to the work of God in our lives.

Crisis One: Manhood and Fatherhood

If you want to substantiate today’s crisis of manhood, the evidence is legion, and it is found not only in the culture at large. A particularly glaring bit of evidence can be found in our Church’s recent sexual scandal. The scandal is often (and rightly) considered a crisis of transparency, of corruption, of power, and of politics. But none of these characterizations get to the core.

The more fundamental problem is that many men today—and many clergymen as well—simply don’t know what it is to be a man. More specifically, they have abrogated their responsibility as fathers. They simply don’t possess the zeal, courage, fortitude, prudence, discipline, and heroic fire to chase away threats to those they are entrusted with—be those threats found in others or, especially, in oneself. What’s more, there is a serious lack of male accountability—the sort where men hold one another accountable—and a serious lack of heroes to emulate (virtuous heroes being long out of vogue). What men have today is an emaciated image of manhood where effeminacy is considered non-threateningly quaint, responsibility is considered burdensome, and the sickly self-comfort of victimhood replaces the generative discomfort of challenge and adventure.

But when culture presents masculinity itself as toxic, it is difficult even to posit whether, if in throwing out the bathwater of historical injustices against women, we may have also thrown out the baby of masculine virtue. The controversy that such a statement will elicit is itself proof that it has become taboo to suggest that men, just like women, have a particular genius, and that this genius is part of the imago Dei.

Most men intuit something is wrong with the contemporary view of manhood and are looking for a way to cope. Their response takes many forms, some laudable and many not. Oftentimes, men simply wallow in their isolation in a life of video games or pornography, further degrading their ability to become men who are men. But even in such situations, there is a growing sense that they need to be doing something different, and they are desperate for someone to show them how. If you doubt there is a widespread hunger for a considered, sustained, and serious reflection on the vocation of manhood, consider the popularity of Jordan Peterson. Love or hate him, you can’t deny he is exploring a continent many men have been begging to explore.

However, it isn’t as though Catholics have been silent about the matter. There have been several organizations, publications, and curricula designed to help men be better men. And even when the aesthetics of such enterprises are gussied up in the superficial (and even patronizing) stereotypes of weightlifting, tweed suit wearing, pipe smoking, beard balm greasing, or mountain climbing—laudable pastimes all—at least there is an attempt to address the problem.

But what is needed is not simply curricula and conferences focused on the formation of men. What is needed is an integrated spirituality, a grounding of one’s manhood in the life and service of Christ. And to find a model of this, one need look no further than to St. Joseph, a man whose entire life was devoted to the (seemingly) mundane service to the divine invasion.

St. Joseph: Man and Father

Joseph is famously taciturn. Scripture says very little about him, suggesting that, in God’s providence, the silence itself contains the lesson. True silence is attentiveness, the willingness to listen, and availability. So in his availability, Joseph prefigures the availability of Jesus, whose availability to the will of the Father was, according to von Balthasar, the raw material out of which God fashioned the salvation of the world. Joseph’s availability provided the space, so to speak, for God to provide for Jesus and his mother.

Of course, Mary was also available to God, and so it isn’t availability per se that helps us recover the distinctly masculine spirituality shown to us by St. Joseph. While it could be said that Mary’s availability took the form of receptivity, the availability of Joseph took the form of responsibility. We know from scripture that Joseph was a just man. He rendered unto God what was due to God—which is to say, he did his duty. Joseph the Man willingly took up the responsibility and natural duties of a husband and father, and in doing so, he placed his responsibility in service of the mission of God. Dare we think that those seemingly mundane responsibilities were themselves therefore consecrated?

It is here in the notion of responsibility where we find a special corrective to the temptation faced by many men today: the temptation to pit rights against responsibilities, and to favor rights. And while true human rights must always be defended, responsibility is not opposed to rights. Responsibility is the willingness to put skin in the game in the proper use of one’s rights. Responsibility is the ability to respond to one’s God-given duties. What’s more, responsibility is a door behind which men find vocation to be images of God the Provider, God the Generator of Life. And in St. Joseph, we see that this responsibility need not take grandiose form. In fact, even in the most basic natural duties of a husband and father can a man discover the chain that links his availability to the work of Christ in the world.

Crisis Two: Work
A second crisis faced by our country and Church is the crisis of work. Setting aside for the moment the unemployment crisis brought by coronavirus, the truth is that we largely have a deep misunderstanding of human work, one the modern world has wrestled with in an acute way since the industrial revolution.

With the fall of Soviet communism and the rise of globalization, we’ve been lulled into thinking that the issue of work has been largely resolved. This is understandable when you consider the amount of extreme poverty that has been eradicated in recent decades—certainly something to be thankful for. But just because we’ve wildly improved access to economic prosperity, we shouldn’t therefore assume we’ve somehow licked the problem of work posed by the new things of the industrial and post-industrial ages.

Foundational problems of work remain, problems that continue to present challenges to the well-being of working people, families, communities, and—as our current crisis is highlighting—our nation: cronyism, worker alienation, blue collar disenfranchisement, lower class marginalization, the moral breakdown of working families, etc. Such problems have received renewed attention in the work of writers like J.D. Vance and Chris Arnade, as well as in the recent speeches of politicians like Marco Rubio, who has increasingly adopted phraseology from Catholic social teaching.

In fact, it is Catholic social teaching that gives us the framework we need to better understand and address the problems of work in the modern world. The problem, however, is that for the last thirty years or so we’ve applied this teaching, in broader Catholic education and public discourse, mostly to macro issues alone: the nature of economic freedom, how markets do and don’t work, the proper role of government, etc. The conversation about work has been mostly abstract and, it’s fair to say, mostly for white collar audiences. Of course, white collar workers are certainly no less important than blue, and it does not service to pit one against the other. But when the economic discourse is largely tailored for only one aspect of human work, certain distortions and accretions are inevitable.

We must remember that by ignoring manual labor in our considerations of human work, we arrive at very incomplete understandings of the vocation to work. Consider, for example, how manual labor grants you a particular—perhaps more intimate—understanding of our incarnational experience. When you work with both your head and your hands, when you encounter and shape the world in its immediate materiality, you are bound to consider work differently than how you would while creating, for example, abstract financial projections on a computer screen spreadsheet.

In recent decades, the Church has accomplished much in developing the theology of the body and applying it to human sexuality, thus offering the modern world a means of meeting the challenges of the sexual revolution. But as Jordan Ballor has recently suggested, what is needed now is a similar application of the theology of the body to human work, such as can offer the modern world a means of meeting the continued challenges of the industrial revolution.

But general problems of work aside, there is also a very practical crisis of work as well, one for which the symptoms were clear even before the coronavirus hit: there is a very serious lack of skilled labor in America. In what has been termed “the skills gap,” it has been estimated that 3.5 million skilled trade jobs will go unfilled by 2022 in the United States. It remains to be seen how this will be affected by changes in the labor market post-COVID, but whatever the circumstances, it is clear that the state of American manufacturing—and its importance to our supply chains—is begging for reconsideration by the American public. The causes of this skills gap are many and varied—not the least of them being an entire generation of young men being led to believe that skilled labor was a “second choice” sort of career—but suffice it to say that on the shop floor, employers have been clamoring for help. And our current educational system is largely unable to meet the challenge.

So without sufficient theoretical or practical entrées into a fuller understanding of human work, how are men to discover how their work is, in fact, one key to an integrated, masculine spirituality?

St. Joseph: Worker

Just as Joseph’s silence and obedience help us better understand the vocation to manhood and fatherhood, so too does his vocation as a craftsman help us calibrate our understanding of human work. We know from Scripture that Joseph was a tekton—a word translated as carpenter, builder, craftsman. His precise speciality is difficult to discern—some have suggested he may have been a mason. Whatever it was, we know that it involved the fashioning of raw material into things useful to others. This would certainly mean he was a man of calloused hands, bloody cuts, and sore muscles, but it would also mean he was a man of discernment, creativity, acute observation, and precise skill. In other words, it would mean his head and his body worked in concert to transform raw material into something better.

So far, we learn nothing about work that we wouldn’t learn from reflecting on any craftsman. What sets Joseph apart was his apprentice. In working with his apprentice, Joseph was graced to receive a flesh-and-blood experience of what is true for every worker in every place and time.

Joseph’s apprentice was, of course, Jesus himself. The ramification is mind-boggling. God himself—the fashioner of the very universe—humbled himself to take instruction from a human craftsman, humbled himself to bow to the creative will of Joseph, humbled himself to obey his father’s wish to take out the garbage. The lesson of Joseph’s workshop is that God collaborated. And he continues to collaborate. For either it is true or it is not that God, in every place and every way, is active in the sustenance of the world, in its continued creation. And if it is true, then it means that the working man—in his will, mind, and body—is a collaborator of God. Or, to formulate the idea with slightly more controversy, God is a collaborator of the worker.

The notion should bring with it tremendous fear and trembling, but it should also lead us to ask why God would do such a thing. Is it simply to fashion, through work, the world as he wants it fashioned? Or is it to fashion, through work, the working man as he wants him fashioned? “Work is for man,” wrote St. John Paul II, “and not man for work.”

The model of St. Joseph the Worker reveals to us the remarkable—and remarkably tender—humility of God that can be found in our day-to-day work. Like his silence, the seemingly mundane world of work is a place—perhaps a primary place—to find our vocation to let ourselves be formed by a God who works alongside us in every moment, a God so tender and humble, he’ll help us take out the garbage.

The Return to Work

As the 1980s power ballad has it, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. In our quarantine exile, men and fathers are certainly realizing that the importance, meaning, necessity, and even joy of work are more present to them in the absence of work. Certainly they will feel the anxiety that comes from not knowing how their families will be provided for. And they may wonder if they truly have “the stuff” to meet the challenge.

But the true question in this time between before-COVID and after-COVID is the question of our availability, the question of our responsibility. Now is the time to decide that we will be responsible, that when we men hear the call of God, we will, like Joseph, rise up and take Jesus and his mother with us into our exile. Because no matter where we then go, they will go with us.

After all, it isn’t true that exiles are forever. It isn’t true that all our heroes have been taken from us. It isn’t true that we have no more models to show us what a true, masculine, and integrated spirituality looks like. It’s only that our model is a very quiet fella, and he is, even now, working with his Son in silence to craft something better.

St. Joseph, pray for us.

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About David Michael Phelps 1 Article
David Michael Phelps is the Director of Program Development and Dean of Humanities at Harmel Academy of the Trades and the host of Harmel’s Working Man podcast.


  1. Just as a footnote, for some reason people often overlook the obvious fact that St. Joseph was not a laborer for hire, but a worker-owner. Essential human dignity ordinarily requires capital ownership as well as human labor to develop and grow as a person. Thus, as Pope Leo XIII noted in Rerum Novarum in 1891,

    “5. It is surely undeniable that, when a man engages in remunerative labor, the impelling reason and motive of his work is to obtain property, and thereafter to hold it as his very own. If one man hires out to another his strength or skill, he does so for the purpose of receiving in return what is necessary for the satisfaction of his needs; he therefore expressly intends to acquire a right full and real, not only to the remuneration, but also to the disposal of such remuneration, just as he pleases. Thus, if he lives sparingly, saves money, and, for greater security, invests his savings in land, the land, in such case, is only his wages under another form; and, consequently, a working man’s little estate thus purchased should be as completely at his full disposal as are the wages he receives for his labor. But it is precisely in such power of disposal that ownership obtains, whether the property consist of land or chattels. Socialists, therefore, by endeavoring to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large, strike at the interests of every wage-earner, since they would deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all hope and possibility of increasing his resources and of bettering his condition in life.

    “6. What is of far greater moment, however, is the fact that the remedy they propose is manifestly against justice. For, every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own. This is one of the chief points of distinction between man and the animal creation, for the brute has no power of self direction, but is governed by two main instincts, which keep his powers on the alert, impel him to develop them in a fitting manner, and stimulate and determine him to action without any power of choice. One of these instincts is self preservation, the other the propagation of the species. Both can attain their purpose by means of things which lie within range; beyond their verge the brute creation cannot go, for they are moved to action by their senses only, and in the special direction which these suggest. But with man it is wholly different. He possesses, on the one hand, the full perfection of the animal being, and hence enjoys at least as much as the rest of the animal kind, the fruition of things material. But animal nature, however perfect, is far from representing the human being in its completeness, and is in truth but humanity’s humble handmaid, made to serve and to obey. It is the mind, or reason, which is the predominant element in us who are human creatures; it is this which renders a human being human, and distinguishes him essentially from the brute. And on this very account — that man alone among the animal creation is endowed with reason — it must be within his right to possess things not merely for temporary and momentary use, as other living things do, but to have and to hold them in stable and permanent possession; he must have not only things that perish in the use, but those also which, though they have been reduced into use, continue for further use in after time.

    “46. If a workman’s wages be sufficient to enable him comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his children, he will find it easy, if he be a sensible man, to practice thrift, and he will not fail, by cutting down expenses, to put by some little savings and thus secure a modest source of income. Nature itself would urge him to this. We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.”

    Sadly, some commentators have “edited” and reinterpreted the pope’s clear statements to mean that wages are the only legitimate source of income and create the only valid title to private ownership. Perhaps unconsciously they change §46 to read, “as many as possible of the WORKERS” . . . which is not what the English translation nor the official Latin text actually say: “Neque enim efficaci ratione dirimi caussam, de qua agitur, posse vidimus, nisi hoc sumpto et constituto, ius privatorum bonorum sanctum esse oportere. Quamobrem favere huic iuri leges debent, et quoad potest, providere ut quamplurimi ex multitudine rem habere malint.”

    Claiming that only labor creates title — one of the errors of the agrarian socialist Henry George and other prophets of the “Democratic Religion” of socialism, whose theories inspired the formation of the Fabian Society — is contrary to explicit papal teachings on private property, as Father Matthew Habiger, O.S.B., former president and chairman of Human Life International, noted in his doctoral thesis, “Papal Teachings on Private Property 1891-1981.” It also undermines the social order itself, as Leo XIII explained.

    • Interesting comment on how Pope Leo’s document was and is still being misrepresented. The importance of private property or property rights in society is not well understood. Without the capital and a reasonable system to allocate it (ie propery rights and market solutions) Labor and the Laborer suffers.

  2. A very well written and thoughtful article. Informative and shows much respect for St. Joseph, who deserves our love and admiration. If only mankind would turn to St. Joseph for inspiration, perhaps you will inspire more to do so. Thank you.

  3. Timely article. Would add that daily prayer, including the rosary, adding a novena to St Joseph periodically for spiritual and temporal guidance should be part of everyman’s life. Next would add that boys in growing up should be encourage to be alter boys, this is an important aspect of developing a spiritual life that every boy needs to grow into a responsible man.

    Also think boys should be encouraged to play sports and men as fathers should be active in teaching their boys a sport. In my case baseball was an ever present part of my growing up life and I think a key part of growing up and learning how to be a part of team. While I am definitely old, just can’t see how staying home and playing video games can be a road to human development. While maybe not part of every boys thing, just doing or making things with your hands: building a fort, planting a garden or flowers, cutting grass etc., can provide the mental building blocks for being a responsible working man.

    As a last thought boys and men need to learn about men saints, starting with St Joseph and then so many others that provide role models on what it is to be a real man. It is always good to have a current role models, that’s where priests have a role to play.

  4. Phelps refers indirectly (through Jordan Ballor) to the 1981 encyclical letter Laborem Exercens (LE), and then remarks that “John Paul II also referred to as the need for ‘an authentic human ecology,’ a theme picked up especially by Pope Francis.”

    Simply “picked up?” Or, blurred? Does Pope Francis’s theme of an “integral ecology” risk conflating too much the—related but distinct—“natural ecology” and “human ecology”? Writing as broadly in 1991, St. John Paul II still chose to keep distinct the “ecological question,” and “the moral conditions for an authentic ‘human ecology,’” and thirdly the preservation of the “natural and human environments” and our “collective goods” (Centesimus Annus, nn. 37 and 38-9, and 40).

    Does Pachamama displace, just a bit, both Our Lady of Guadalupe and now Joseph the Worker? And all of us who are invited together, by St. John Paul II, to our personal places at the global “workbench”? “[E]ach person is fully entitled to consider himself a part-owner of the great workbench at which he is working with everyone else” (LE, n . 14) and, yes also, as “a sharer in building the [e.g., ecological] future of those who will come after him in the succession of history” (n. 16).

    • Well said, Mr. Beaulieu! After reading this most excellent article about Most Glorious Saint Joseph, through God’s Grace and Spirit, I prayerfully see that Pachamama is at its very core the (false) Goddess of Demonic Feminization, to destroy both human TRUE masculinity and TRUE femininity, turning men into cowardly, soft, evil-enabling false women, and women into hyper-toxic, heartless, destructive false men.

      It is the same “goddess” as “Santa Muerte” (Saint Death), the macabre mockery of the Virgin Mary with the face of a naked skull, and worshipped by homosexuals and drug dealers south of the border and elsewhere. All this is hidden by Temporal Bigotry, the ridiculous belief that we are today so much more advanced, capable and superior than everyone else in the past and we have nothing to learn from them. This is intentionally manufactured to hide our collective idiocy in believing the Spiritual- Transgendering Pachamama Demons and their cohorts and friends.

      Our technology is amazing but we are infinitely beyond pathetic and miserable. We fake great concern for the poor because we are the poorest generation ever on Earth. We are like one of those heart-breaking starving children, sitting down and with hollow eyes slowly waiting for that last breath while surrounded by food and abundance and science and glitter. Our willful blindness to God brings every single type of starvation, material and spiritual. Pray to JESUS that he sends Saint Joseph to crush the Spiritual-Transgenderism Pachamama Demons and that he teaches us to do the same. “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you”, (Romans 16:20).

  5. Thank you, David, for this deep, relevant, and beautifully written piece. It was shared with me by my wife. It perfectly added to a tearful conversation we had last night.

  6. For a much deeper and intimate understanding of Saint Joseph I recommend reading “The Life of Saint Joseph” (as manifested by Our Lord, Jesus Christ to : Maria Cecelia Baij, O.S.B.)

  7. If you have not noticed, the MEN, as in the traditional sort who exudes all that has been deemed toxic right along with the truly worst of attributes. Have you noticed, they are not found in church. They are not found in “Higher Education” or the profession of teaching at all. They are not found where they have been systematically and summerly dismissed. The better question one may ask would be “WHY and be WHO?”.

    We have a Women’s Hospital, a Children’s Hospital, and Geriatrics that abound in the secular world. Then if you happen to look at your local Churches programs pamphlets for the last 30 years. You will see the same Erie absence of the very same category of those missing from your pues. Every single standing structure that calls itself a church was built by men. Is it not strange then that men find themselves unwanted and unwelcome?

    Outside the church, it’s pay your taxes.
    Inside the church it’s pay your tithing.

    No one man can be equal to the resources of Daddy Government.
    Nor can any Man live up to God.

    On both sides of the coin, secular or religious. The message is clear from those who lead these. You, are not enough and you will never be.

    The ones whom are your leaders are those whom need to be held responsible.

    While those Men of all stripe and tribe are continuing on as per usual. They are sent out to the edge of civilization to confront real world enemies with no support from those who sent them. They are still at work to keep the “essentials” of modern living working, with lower than pay than those who shelter in fear. Universities are the broom closet storage of knowledge. They are not nor the source of innovation or cultivators of the next Einstein, Newton, Wright Brothers, Lincoln, Bill Hates, or Steve Jobs. NONE of them went to College.

    But society insists that in order to succeed, you must abide by your betters….

    Well. I read about 12 MEN, who most assuredly did not abide. It may be a better notion to get back to reading what many have twisted for thier own ends.

    • The reality, the very stark reality, is that the Catholic Church through the actions of the Vatican and of its bishops despise and fear true Masculinity.
      This is a feminized church, deliberately so.

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