I asked myself what I might present to a group of Catholic entrepreneurs who want to practice their Faith in business. The task is rendered difficult by the times and the many misconceptions people have about the Faith and finances.
Some Catholics think the Christian business model should be based on charity. A truly Catholic entrepreneur should think not about making money but about giving it away to live more faithfully to the Gospel.
The Blacksmith and Saint John Bosco
To illustrate this misconception, I will tell a story of a conversation between Saint John Bosco, who lived in the nineteenth century, and a simple blacksmith who supported the saint’s works. They talked about the economy.
The blacksmith asked St. John Bosco:
“Do you know what my biggest worry is?”
“Surely it must be to live and die in the grace of God.”
“No, I’m not worried about death. I take care, though, to be prepared for it when it comes. My biggest worry is this: I am a blacksmith, and I am very much troubled when, after finishing a job, I have to decide on the price I must charge. As I enter the charge in my book, I ask myself: Will the good Lord write down the same amount? If I charge more, won’t that be a charge against me? To play it safe, I always charge 20% less than the ordinary rate.”
Therefore, some people think this case represents the ideal Catholic business model. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone could do this? How much better and cheaper life would be if this were the norm!
A Beautiful Story but not the Norm
I agree it is a beautiful story, but charging 20 percent less cannot be the norm of a Catholic economy. We would drive the price down to almost nothing. We cannot run an economy like that.
The reason is simple. Even in the best of times, there will always be crooks and sharks that will take advantage of our goodness and run us out of business.
Catholic economics must not be reduced to a fuzzy feel-good thing where we give everything away.
The Catholic business model must allow us to do what we must: make a good living with a surplus, help the poor or invest in new ventures that benefit all society. The purpose of economics is human flourishing through the practice of virtue in common.
Charity is not an economic principle and cannot be the criteria for transactions. Saint John Bosco’s blacksmith is a beautiful exception but can never be the rule for Catholic economics.
Therefore, what is the rule?
How do we do business and practice our Faith? I will give three points for practicing Catholic economics, based on the book Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society, Where We’ve Been, How We Got Here and Where We Need to Go.
A True Economy is a Moral One
I believe that real economics is not about formulas, numbers and statistics as taught at most universities, as helpful as they might be.
A Catholic economy is a moral economy that involves human acts and, therefore, must deal with moral principles that govern and determine the right or wrong of those acts.
Therefore, I would like to present three practical points on how we can practice our Catholic Faith in business to help orient us in our business dealings and deepen our Faith.
A Passion for Justice
The first point is to practice justice. If we want one word to describe the Church’s economic teaching, that word is justice. We must have a passion for justice in a Catholic economy.
Saint Thomas Aquinas defines the virtue of justice as “to render to each one his own.”
In economic matters, that means commutative justice, not social justice. Commutative justice is the kind of justice that assures that one party will give to another strictly what is due. For example, justice is rendered when our payment for an apple corresponds to its worth.
The more exact the price corresponds to the value of the object, the greater the justice. This needs to be emphasized. The Church wants us to get the price we deserve for our goods and services.
She does not want us to sin by charging too much, but we can also sin by charging too little because we must first render justice to our families and ourselves. We should generously recompense ourselves for our efforts. We cannot deprive ourselves of what is due to us and ours.
Confession From an Economic Perspective
The Church has an amazing treasury of insights into how this justice might be practiced in business.
Curiously, these insights used to be found in the confessional.
In medieval times, priests had confession manuals that listed problems people had in confessions with instructions on how to deal with them.
Merchants would go to confession with very concrete problems about buying and selling. They would ask: Is this a sin or that? And these manuals published answers to the questions of these merchants.
One modern scholar collected ninety of these medieval confessional manuals. From them, he made a very good summary of Church teachings and norms about what constituted justice in the marketplace.
Although a Protestant, he concluded that the confessional is one of the most effective tools of a good economy.
Why Confession Matters
It makes sense. Confession represents a passion for justice.
We submit to laws in civil society because our bad actions can hurt the common good. Such actions are illegal and must be prosecuted. A businessman, for example, can be prosecuted for engaging in fraud.
However, some actions are sinful but not illegal, like telling a little lie about a product. In confession, our zeal for justice is such that we accuse ourselves of this fault and accept a penance.
This climate of honesty creates excellent business conditions. Whom would we rather seek out to buy a used car? A salesman who never goes to confession or one who does go regularly?
Jewels of Wisdom
What I liked about these moral manuals that oriented economic acts of that time was that they were full of wisdom and prudence that calmly considered man’s flexible economic needs. Here is another example.
Moralists tell us that merchants must point out major defects in merchandise to avoid fraud. On the other hand, the merchant was not required to point out obvious defects since he might deprive himself of its just price by his emphasis.
And there were all sorts of similar norms about haggling, just price, just wage, price gouging, monopolies, and buying and selling. Such flexible and simple norms found their way into a thousand economic customs and laws so that we might more easily practice justice.
The Church is the best institution to keep business honest and just. Before the Church, the market was dog-eat-dog. The Church introduced and defined norms of justice so we can act with certainty that we are doing the right thing. She requires that we make restitution when we steal or defraud others. She gives us recourse to the sacrament of confession so that we constantly examine our consciences in the practice of justice and seek forgiveness.
Therefore, our first objective is to practice justice, not social justice, but to focus on rendering their due to all. As Catholics, we are perfectly positioned to stand out in our present dog-eat-dog world.
The Practice of Charity
If we practice justice, we are ready to ascend to the second point of a Catholic economy: the practice of charity.
As mentioned, charity is not an economic principle. I stand by that statement. Naturally, charity cannot govern economic transactions since each party must be strictly given its due for an economy to function justly.
However, if only justice prevails, the economy will be cold and rigid. It will lack that human touch we so need. It favors a frenzied and inhuman pace of business that gives rise to inordinate desires.
That is why we need charity. It regulates justice and helps prevent greed and excesses.
Charity Tempers, Not Replaces Justice
Thus, the Church always teaches that charity should temper, not replace justice. Justice also tempers charity since it prevents people from going bankrupt by giving everything away to charities.
However, the Church never mandates charity; mandated charity is not charity but extortion. Either charity is given freely, or it is better not given.
Thus, the Church always urges us to practice the Christian duty to engage in almsgiving by helping the poor, supporting our parishes and giving to good causes and organizations that serve the common good.
Sometimes, Christian businessmen in the past made God their official partner. They would put ‘the Lord God’ as an entry in their spreadsheets, making him the representative of the poor with a fixed percent of profits that would be applied to benefit the needy.
In a Catholic economy, we see a constant concern for the poor, both material and spiritual. The Catholic notion of just price and just wage had particularly the poor in mind. The Church condemned unfair business practices that exploited the vulnerability of the poor.
The Testimony of Saints
The saints call for charity as a perfect complement to justice.
Saint Bonaventure says that charity contains justice. “If one does not love one’s neighbor, it is not easy to do him justice.”
I like the quote of Saint Antoninus, a late medieval preacher who taught that charity “binds men together in a brotherhood that is a true and perfect oneness. The entrance of charity into the social order makes it possible for men to be self-sacrificing in favor of the common good. Charity helps us love our neighbor as ourselves. It recalls our common origin, our redemption by Christ, our sanctification through the Holy Spirit.”
Promoting a Climate of Harmony
However, I would like to stress that charity is not only about giving to others. Charity makes perfect business sense and helps our bottom line and our ROI as it should.
Just as confession creates a climate of moral honesty, charity promotes a climate of harmony and a true union of hearts and minds. It diminishes the need for regulation and security. “Without charity,” writes one Catholic author (William Thomas Gaughan), “all of the finest regulations made by well-intentioned men in the interests of the common good come to nothing.”
Charity facilitates those intense family-like bonds that unite people in sacrifice and fuse them to form a true society and culture and make economies flourish.
This charity communicates a sweetness to life in this vale of tears by prompting solicitude for one another. Above all, it increases our love of God and gives Him glory.
Imagine a world imbued with supernatural Christian charity, and we have an idea of what a Catholic economy and culture might look like. Catholic entrepreneurs are perfectly positioned to stand out in this field.
Making a Sacrifice
The third point of practicing the Faith in today’s economy is much more difficult.
Up to this point, we are asked to practice justice. It is hard, but it makes perfect business sense, especially in the long term. It is also not optional. We must practice this justice and sin when we do not.
Next, we are asked to practice voluntary charity, which is a little more difficult. It tempers our tendency to greed. Sometimes, it is hard to practice, but it can also be personally gratifying, especially when those who receive this charity are grateful. We feel good when we practice charity. It also makes business sense since it fosters a climate of understanding and caring for others.
This third point goes beyond justice and charity.
The Church does not teach a prosperity Gospel that says God will make us rich when we practice virtue. He can make us rich, but He is not obliged to do it. God does what is best for us. The Calvinists see riches as a sign of the predestined. We do not.
This third point of practicing the Faith in business consists of bearing with the trials that can suddenly appear. It calls on us to carry our crosses.
A Way of the Cross Economy
This kind of Catholic economy has a name. Some authors call it a “Way of the Cross” economy.
Economics is about justice. Charity tempers justice. The Cross purifies and strengthens justice by trial, much as fire strengthens iron. The Cross takes away our attachments and affections for the things of this world and unites us more to God and to God’s will for our neighbor and us.
If Christ is indeed our ideal, then we must imitate Him. A way of the cross economy means accepting every suffering that comes our way in our business dealings as we seek the consuming ideal of the Cross of Christ.
Ways to Carry Crosses in Business
The Catholic entrepreneur can do this in many ways.
One way of following the Cross is in our day-to-day struggles. We can do this by pursuing the Cross of excellence in everything we do. Take things to the end, as Our Lord did, because we want to offer society a standard of excellence and beauty that will uplift everyone. We carry our little crosses daily by being role models for others, setting high standards and putting up with obstacles.
However, we especially practice the Way of the Cross economy by bearing with the big trials that visit us. The Catholic entrepreneur can suffer from disasters, betrayals, ingratitude and misunderstanding. He suffers as Christ suffered—unjustly. He embraces these crosses even when it does not make sense, even when it hurts or leads to persecution.
If received well, this suffering strengthens and purifies us and uplifts all society.
Curiously, even secular business authors and economists agree that this Way of the Cross exists in economic life.
Von Mises Recognizes Need for the Cross
I was very surprised to find this Ludwig von Mises quote since it is completely out of character for him. He is a famous twentieth-century economist of the libertarian mold who wrote a book called Human Action. He is not given to moral considerations. He is no friend of the Catholic Church and has written against her. He is usually only about markets.
However, he does understand the Cross. He wrote that there need to be those who suffer (and therefore carry their crosses) if society is to flourish…and it often does not make economic sense, but we do it anyway.
He wrote: “Mankind would never have reached the present state of civilization without heroism and self-sacrifice on the part of an elite. Every step forward on the way toward an improvement of moral conditions has been an achievement of men who were ready to sacrifice their own well-being, their health, and their lives for the sake of a cause that they considered just and beneficial. They did what they considered their duty without bothering whether they themselves would not be victimized. These people did not work for the sake of reward, they served their cause unto death” (Ludwig von Mises, Bureaucracy, [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1944], 78).
That is to say, in every business climate, we will always find this self-sacrificing core of people that sustains the company or the local economy by carrying their crosses.
If this is true for secular and commercial enterprises, as observed by von Mises, we can imagine how much more so this happens when the Church is involved. When we embrace this Way of the Cross, it sustains society.
Now, I want to make this point very clear.
A More Recent Example
It is easy to recognize the small crosses that come along our path.
We must also recognize those big crosses that sometimes happen.
I could give an example of a saint or merchant from the distant past, but the temptation would be to think it impossible today.
Therefore, I have a recent example showing that it can be done today, and not just by Catholics. I will cite a case that has always touched me.
My example of the Cross involves the heroism of Aaron Feuerstein, an entrepreneur who died two years ago.
He is remembered as a businessman who failed by all modern metrics. At one point, everything went wrong. However, what made him famous was his attitude in the face of adversity.
To illustrate his case, I will let him tell his story. I have a short video clip that will give us an idea of what I am talking about and the beauty of carrying the Cross. He says it much better than I can.
As the film clip indicated, the response to Mr. Feuerstein’s generosity was overwhelming. The word of his gesture turned him into an instant yet unwilling national hero.
The Cross is Contrary to Our Times
Why? Because in these times of maximizing profits, people like him are not supposed to exist. A dog-eat-dog world does not reward such acts. However, Mr. Feuerstein received over 30,000 letters from admirers. He reflected that what he did should be the norm, not the exception.
I want to stress Mr. Feuerstein was not obliged to do what he did. He could have done less. However, the fact that he did what he did shows that it can be done even today. The fact that his case stood out was a sad reflection of the times.
This carrying of the Cross does not always make good business sense. However, sometimes, we have to throw the ledger away and do our duty. We must take things to the end, cost what it may—because it is the right thing to do.
If the isolated case of Aaron Feuerstein stands out, imagine a whole society—Christian civilization—dominated by those who constantly practice these acts of heroic generosity.
The Positive Impact of the Cross
This kind of heroism has an impact. When this spirit of self-sacrifice prevails, it sets the tone for all society, creates strong relationships and gives the economy a resilience and strength that stands under trial.
Even secular historians recognize that these sacrifices sustain society. One historian comments that God rewards these sacrifices “by conferring upon society the flowering of what we consider the better things of life: education, books, art, music, charity, and culture.” All these extra things become possible because suffering souls sustain them.
Here, I recall the words of TFP founder Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, who observed that the currency in a Christian civilization is not dollars or pounds but suffering. With that currency, everything becomes possible. Without it, everything falls apart.
The Church is the ideal institution to help us carry our crosses. She teaches us the value of suffering. She comforts us with graces and sacraments. We have recourse to Our Lady and the saints. We have the conditions to stand out in a Hollywood society that hates suffering.
Thus, a Catholic economy is not the feel-good, give-everything-away festival that many progressives and socialists imagine it should be. It is a means of sanctification. This should be our goal.
To summarize. A Catholic economy is governed by justice, tempered by charity and purified by the Cross. With this, everything becomes possible.
Free Financial Advice
To conclude, I offer four pieces of free financial advice.
Usually, when we offer free financial advice, it comes with numerous disclaimers to protect us from liability if it goes wrong.
However, I stand by my advice without qualifications. I guarantee a return on investment. We cannot go wrong.
If we want to practice the Faith in business, here are the four things to do:
- Have a passion for justice by focusing on rendering unto all their due and remembering that confession is still an effective economic tool.
- Second, give generously to good causes.
- Third, accept the daily crosses that come so that we will know what to do when a Feuerstein moment comes.
- Finally, nothing Catholic is complete without Our Lady. We can never go wrong in putting our Catholic businesses under her patronage—even in a visible way. We should consecrate our businesses and ourselves to her according to the method of St. Louis de Montfort.
In the consecration formula, we offer Our Lady our body and soul, our goods both interior and exterior, past, present and future, leaving to her the right to dispose of them as she wishes in time and eternity.
By doing this, we put Mary in charge of all our assets. She is the best of asset managers, offering the best return on investment.
Economy comes from the ancient Greek οἰκονομία (oikonomia), which is a term for the “way (nomos) to run a household (oikos).” In the kingdom, the queen manages the royal household. We should put our households and businesses under her protection, and we can be assured that she will never fail us, no matter how great the trials may be.
This essay was adapted from a talk by the author to a group of Catholic entrepreneurs.