All our activities in this world should have as goal the forming of community. The building of this world, the effort to make it a better place to live in, our individual works and enterprises, all must have this goal in view, otherwise they depart from God’s order.
Ruth Burrows, To Believe in Jesus
Reflection – ‘Write your blog posts while ye may…’ My time in Vancouver is going to be quite heavily scheduled, it seems, and there will be some long stretches of no blogging at all as I travel hither and yon without benefit of wifi. So, I thought I would do what I can in the days I have.
We are reading this fine book for our post-lunch spiritual reading at MH, and these particular sentences jumped out at me with considerable emphasis as I read it. It really does seem to me that in two relatively short sentences, 48 words, Burrows has encapsulated the entire social doctrine of the Catholic Church.
All our activities in this world have as their goal the forming of community. That is a very penetrating insight. And, while perhaps many reading this have never heard it put that way, it really is hard to argue against it, if one is starting from a point of Catholic theology.
Take, for example, an aspect of life people associate least with this formation of community, namely the running of a business. So a man or woman starts a business: they have a product or service of some kind, develop it to the point where people will pay money for it; they secure facilities, hire employees, advertise, market, execute; the business, if it is successful grows or at least turns a profit; the business owner and the employees are able to live off of the revenues/salaries they earn.
There – did I get it right, more or less? I have never operated a business, but that’s the gist of it, isn’t it? I probably forgot the part where they have crushing bank loans and spend the first few decades maxed out on debts and so forth. But that’s the basic thing, right?
So what does that have to do with the formation of community? That’s where this business is either in God’s order, or it is not. How does the owner treat the employees? Merely as cogs in a wheel, or as human beings? Yes, human beings who have to do the jobs they are hired for or be let go, but nonetheless, there is a difference between treating people like dirt and treating people like… well, people. And everyone who has had bad bosses and good bosses knows exactly what that difference is.
How do those running and working in the business treat their clientele? Like wallets that happen to be attached to human beings, or like human beings first, revenue sources second? Again, we all know the difference, and it does not need to be belaboured. Is the idea to gouge the customer out of every cent possible, or to provide a real good or service at a fair market price?
And so on and so forth. Every business exists in a matrix of other businesses and corporate entities, a life of a community. Do the business owners see themselves as a vibrant part of that community, someone who by virtue of being a profitable business can make a real contribution for the good to the life of the community, or is it just a sort of robber baron attitude where the idea is to bleed the community dry and get out of town before the crash happens?
The whole Catholic understanding of commercial life is indeed summed up by the (I admit) rather over-simplified and hackneyed phrase ‘people before profits’. Not, I would stress, ‘people instead of profits’, but ‘before’. Obviously, a business that does not turn a profit is a business that will not exist next year, with consequent harm and loss of employment to everyone involved in it. Business owners have to be able to earn a profit, but not at the expense of the human dignity and rights of others. That is what makes community, you know – always privileging the person over the thing, ‘who’ over ‘what’. And if the profits have to be a bit smaller in consequence of that privileging, so be it.
So that’s just one example of this—an entire book could be written (not by me, though – this is definitely not my bailiwick!) to show how these few words of Burrows really present the whole social vision of the Church. Politics, family life, the whole matrix of human activity in all its variety—all is subordinated to the building up of the human family, the human community, or it is alienated most seriously from God’s order.
Of course, this means that an awful lot of human activity in our world today is indeed so alienated, and we have a lot of work to do to re-humanize and evangelize the world in its social realities. Today, at least, let our activities be at the service of that task.