Friday, July 20, 2012

The Logic of the Gift by Angelo Matera

“Traces” No. 6, 2012, 45-47.

“… In the document  [Caritas in Veritate], the Pope focused less on public policy, and more on outlining his vision of ‘business as a vocation,’ calling business leaders to look beyond profit, and manage their companies based on ‘the logic of gift.’

                “This was a departure from the reasoning of previous social encyclicals. Instead of arguments grounded in the natural law, CV’s language was deeply theological. Man’s ‘astonishing experience of gift,’ explained the Pope, should have a place within ‘normal economic activity.’ This was radical – less Ten Commandments, and more Sermon on the Mount. Not surprisingly, this mixing of theology and social policy made many American Catholics nervous. The questions were asked:  Was the encyclical merely concerned with the private spirituality of business executives? Or was it a naïve call to do business like lambs among the wolves of the marketplace?

                “Both questions implied that the encyclical’s ideas were not relevant to real-life business… (O)ver the next two years the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace organized several conferences to study how to put Caritas in Veritate into practice, and in April published a 32-page reflection booklet entitled Vocation of the Business Leader.

                “The document masterfully integrates the Pope’s deep theology with contemporary business issues, and in clear, vivid language presents a practical discernment guide for Christian business leaders in the 21st century….

                “Vocation calls Christian business leaders to the integrated life, to ‘realize the grandeur and awesome responsibility of their vocation’ by ‘participating in the work of the Creator through their stewardship of productive organizations.’ The vocation of business is rooted in the Gospel, ‘a message of love which is found not primarily in a theory or an ethic, but in a relationship with Christ’…

                … ‘The practice of virtues’ is necessary to act effectively. ‘Wise business leaders act virtuously in their practical affairs, cultivating wisdom in concrete practices and policies, not just in abstract mission statements’…. We had intuitively reasons that we should pay people above industry standards in exchange for hard work and education, and provide generous severance pay to anyone who was laid off. This created a high level of staff commitment, and positive ‘word of mouth’ in our industry from ex-employees, which made it possible to attract excellent people. The result was greater profitability. ‘Doing the right thing’ led to an objective experience of reciprocity – giving and receiving – that helped to create what Vocation calls ‘a community of persons’ in our company. I believe that most people are similarly motivated by ‘the logic of gift’ in the workplace, that experience of ‘something greater’ that Christians recognize as the Logos of Christ. But mainstream economic theory-built upon Adam Smith’s idea that self-interest, not self-giving, creates wealth – says that experience must be denied or, at best, never named. Why? Because a fear exists that this ‘something greater’ will limit our freedom. To safeguard the autonomy of the individual, only what can be ‘objectively’ measured - money – can guide our lives together.

                “Vocation’ doesn’t assume that good jobs and socially useful goods and services are the natural by-products of greed. Instead, it insists tha the explicit purpose and end of business must be the good of persons and society. Unfortunately, corporate law, to a large extent, limits American companies – especially those that are publicly traded – to the single goal of making as much money as possible for shareholders. Since the financial crisis, however, the social enterprise movement has challenged this ideology, spurring the chartering of new ‘B’ (for public benefit) corporations that are free to use their profits for the social good. The Vocation of the Business Leader may provide what has so far been lacking in that movement – a transcendent foundation rooted in a Christian anthropology.” 

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