Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The Economy of Communion in "Caritas in Veritate"

A section of Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate (nn.34-42) is devoted to development in the economic order, and the question is taken up again in the chapter on "The Development of People" (nn.45-47). If one wants to focus on two key terms to understanding the teaching of Pope Benedict, those terms would be "civil society" and "gratuitousness". Rather than just treating of an economic system that has two players, often seen as being in conflict with each other, namely private enterprise and the State, he argues that there is a range of organisations that sit between these two, the realm of "civil society". This he sees as being the ideal area for the operation of businesses that have not only a profit motive but a genuine interest in the welfare of all those who are stakeholders in the business - owners, employees, other businesses that form part of their supply chain or purchase their goods. This genuine interest is "gratuitous" - to be effective, it cannot be just the product of legal ordinance (the State) or just the product of a profit motive (private enterprise). One element of this exercise of businesses in civil society is the existence of businesses that are "not-for-profit", but Pope Benedict points out that other models exist too.
When we consider the issues involved in the relationship between business and ethics, as well as the evolution currently taking place in methods of production, it would appear that the traditionally valid distinction between profit-based companies and non-profit organizations can no longer do full justice to reality, or offer practical direction for the future. In recent decades a broad intermediate area has emerged between the two types of enterprise. It is made up of traditional companies which nonetheless subscribe to social aid agreements in support of underdeveloped countries, charitable foundations associated with individual companies, groups of companies oriented towards social welfare, and the diversified world of the so-called “civil economy” and the “economy of communion”. This is not merely a matter of a “third sector”, but of a broad new composite reality embracing the private and public spheres, one which does not exclude profit, but instead considers it a means for achieving human and social ends. Whether such companies distribute dividends or not, whether their juridical structure corresponds to one or other of the established forms, becomes secondary in relation to their willingness to view profit as a means of achieving the goal of a more humane market and society. It is to be hoped that these new kinds of enterprise will succeed in finding a suitable juridical and fiscal structure in every country. Without prejudice to the importance and the economic and social benefits of the more traditional forms of business, they steer the system towards a clearer and more complete assumption of duties on the part of economic subjects. And not only that. The very plurality of institutional forms of business gives rise to a market which is not only more civilized but also more competitive. [Caritas in Veritate n.46]

The phrase "economy of communion", used by Pope Benedict XVI, is also the name of an initiative of the Focolare Movement in the area of economics. This initiative comprises some 750 organisations world wide, who deploy the profits of their business in three ways. The first part is ploughed back in to the business to help it grow and to maintain its strength. The second part is used to promote the idea of the "economy of communion" through conferences and training that encourages others to engage in this type of activity (or, I think, it can be used to support other businesses that are at the time less successful). And the third part goes directly to the poor, to help with basic needs: food, shelter, education and health care.

One of the essential aspects of this "economy of communion", though, is that those who at one time might receive from the more successful businesses are seen as full partners making an equivalent contribution to communion. This is "gratuitousness" lived in its fullest sense.

To read a fuller account of the "economy of communion", look at this two part interview at ZENIT: part one, part two. This is the home page for the Economy of Communion initiative.

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