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Pope Francis to entrepreneurs: Do good, despite what culture says

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Yesterday, Pope Francis hosted a private audience in his Apostolic Palace for a few hundred international entrepreneurs and business leaders. The members of the International Christian Union of Business Executives (UNIAPAC) had gathered inside the Vatican’s walls for two days of meetings for the “noble purpose of reflecting on the role of business persons as agents of economic and social inclusion.”

Pope Francis, not always an affirming supporter of free market capitalism, focused on some of his usual challenging caveats to business persons. While business is certainly noble and its success is a vital part of the promoting economic growth for the common good, fallen man should nevertheless be constantly wary of his weaknesses for material idolatry (especially money), selfishness (not showing solidarity), and unguarded concern for acts of corruption (intentional deceit), the latter of which Francis said was “the worst of social plagues.”

This holds true for “all human activity”, the pope reassured those present, and not just business activity. It is an anthropological-spiritual discipline that we must keep on the forefront of our daily decision making. In this way, we sharpen our prudence and hone our focus when treading uphill individual paths to holiness and salvation. By way of constant prayer and deep spiritual discernment, man can more likely make the best moral choices, even in the most cut-throat and difficult business situations.

But sometimes this is risky for the seeker and promoter of virtue.

Using a little reverse psychology on entrepreneurs who are not averse to taking big chances or being vocal leaders in their business communities, Francis focused a large portion of his discourse on risk and moral courage.

Rather than speaking about the risk of not doing, avoiding or failing to do something in order to succeed, the pope coaxed the business executives to consider risking doing something positive and real for the common good, an encouragement to live out their faith proactively — not just avoiding error or sin as happens with negative risk taking.

The opposite, positive risk taking, does not focus on avoidance or preserving but on actually doing and producing. It leads to bold intentional, magnanimous, and carefully considered free choices that have real material fruits. For Francis it requires turning a deaf ear to what is trendy, enticing but wrong in itself.

In sum, it is a powerful and willful agency — moral courage — against very strong countercurrents of a godless and self-serving secular society.

Such risk would involve not being popular in most firms, of being disowned by one’s business peers or even family, and “taking risks that complicate life while having to sacrifice certain earnings,” said Francis.

By taking chances toward doing something true and good for man,  Francis told the entrepreneurs to assume specifically three risks: “the risk of using money well, the risk of honesty, and the risk of fraternity”.

In a certain sense, the pope was proposing a remedy for that which is called moral hazard in economics, by exhorting entrepreneurs to be always fair and other-directed. Above all, it is a matter of accepting full personal responsibility for the risks one undertakes, and the real negative or positive consequences one’s actions may have on customers, employees, family and society in general.

Below is the translation of Pope Francis’s address to the UNIAPAC business executives. The translation is my own, as there is no official English translation available on the Vatican web site. The original Spanish is found here.


Your Eminence,  Mr. President of UNIAPAC, and Dear Friends,

You have come to Rome – to the Vatican — in response to an invitation from Cardinal Peter Turkson and the authorities of the International Christian Union of Business Executives [UNIAPAC] for the noble purpose of reflecting on the role of business persons as agents of economic and social inclusion.  I want to assure you, now, of my support and prayers for your work. God’s Providence has willed that this UNIAPAC meeting coincide with the end of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. All human activity – including entrepreneurial activity – can be an exercise of mercy, while participating in God’s love for man.

Business activity constantly assumes a multitude of risks. In the parables of the hidden treasure buried in a field (Matthew 13,44) and the precious pearl (Matthew 13,45), Jesus compares obtaining the Kingdom of Heaven with undertaking entrepreneurial risk. Today I want to reflect with you on three kinds of risk: the risk of using money well, the risk of honesty, and the risk of fraternity.

Firstly, there is the risk that comes with using money. Speaking about business immediately leads us to encounter one of the most difficult subjects of our moral experience: money. I have often said “money is the devil’s manure”, repeating what the Holy Fathers have said. Furthermore, Leo XIII, who began the Church’s Social Doctrine, stated that the history of the 19th century had divided “cities into two classes separated by a wide chasm” (Rerum Novarum, 47). Forty years later, Pius XI foresaw the growth of international “economic imperialism” (Quadragesimo Anno, 109). After another 40 years, Paul VI, while referencing Rerum Novarum, denounced the excessive concentration of means and power that “can lead to a new and abusive form of economic domination on the social, cultural and even political level.” (Octogesima Adveniens, 44)

Jesus, in his parable on the unjust manager, tells us to make friends for ourselves with unrighteous wealth so that [when it is gone] we will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” (Luke 16, 9-15). All the Church Fathers interpreted these words as meaning wealth is good when placed at the service of others; if not, wealth is used unjustly (Catena Aurea: The Gospel According to St. Luke 16, 8-13). Therefore, money must serve and not rule. It is a key principle: money must serve instead of ruling.  Money is only a technical instrument used for inter-mediation, for assessing values and rights, for fulfilling obligations and [procuring] savings. Like all tools, money does not have neutral value, but acquires value according to its purpose and the circumstances in which it is used. When we affirm the neutrality of money, we fall under its power. Businesses mustn’t exist to make money, even though money is a measure of their [proper] functioning. Businesses exist to serve.

Thus, it is urgent we return to the social meaning of financial and banking activity, using the best intelligence and creativity of businessmen. This supposes taking risks that complicate life while having to sacrifice certain earnings. Credit must be accessible for [purchasing] family homes, for small and medium-sized enterprises, for farmers, for educational activities – especially at the primary level – for general healthcare, for the improvement and integration of the poorest city centers. One chrematistic rationality of the market is to make credit more accessible and cheaper for those with greater resources, while more expensive and more difficult for those with less, to the point that the poorest fringes of the population are left in the hands on unscrupulous usurers. In the same way and at an international level, the financing of the world’s poorest countries easily turns into usury. This is one of the greatest challenges for the business sector and for economists in general. Business is called to achieve a stable and sufficient flow of credit which excludes no one and which may be amortized under fair and affordable conditions.

Even if one accepts the possibility of creating business mechanisms that are accessible to all and work for everyone’s benefit, we must recognize that generous and abundant gratuity will always be necessary. It will also require the State to intervene to protect certain collective goods and to ensure that basic human needs are met. My predecessor, St. John Paul II, stated that ignoring this leads to “an ‘idolatry’ of the market” (Centesimus Annus, 40).

There is a second risk that entrepreneurs must face: the risk of honesty. Corruption is the worst of social plagues. It is the lie of a person or a group to seek their own advantage while appearing to serve society. It is the destruction of the social fabric while appearing to comply with the law. It is the law of the jungle disguised as apparent social rationality. It is the deception and exploitation of the weakest or least informed. It is the crassest form of selfishness, a façade of apparent generosity. Corruption is generated through worshiping money and falls back on the corrupt person, who becomes a prisoner of that same worship. Corruption is a fraud to democracy, and opens doors to other terrible evils such as drugs, prostitution and human trafficking, slavery, trade of vital organs, arms trafficking, and so on. Becoming corrupt means becoming a follower of the devil, the father of lies.

However, [as I have said] corruption “is not an exclusive vice of politics. There is corruption in politics. There is corruption in business. There is corruption in the media. There is corruption in the Churches. And there is corruption in social organizations and popular movements.” (Cf. Papal Address to the Participants at the World Meeting of Popular Movements, November 5, 2016).

One of the necessary conditions for social progress is the absence of corruption. Business owners might be tempted to give in to acts of blackmail or extortion, while justifying themselves with the idea of saving their companies and community of workers, or thinking that this is the way they will grow the company and that one day they will be able to rid themselves of this disease. In addition, they may be tempted to think that this is something that everyone does, and that small acts of corruption aimed at obtaining small advantages are trivial. Any act of corruption, active or passive, is already the starting point for worshiping money as a god.

The third risk involves fraternity. We remembered how Saint John Paul II taught us that “prior to the logic of a fair exchange of goods”… there is “something which is due to man because he is man, by reason of his lofty dignity.” (Centesimus Annus, 34). Benedict XVI also insisted on the importance of gratuitousness as an essential element of social and economic life, saying: “Charity in truth places man before the astonishing experience of gift which expresses and makes present his transcendent dimension… Economic, social and political development … needs to make room for the principle of gratuitousness as an expression of fraternity.”  (Caritas in Veritate, 34)

Entrepreneurship must always include the element of gratuitousness. Relations of justice between senior management and workers must be respected and be demanded by both parties. By the same token, a company is a working community in which everyone deserves respect and fraternal appreciation from superiors, colleagues and subordinates. Respect for the other as a brother must also extend to the local community in which the company is physically located. And, in a way, all legal and economic relations of the company should be moderate while enshrined in an atmosphere of respect and fraternity. There is no shortage of examples of solidarity toward those most in need by the staff of companies, clinics, universities or other communities of work and research. This should be a habitual way of acting, the result of everyone’s deep convictions, preventing it from becoming an occasional activity to appease one’s own conscience or, worse still, as a means to gain publicity.

Regarding fraternity, I mustn’t fail to share my thoughts on the subject of migration and refugees, a theme which weighs heavily on our hearts. Today, the migration and displacement of a multitude of people seeking protection has become a dramatic human problem. The Holy See and the local Churches are making extraordinary efforts to deal effectively with the causes of this situation, seeking the pacification of regions and countries at war and promoting a spirit of welcome. But one does not always achieve everything one desires. I ask for your help as well. On the one hand, try to convince governments to renounce all acts of war. As they say in business environments: a “bad” agreement is always better than a “good” fight. [On the other,] collaborate in creating decent, stable and abundant sources of work, both in places of origin and arrival, and in these, for the local population and for immigrants. Immigration must continue to be an important factor for development.

Most of us here are from immigrant families. Our grandparents or parents arrived from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Lebanon or from other countries to South and North America, and almost always in conditions of extreme poverty. They were able to raise families, progress, and to become entrepreneurs because they found welcoming societies, which were sometimes as poor as they were, but nevertheless willing to share what little they had. Keep and promote this spirit rooted in Christianity, while also demonstrating your entrepreneurial genius.

UNIAPAC and ACDE evoke in me the memory of the Argentine businessman Enrique Shaw, one of their founders, whose cause for beatification I was able to promote as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. I recommend you follow his example and, for Catholics, to seek his help in being good entrepreneurs.

In the Gospel from two Sundays ago we read about the calling of Zacchaeus (Luke 19: 1-10). Zacchaeus was that rich man, the chief of tax collectors from Jericho, who climbed a tree to see Jesus. The Lord’s gaze led him to a deep conversion. May this meeting be like the sycamore tree in Jericho, a tree up which all can climb, so that, through learned discussion of the aspects of entrepreneurship, one may find the gaze of Jesus, and hence find efficacious guidelines for doing business that promotes the common good effectively.

I thank you for this visit to the Successor of St. Peter. I ask you to bring my blessing to all your employees, workers and collaborators and their families. And, please, do not forget to pray for me. Thank you very much.

Michael Severance

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