Why Steve Jobs was no saint

If the secular world had a way to canonize someone, then surely the recent death of Apple founder Steve Jobs would have caused a hasty completion of that process. Jobs was one of the most revered businessmen of our time, and the ubiquity of Apple’s “i”-products — the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad — made him a cultural phenomenon, too. After his death, there was such an outpouring of grief and adulation from all corners of the world that one could not help but recall the worldwide reaction to Pope John Paul II’s death six years ago. 

In many ways, the cultural status Jobs attained was unrivaled. Even Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and his only true rival, does not stir up the passion and cult following that Jobs did. People joke about the “cult of Mac,” but in all seriousness the strong devotion that many people have to Apple’s products and even to Jobs personally is striking.  

And, for better or worse, Jobs did change the world. Think about life just a dozen years ago: no iPods, touchscreen smartphones or tablet computers. In just a short time, Jobs was able to push his company to create multiple products that defined their categories and changed the way we interact with music and information. It is not surprising that the secular world recognized Jobs’ greatness.

Models for greatness

But as Catholics, we have a different model for greatness — a different model for canonization. We do not simply look at the impact a person has on the world in his lifetime (after all, what did St. Thérèse of Lisieux ever “do” in her lifetime?), but instead we admire the intensity of a person’s relationship with God, and how faithful he is in following God’s call in his life. All saints are “great,” but not all great men are saints. 

In examining the life of Steve Jobs, it might be instructive to view it through the lens of an actual canonized saint. And there is one who bears some striking similarities to Jobs — St. Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei. By comparing these men we will see the difference between “greatness” in the eyes of the world versus the eyes of the Church. How are they similar? More importantly, how are they different? 

Attention to detail

One of Jobs’ best-known traits was his attention to detail. He was renowned for being engaged in every single aspect of the design of a product, from the shape of a computer’s casing to its color. So, his obsession with details extended to areas a customer would never see. For example, Jobs was insistent that the circuit boards inside Apple computers have wires that were straight and beautiful-looking. When engineers would complain that this was unnecessary for the computers’ performance, he refused to back down, asserting that every aspect of a product must be created to the highest standards. 

St. Josemaría Escrivá was likewise persistent in demanding excellence in himself and in those around him, even when this excellence might not be seen. To demonstrate this principle, he once took two young men on a tour of a cathedral and pointed out the fine craftsmanship of the towers — even in areas no one would ever see. He later noted, “I … pointed out that none of the beauty of this work could be seen from below. To give them a material lesson in what I had been previously explaining to them, I would say, ‘This is God’s work, this is working for God! To finish your personal work perfectly, with all the beauty and exquisite refinement of this tracery stonework.’ Seeing it, my companion would understand that all the work we had seen was a prayer, a loving dialogue with God” (“Friends of God,” Page 65). This was at the core of St. Josemaría’s spirituality: that all work was to be done with excellence and offered to God. 

Both men also felt it important that their organizations project a sharp, professional image to the world. When Jobs decided to have Apple start a chain of retail stores, he pored over each detail of the creation of the stores so that shopping there would be the best possible experience for his customers. Likewise, St. Josemaría worked tirelessly to make each and every Opus Dei house one which was physically clean, comfortable and inviting to those visiting. He instilled in his followers a deep sense of decorum and the importance of making their houses a place in which visitors would feel welcome. 

St. Josemaría probably would have valued many of Steve Jobs’ characteristics. The saint taught repeatedly that each person should strive for top quality in all that he does, especially in his work. And he did not limit his admiration to simply “church work,” but admired any work done well. There is no question that Jobs aspired for excellence in his work, something St. Josemaría would have appreciated.

Driven in different ways

However, anyone who is even slightly familiar with Jobs’ life and reputation knows about some of his not-so-admirable qualities. He was infamous for berating others publicly, and seemed to have no empathy when dealing with those he felt were incompetent (which included a large number of people). His drive for perfection led him on many occasions to verbally assault even the most innocent bystander — such as when he attacked a waiter simply because he didn’t like the juice he was served. It might be surprising to know that St. Josemaría also could be overly demanding on others in his desire for excellence. He once strongly scolded the members of a cleaning crew at one of the Opus Dei houses because he felt that they had not done a thorough job. However — and it is the “however” that makes all the difference — St. Josemaría later returned to the cleaning crew to apologize for his outburst, admitting that he overreacted and was out of line. This is the fundamental characteristic of those striving to be saints: They are quick to get back up after they fall. 

Jobs and Escrivá were both what we would call “driven.” But driven by what? Jobs was obsessed with creating great technology products — often simply for the product itself. Unlike many entrepreneurs whose driving force is money or fame, Jobs’ focus was superior products. St. Josemaría, however (again, that “however”), did everything for the glory of God. He admired great unseen craftsmanship because he understood that nothing is truly unseen — our loving Father in heaven is always a witness to our work. Likewise, he strove for excellence in serving others, for he saw Jesus in everyone he encountered. By directing all his actions toward our Lord, St. Josemaría kept his eyes heavenward, even while being engaged in the details of this world.

Source of perfection

The last vital difference between these two men is a virtue St. Josemaría shares with every other saint: humility. Jobs declared openly that he thought he was “special,” and his rough treatment of those who worked for him clearly showed that he did not feel that other people were necessarily deserving of respect.  

St. Josemaría, on the other hand, recognized every person as an image of God, equal in dignity and deserving of the highest possible respect. It did not matter to St. Josemaría what a person did, it only mattered who they were, which was a child of God. It was this humility that led him to apologize when he hurt someone, and caused him to recognize all work as honorable, whether it was that of a laborer, a mother or a CEO. 

Based on his contributions to society, there is no question that Steve Jobs was a great man. He built a company that was the most valuable in the world at his death and that changed the lives of countless people. But he was not necessarily a good man. St. Josemaría, though, was both a great man and a good man. It would be fine to model ourselves in our work on Steve Jobs’ quest for excellence, but we would be better served instead to seek to imitate St. Josemaría Escrivá, who combined a driving desire for perfection with a clear view of Who it is that is the source of all perfection. 

Eric Sammons is the director of evangelization for the Diocese of Venice, Fla. His latest book is “Holiness for Everyone: The Practical Spirituality of St. Josemaría Escrivá” (OSV, $12.95).