Every year, as we near Christmas, there is the usual parade of commentaries, sermons, articles, and general talk lamenting the season’s lapse into consumerism, materialism, capitalism, and whatever other ism happens to be handy.
Thus it was with mild delight that I read last week, in this publication, an article entitled “Is Capitalism Catholic?”, featuring the work of Father Robert Sirico and his Acton Institute - a research organization dedicated to the study of free-market economics informed by faith and morals.
To find anyone extolling the virtues of the free-market is rare these days, but finding a Catholic priest doing so is even rarer. Yet, Sirico does and has done so since 1990 when he first felt the unique call to an apostolate championing the virtues of free enterprise.
I am familiar with Sirico’s work and even visited his Acton Institute in the late 90’s not long after I made my career transition from teaching to the business world, a move necessitated by the need to provide for an ever-growing family.
I found Sirico’s insights helpful as I made that transition. Entrepreneurship as a vocation receives very little encouragement in the contemporary Catholic world, and more often than not, is viewed with suspicion. At best, for-profit enterprises are tolerated, but even that seems sometimes proportionate to their level of charitable giving.
This is where Sirico, especially as a Catholic, and even more-so as a Catholic priest, blazes a new trail. Whereas most of what is said relative to religion and economics is aimed at prescribing moral boundaries for marketplace activities, Sirico positions business as a “calling” (and thus a path to holiness), and the free-market as a potential moral agent.
For some, mixing words like free-market, moral agent, business, and holiness must sound like blasphemy. I will let Father Sirico make his own defense (Read his book: “Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy”), but I’d like to submit a few supportive thoughts.
First, who’s to say that entrepreneurship is not a calling? Why wouldn’t it be? For generations, making one’s own way as a farmer, blacksmith, carpenter, merchant, etc., in short, “being in business”, was the way most of the world’s people provided for themselves and their families.
Second, the family business - a farm, a bakery, a store, a gas station - played a quiet but integral role in strengthening family bonds. In contrast, the modern “job world” often separates families, subjects spouses to new temptations, and exposes a family’s financial stability to economic winds it can little control.
Third, decisions regarding family size are all too often governed by our income, or at least the amount of control we feel we have over it. Though entrepreneurship is filled with its own set of risks, business owners generally have more control than employees in responding to economic shifts: e.g, the price of wheat is down so a farmer plants corn; real estate sales are slow so a broker moves to property management, etc.
I realize that this all sounds a bit simplistic but for the most part, it’s how many of our parents, and even more-so, our grandparents, lived. In short, “Can we afford another child?” is a question not often posed by previous generations.
Some of this is due to a perceived increase in the cost of living. But Sirico believes that our economic limitations are often self-imposed, and are more due to a “learned rejection” of free-market economics and the whole idea of “business as a calling”.
This “learned rejection” is the result of a business-bashing bias that is common in academia, fashionable in the media, and all too prevalent from the pulpit - a fact which initially prompted Sirico to aim his Acton apostolate primarily at the education of clergy of all persuasions.
Sirico’s focus is easy to understand. Most clergy do not live under the same economic conditions as most of the people to whom they minister. And, almost always, at least for families, economic woes lie at the root of much family strife.
But Sirico’s aim goes beyond merely enabling minsters to better counsel their congregations: he positions entrepreneurship as a vocation to be encouraged and edifies entrepreneurial enterprise - when engaged virtuously - as providing the best potential economic environment for human flourishing.
Given the collapse of the job market we see happening all around us, and the growing need to find an alternate or at least a supplemental means of providing for our families, the discussion is no longer academic. We are fast moving away from a wage and salary based economy to a performance-based model wherein more of us will have to become more entrepreneurial and skilled at selling what we make, grow, or do...or go homeless and hungry.
Read THE ENTREPRENEURIAL VOCATION by Father Rober Sirico