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An important contribution by Pope Benedict XVI to Catholic Social Teaching

Fr Donal Dorr

We have been so enthusiastic about the strong stand Pope Francis is taking on behalf of poor people, that we might forget about a very important contribution which Pope Benedict XVI made to Catholic Social Teaching a few years ago. It came in a wonderful social encyclical, called Caritas in Veritate (Love in Truth). In it he made three valuable points.


The first of these is that it is a fatal mistake to set justice over against love. Justice is central for a Christian, but justice won’t work unless it is embedded in love and forgiveness. And this love is a gift of the Holy Spirit who is love. This love, freely poured into our hearts, enables us to reach out in compassion to others in a way that would otherwise be humanly impossible.


A second key point in the encyclical is that it is not enough just to “mean well”—that is to have good intentions. Our love and our action for justice must be based on the truth. This is an invitation to us to know about, and to challenge, the grossly unjust systems which prevail both at the national and the international levels. Within our country the rich and the powerful are treated far more favourably than the poor. Similarly, the poorer countries, where most of our missionaries work, are discriminated against and exploited economically by the wealthy and powerful countries. We have a duty to understand how these unjust systems work and to find ways to challenge them.


The third key point in Pope Benedict’s encyclical is a practical proposal. The pope puts forward a very realistic way in which people can begin to build a more just and humane society. It is by establishing viable business enterprises which are more concerned about people than about money. They must be viable—which means that they must be profitable and able to compete with more commercial businesses. But, alongside this need for viability, they must also ensure that their workers are properly paid and have security in their employment, that the raw materials which they use are bought from ‘fair trade’ suppliers, and that the whole enterprise respects the environment. It is clear that the pope expects priests to invite and challenge business people to put these values into practice in the various business enterprises which they manage, or own, or partly own through having shares in the company. And we are also expected to encourage other people with an entrepreneurial spirit to get involved in business enterprises of this kind. One way of doing this would be to give practical support to those who are willing to set up cooperatives of one kind or another e.g. farmers’ markets, or buying or savings cooperatives.


The question may be asked whether we can really expect a significant number of people to take seriously the proposal to establish business enterprises which aim to provide employment, to respect the environment, to give workers a sense of active involvement in the project, and even of shared ownership—and to maintain all these values while still being commercially viable? Is the pope just engaged in unrealistic moralizing?


There is one aspect of Pope Benedict’s proposal which makes it realistic: it can be implemented piece-meal on an incremental basis. Those who opt to establish the kind of business enterprises proposed by the pope can do so while continuing to live within the present free-enterprise system. We must remember that Benedict is not asking that these ethical enterprises should replace the usual profit-oriented companies but that that they should exist alongside them—as a challenge and an invitation to them to adopt a more ethical approach to business. Furthermore, Benedict’s proposal is more likely to be ecumenically acceptable. This is because the concept of a dual-purpose business enterprise is by no means confined to Catholics; in fact some Quakers and others adopted it many years ago.


On the other hand, Benedict’s proposal faces serious obstacles. Firstly, we need to consider the practical challenge which makes it hard for the kind of ethical business advocated by Benedict to flourish. The enterprise will have to compete in our globalized world where other companies out-source as much work as possible to areas where workers are poorly paid and are frequently exploited. If any ethical business is to survive, it must find ways to be even more efficient than competing companies whose sole or primary purpose is the generation of profit.


Furthermore, the present-day culture of the business world makes it very difficult to maintain a good balance between the entrepreneurial spirit and an idealistic commitment to noble social values. It is all too easy to tip over into a hard-nosed realism where ideals get neglected or sacrificed; or, on the other hand, to focus so much on high ideals that one fails to take account of real-life difficulties. In order to find a good balance, it is necessary to have the kind of support and challenge which can be provided by a committed community.


If the ethical business model is to succeed I think it will be necessary for the owners, the managers, the employees, and other stakeholders to take time out from their regular work to engage in some joint workshops where they can share their ideals with each other and can come to understand the pressures that each of these groups experience. In the course of such a workshop they can share their fears and their hopes—and they can experience the challenge which comes from listening, in an atmosphere of safety and respect, to the difficulties which arise for people whose situation in life is quite different from their own.


The biggest single obstacle to the implementation of this important proposal of Pope Benedict is that very few people even know about it. It was largely ignored by the media. And sadly, very few priests even mentioned it in their sermons. So we need to do our best to make it better known—especially to business leaders and to all who are working in factories, farms, and offices. We can encourage them to take an initiative to propose the adoption of this approach in their places of work.

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