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Acton Commentary

An Easter message for business

    “All that the human creature is and has is a divine gift.” Those words from Pope Benedict XVI rang out during his Palm Sunday homily. Man’s very ability to work and create wealth is a gift which he can either accept or reject. The vocation to be an entrepreneur is the acceptance of this gift and the creation of something new and beneficial to man. Whether it be the creation of new jobs, a way to maximize resources, or a simplification of life, the entrepreneur fulfills his vocation by taking this gift and being an extraordinary steward of its benefits.

    On Palm Sunday, Pope Benedict was reiterating his Lenten message. Originally published as Conversion of the Heart: The Journey through Lent to Easter, the book guides the reader through Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday with an important reflection for each period. That particular line struck me, because it confirmed my own recent reflections. After interning at the Acton Institute for the past two years, the importance of the entrepreneurial vocation has become clearer to me.

    As the ability to work and function in the market system is a gift from God, it must be carried out according to moral precepts. Thus, a moral code must be present and alive in everyday business life. Every transaction, trade, or exchange must have at its core values based on natural law. In the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the description of Pope Pius XII’s teaching on social doctrine emphasize this point: “He insisted on the notion of natural law as the soul of the system to be established on both the national and the international levels”(53–54). How can the businessman know whether his actions are based on natural law? “Society, its structures and development must be oriented towards the progress of the human person” (56).

    Every person, Christian believer or not, has by nature a sense of morality instilled by the Divine. In cartoon terms, it is the Jiminy Cricket who whispers, “Let your conscience be your guide.” But what about those who reject the gift? They can do this in the business world by corrupting the marketplace with immoral acts or by simply choosing not to work. (The word choose is key because there are people who cannot work.) Those who of their own volition do not work choose instead to rely on the labor of others. They diminish, not only their own dignity, but also that of those working around them.

    Those who corrupt the marketplace take the gift but use it toward an illegitimate end. In such cases, the dollar becomes God. It is no longer a symbol of exchange and a useful tool but the goal in and of itself. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus tells his followers not to seek only riches but a higher goal: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt 6:19–21).

    This is the difference between one who answers the call of the entrepreneur and one who allows money to consume him. Nowhere does Christ condemn business or entrepreneurship. He condemns the false idols of the pagans that consume and distort the soul.

    One might object that business cannot always take into consideration every person. How can a business function and make a profit while trying to maintain the dignity of all? In Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II provided a response: “A business’s objective must be met in economic terms and according to economic criteria, but the authentic values that bring about the concrete development of the person and society must not be neglected.”

    The business cannot be responsible for every person; rather its responsibility is towards its employees and contacts. Again, Pope John Paul II admits, “The social doctrine of the Church recognizes the proper role of profit as the first indicator that a business is functioning well: when a firm makes a profit, this means that productive factors have been properly employed.” Prosperity and human flourishing need not be opposed, so long as corporate productivity and human dignity are brought into concord. The Church reminds business, “The legitimate pursuit of profit should be in harmony with the irrenounceable protection of the dignity of the people who work at different levels in the same company” (Compendium, n. 340).

    Carrying on the message of his predecessor, Pope Benedict again shines a spotlight on the importance of business while reminding the corporate world that human dignity can never be sacrificed. It is but a reminder of what Jesus taught in the days leading up to the first Easter: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven ... for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” 

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    Joseph Kosten acted as an Acton Rome office intern while pursuing a Masters and Doctorate in Social Communications at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.