Acton Commentary

Back to Business: The Compendium and the Entrepreneur

The PontificalCouncil for Justice and Peace, the Vatican department that studies Catholicsocial teaching, last week released its Compendiumof the Social Doctrine of the Church . Thedocument will surely attract significant attention over the next few months.

No doubt, there will be many questions. One will bethe degree of authority that Catholics should attach to different segments ofthe text. The Compendium reminds its readers (#9) that different levels ofteaching authority are associated with different parts of Catholic socialteaching. Curiously, however, it does not spell out what these are.

Then there is the issue of whether the Compendium actuallyconfines itself, as it claims, “to putting forth the fundamentalelements of the Church's social doctrine” (#8), or whether particularprudential judgments have made their way into the text.

These are open questions. But those anxious for the CatholicChurch to illustrate that it takes business seriously will take heart from thisCompendium.

Following developments in magisterial teaching pioneered by JohnPaul II's social encyclicals, the Compendium describes economic activity “ asa grateful response to the vocation which God holds out for each person “(#326). This should help dispel the notion that ”real“ vocations are only foundin politics, law, education, or the church.

The Compendium, of course, stressesthat economic life does not escape the demands of Christian morality. Thispoint is, however, framed in an overwhelmingly positive way, in the sense thatcreative economic activity is viewed as potentially contributing, by its verynature, to human flourishing.

Inthis context, the Compendium stresses, “ The Church's social doctrineconsiders the freedom of the person in economic matters a fundamental value andan inalienable right to be promoted and defended “ (#336). Thisbuilds upon similar statements found in Pope Pius XII's teachings, as well asmore recent statements in John Paul II's Centesimus Annus (1991) and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1988).

Butthe Compendium adds that not only should this teaching remind us of “thenegative consequences that would arise from weakening or denying the rightof economic initiative ,“ but that ”free and responsible initiative in theeconomic sphere can also be defined as an act that reveals the humanity of menand women as creative and relational subjects. Such initiative, then, should begiven ample leeway . The State has the moral obligation to enforce strictlimitations only in cases of incompatibility between the pursuit of common goodand the type of economic activity proposed or the way it is undertaken“ (#336).

Here, two points are made abouteconomic initiative. The first is a moral point: that acts of entrepreneurshipreveal something distinctly human about us as persons�”that we are, by nature,creative beings, whose creativity is directed not just to ourselves, but toothers. The second point is that this has political implications. Anarchism is clearly incompatible withthe Christian Gospel and the natural law. The moral significance of freeeconomic creativity, however, places clear limits on state economicintervention. This is not an argument about the relative efficiency of marketversus planned economies (a dispute resolved decades ago in favor of markets),but rather about how certain moral facts about the person translate intoconcrete political positions.

Itis also refreshing to see the Compendium apply these themes directly tobusiness owners and managers. “ Economic initiative ,“ it states, ” isan expression of human intelligence and of the necessity of responding to humanneeds in a creative and cooperative fashion “ (#343). On thisbasis, the Compendium describes entrepreneurship as not just an individualvirtue, but also as a ”social virtue“ (#343), precisely because it involves”seeking together of the most appropriate solutions for responding in the bestway to needs as they emerge“ (#343). Indeed, the Compendium notes that ” Theroles of business owners and management have a central importance from theviewpoint of society, because they are at the heart of that network oftechnical, commercial, financial and cultural bonds that characterizes themodern business reality “ (#344).

Business people are thus not anoptional-extra in a free and virtuous society. They are in fact essential.

Allof these statements about business should be put into the context of everythingelse that the Compendium says. It underlines, for instance, many of theresponsibilities of business people (#344-345), though in a far more coherentway than the political correctness that passes as “business ethics” in mostuniversities today.

Still,any fair reading of the Compendium will suggest that a proper attention and apositive evaluation of business has been firmly cemented into Catholic socialteaching. For that, the whole Christian church should give thanks.