I was speaking with a Catholic business owner recently who said at one point during our conversation “I must be a very bad capitalist.” He took me down his path of logic. The purpose of owning or running a business, he was taught, is to make money and to create a lifestyle for himself and his family to enjoy that money to the full. Yet, he lived that life for a pretty long time and he achieved his bucket list of goals. He had a stable of five very nice sports cars, a second house in the mountains of Colorado and much more. The thing was, he explained, that those things all became an anchor around his neck. In short he didn’t enjoy his play things in reality as much as he had dreamed of as a kid. He had the ambition to build a business in order to achieve his goals, but those goals didn’t create a lifestyle that brought him the joy and contentment he expected from them. The whole point of his vocation as a business leader had changed.
Undoubtedly, he still enjoys living on the edge as do a number of business owners I have come to meet over the past half dozen years. Interestingly, many love the exhilaration of “fast and furious” – to drive fast, ski fast, climb mountains and/or fly planes. For this guy though he’s been slowly exchanging his attachment to things – the toys and actions of his former life with a certain detachment of those things as his faith life matures. He’s no monk – as he still skis black diamonds “the more vertical the better” and enjoys getting on a race-track from time to time but they are now, for him, simply experiences he enjoys as gifts, rather than a lifestyle he tried to create to define who he is. The created world owns him less and less, as he gets to know his creator more and more.
The created world owns him less and less, as he gets to know his creator more and more.
So this business owner is a self-described “bad capitalist” because making money solely to fuel his passions has lost its appeal. Ironically he’s even a better capitalist now because he enjoys tuning up his company to push it daily beyond break even, he employs people who can rely on the work his company provides for them rather than depending on a nanny state government and he loves to take on daily challenges of work using his intellect to contribute to the common good. He’s working on his own leadership development, which includes his personal development, and the leadership development of the employees. He’s a capitalist version 2.0. He’s moving from being focused on the self, to being focused on the development and well being of others.
What is the purpose of business for Catholics?
The secular world may define the single goal, the purpose of capitalism as making a profit. The Catholic Church says profit is certainly good as an indicator of the health of the organization but the purpose of a business is so much more.
- Pope Saint John Paul II wrote in Centesimus Annus, #35. “The purpose of the business firm is not simply to make a profit but is to be found in its very existence as a community of persons who in various ways are endeavoring to satisfy their basic needs, and who form a particular group at the service of the whole of society.”
- Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate #46, that profit should not be the primary business objective, but rather “a means for achieving human and social ends.”
- Finally in his apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium #203, Pope Francis writes “business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life.”
The general definition I created with the help of these three popes is “Businesses are made up of people who work toward a common mission to bring products and services to market that benefit, or uplift society.”
What about profits then? They are necessary for a business and an indicator of great leadership within the organization but no pope has said or will ever say that the social responsibility of business is solely to increase its profits. I agree.