On Monday this week Pope Francis met with a group of entrepreneurs from Spain, and used the opportunity to share some of his thoughts on the need for a transformation of global commerce to address “well-known economic and social imbalances”.
During the audience with the Confederación Española de Asociaciones de Jóvenes Empresarios and the Confederación de Empresarios de Galicias His Holiness highlighted three ideas that he considers vital for entrepreneurs to consider. He told those gathered to “be prophets, “work on your spiritual health” and to “do everything with love”.
In essence the Pope outlined a global economy that needs to be driven by a profound awareness of and commitment to the common good, spiritual wellbeing and the welfare of workers and employees.
In many respects his remarks echoed landmark encyclicals and documents that have gone before – Rerum Novarum, Laborem Exrecens and the whole river of political thought that is Catholic Social Teaching. Of itself this Catholic tradition sits nobly alongside numerous other traditions and philosophies relating to the nature of human work, and the possible benevolent alternatives to the current obsession with competition and personal wealth creation.
It is no bad thing to raise one head’s from the workbench and dream occasionally of better ways of living and working, of more equitable frameworks for society and equality of opportunity, but the unique position that our world finds itself in today is challenging some of the most fundamental aspects of these Christian aspirations.
In his meeting with the Spanish entrepreneurs Pope Francis sought to describe a model of economy and employment that not only lauded the concept of entrepreneurship, but proposed that an adjustment in moral vision and motivation by business leaders could actually create a workplace that benefits all.
“It is up to you to develop your service, let us say, as prophets who proclaim and build the common home, respecting all forms of life, caring for the good of all and promoting peace,” the Pope said.
He also asked the attendees “not forget that its activity is at the service of the human being, not just of the few, but of all, especially the poor.”
Unfortunately there is a deep dichotomy between wealth creation and public service, and the very concept of entrepreneurship is tainted with commercial realities that don’t particularly encourage wider public beneficence. Whether it is possible – or even reasonable – to ask entrepreneurs to behave in a more equitable way is doubtful – after all the very concept presumes and requires a profoundly competitive and self-centred drive that simply doesn’t favour the philanthropically-minded.
To be honest, even at the cost of disagreeing with our Pope, I’m not sure if there is any easy philosophical route through Catholic teaching that can in one breath patronise and celebrate those who ‘succeed’ in business, and in the other ask them to give fair consideration to those whom luck and their methods have almost invariably exploited.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta used to say it doesn’t matter where the money comes from, so long as it buys a loaf of bread for someone who’s starving. This model of ‘trickledown’ benevolence may sound both attractive and pragmatic, but it supports our current aggressive and divisive system of economics, placing its hope in a manipulation of the market rather than asking any profound questions about its nature and validity.
A more fruitful approach might be to question the very concept and structure of ‘entrepreneurship’, which of its nature implies a small meritocracy of successful individuals; so I’m hoping that’s where Pope Francis is headed.
By coincidence this week’s gospel has centred on Luke:12, and all that marvellous poetry about Solomon and the lilies of the field. After Jesus tells the crowd the parable of the Rich Fool and his barn stashed with grain, he goes on to give those memorable analogies about ravens, ‘idle’ flowers and the grass of the field.
“Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out,” says Jesus, “a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys”.
Luke:12 is the inspiration from which so many vows of poverty and charity come, and I so often hear its verses cited when I speak to those who have joined religious orders, or otherwise turned their back on material possessions and obsessions. Jesus’ words on this occasion present a profound challenge to the way we see and idolise material wealth and achievements. In a sense Luke:12 is a refutation of the concept of entrepreneurship – true wealth is solely spiritual, not material, says Jesus.
Returning to such a primordial idyll as dispensing with the need to work or earn capital is as far from us today as we have strayed from the Garden of Eden, but the time is clearly right – and urgent – to question most of our fundamental assumptions about global economics and the nature of employment and reward.
Back in the 1940s one young Catholic priest was asking exactly these questions. José María Arizmendiarrieta settled in Mondragón, a small Spanish town that had not yet recovered from the poverty, hunger, exile, and tension of the Spanish Civil War. In 1943 he established a technical college which became a training ground for managers, engineers and skilled labour for local companies. Arizmendiarrieta recognised the need to place the human person at the centre of all thought and activity, and founded a small co-operative based on Catholic social principles that manufactured inexpensive gas heaters. Today the Mondragon Corporation still functions to Arizmendiarrieta’s brief, employs more than 85,000 people and is Spain’s fourth-largest industrial and tenth-largest financial group.
Around the world there are also many other highly successful companies functioning to Catholic principles, utilising structures and business practices that we would all recognise as profoundly spiritual, but that don’t inhibit their ability to function. In fact, quite the contrary.
This might be something politicians may want to consider as they try frantically to rebuild credibility in a parliamentary system that has collapsed utterly. With the resignation of Liz Truss this afternoon – the shortest prime-ministership in UK history – we are now looking to find our third Prime Minister of 2022, with few obvious candidates in sight.
Undoubtedly sensing what was coming today, leading Tory Charles Walker – MP for Broxbourne in Hertfordshire and ex chair of the House of Commons Procedure Committee – for me summed up the problem succinctly when he spoke to a BBC reporter in the Central Lobby last night.
“I’ve had enough of talentless people putting their tick in the right box – not because it’s in the national interest – but because it’s in their own personal interest to achieve ministerial position,” said Walker, who also took the opportunity to announce his only voluntary resignation from parliament.
His comments are nothing new – back in 1906 the Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc became an MP with bold aspirations for the betterment of society, but just three years later he had come to regret bitterly his decision to engage with Westminster. Two of his many books – The Party System (1911) and The Servile State (1912) – recount vividly his frustrations with the political establishment and the ruthlessly self-interested individuals who controlled it.
More than a century later little seems to have changed.
With the implosion of Liz Truss’s Tory cabinet over the past few weeks we’ve heard and seen some incredibly unpleasant and worrying statements about all manner of social issues – from dreams about shipping refugees to Rwanda, scroungers on benefits, the need to reduce pensions, to dismantle public services even further and draconian laws to curtail the democratic right to protest and free speech. It was as if a dying beast was lashing out at its tormentors.
It seems that we are now going to get a new Tory leader and Prime Minister within the next week, voted in by just a few hundred Conservative MPs and handed a yet another blank mandate to try and rebuild our battered country and its failing economy. Practical difficulties aside the real challenge will be finding people with the humanity to govern meaningfully, and our new PM would do well to heed the advice of Pope Francis to those Spanish entrepreneurs:
“Continue to creatively transform the face of the economy, so that it may be more attentive to ethical principle” as well as to “not forget that its activity is at the service of the human being, not just of the few, but of all, especially the poor,” the Pope said.
“With the values of work and poverty, which imply a complete trust in God and not in things, an economy can be created that reconciles the members of the different stages of production, without them despising each other, without creating more injustice or experiencing cold indifference.”
Sound advice; let’s hope it reaches Westminster sooner rather than later.
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian, and founder of www.thecatholicnetwork.co.uk