The populist backlash against big corporations and financial firms for perceived greed that led to the ongoing Great Recession taps into a widely held belief: You cannot trust business to look out for anything but its own self-interest.
But Pope Benedict XVI has another vision for business. An overlooked sentence in Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), his encyclical last year on global development, highlighted the increase in companies that straddle the divide between profit and nonprofit enterprise; that carry out business not only with a view of the bottom line, but also toward aiding the weaker members of society. While upholding traditional Catholic teaching on life and family issues, the pontiff rejected laissez-faire capitalism and called for economic policies sensitive to the needs of workers and families.
By citing the “economy of communion,” the pope was referring to a business model started two decades ago by the Catholic lay movement Focolare. It is a worldwide, for-profit network with its primary focus on the individual and assisting developing nations.
The Focolare movement was founded by an Italian laywoman, the late Chiara Lubich, and centers around the themes of unity and universal brotherhood. It is active in 182 nations with more than 100,000 adherents. The movement will see the beatification of its first member, Chiara Badano, on Sept. 25.
Lubich launched Economy of Communion in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1991. Its purpose is “building and showing a human society where, following the example of the first Christian community in Jerusalem, ‘no one among them was in need.’”
There are about 750 Economy of Communion businesses worldwide, including a few dozen in North America. EOC implementation includes a “people above profits” attitude as well as donating a portion of profits to help the poor in developing nations.
EOC businesspeople keep in touch regularly by email. Quarterly, they have phone conferences. And, annually, they can travel to selected locations for face-to-face conferences. Last August, 65 participated in a three-day seminar on “person-centered business” at the Focolare Center in New York.
“It focused on the idea of the human person as the center of the business, rather than the old way of looking at business as just a means of generating profit,” said John Mundell, head of an Indianapolis environmental engineering firm that’s an EOC business.
Jim Graves writes from California.
Visitation Law Office
legal services relating to guardianship for the elderly, established in Appleton, Wis., in 2008.
Number of employees: 1.
How it works: Attorney Clare DuMontier says, “I’m not just working for myself, but toward a greater goal.”
DuMontier has been involved in the Focolare movement since 2002. She was prompted to get more involved in her Catholic faith after reading St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s “Story of a Soul.” After joining the movement, she consulted with a California attorney about turning her legal practice into an EOC business.
At one time she had considered leaving the legal profession because she disliked the conflict involved, but since becoming an EOC business she has changed her mind.
“The nature of legal work is adversarial, and emotions often run high, including the emotion of anger. The spirituality of unity helps me so much in my effort to stay calm and persevere, and to love in the most stressful circumstances,” she said.
Donating a portion of her profits for redistribution by the movement has given her work a greater sense of meaning.
She said she has also benefited from the mutual support between EOC members. When her day is going poorly, she can exchange emails with fellow members, which can lift her spirits.
“What I love about working in an Economy of Communion business is that my entire life in Christ is united — my work, as well as my family life and community life. I strive to live the present moment each and every moment of the day,” DuMontier said.
EOS Finish Line Inc.
tutoring services in Hyde Park, N.Y., began in 1992.
Number of employees: 3 staff, 12 consultants
How it works: According to co-President Joan Duggan, EOC is a culture or attitude that permeates the company.
“People are the most important part of our business, and money isn’t. It’s the golden rule applied to business,” Duggan said.
She recalled a mother of one of her teenage students becoming emotional when the boy finished his math tutoring. Duggan recalled, “She said we’d become like a part of her family because we care.”
She describes God as the CEO of the business, and that “things work out as he wants to.”
She cites an example of a time when one of her consultant chemistry tutors had to stop working during the school year due to a difficult pregnancy. Duggan was in a tough spot because it is difficult to find consultants imbued with the EOC philosophy, especially during the school year. But, she said, “the first call I got was another chemistry tutor looking for work. I’ve had hundreds of such experiences since we began the business.”
Duggan first learned of the Focolare movement in the seventh grade and today is a part of its “little city” in New York called Mariapolis Luminosa.
Duggan worked in the regular business world before starting Finish Line, but said she looked into the EOC model after “getting tired of the focus being on little green pieces of paper.” She defines EOC as “a lifestyle of business practice that believes in a person-centered business.”
a maker of professional quality violins, violas and cellos.
Number of employees: 10.
How it works: To John Welch, head of the firm, Economy of Communion means “living the New Commandment in business.”
“Its essence is mutual love,” Welch said. “Just as at home Jesus becomes the head of my family, Jesus is also head of my company. It creates a different atmosphere which is quite noticeable.”
Sofia Violins makes “top end” violins, violas and cellos, which are used by professional symphonic players worldwide. This Indiana-based company, formed in 1988, maintains a global group of master violinmakers.
Welch recalled one time when cash flow was tight, and five dealers owed his company a large amount of money. He came into the office on a Monday morning planning to call each, requesting payment. An employee who was a refugee from Bosnia came in that morning, however, and announced that he and his wife had found a house they wanted to purchase. Welch asked about his plan for a mortgage, and the employee said he didn’t know what a mortgage was.
Welch suddenly had a new priority. He had the employee down at the bank in an hour, and the mortgage was approved that afternoon.
The following day, to his great surprise, Welch received payments from each of the dealers he had planned to contact.
“In the present moment, I had to do the will of God, which that day was helping my employee,” Welch said. “God took care of the rest. I have something like that happen every day.”
Welch recalled another instance when a dealer owed his firm a large amount of money. Welch called to inquire about payment. The dealer got choked up over the phone, and told him that many creditors had been calling, but “the difference is, they call to threaten, and you call to encourage.”
Mundell & Associates
an environmental engineering firm in Indianapolis, Ind.
Number of employees: 20.
How it works: According to founder John Mundell, EOC means “putting the human person at the center of the company.”
Mundell became involved in the Focolare movement in 1979, and formed his own company in 1995 as a way to implement EOC. The company tests soil and groundwater contamination at commercial and industrial sites, evaluates risks to human health and the environment, and designs solutions for cleaning up pollution.
In 2009, the company shared $70,000 in profits with the worldwide poor, making its donations in collaboration with the Focolare Center in Rome. Recipients included the poor of Brazil and the Philippines.
“The president of Brazil, for example, knows about the Economy of Communion, because it has helped the poor in the favelas, the shantytowns around Sao Paulo, where the Focolare communities are,” Mundell said. “We send a lot of the support there from businesses, and it has helped to employ the poor and has become a sustainable model.”
These donations differ from a company foundation because they’re offered in collaboration with other EOC firms, and the donations are perceived as not a “handout” but establishment of an ongoing relationship. “Giving and receiving are seen as equal,” Mundell said.
Mundell & Associates also sponsors an internship program that offers youths technical training and formation on the EOC philosophy.
The benefits to the firm have been many, believes Mundell. He recalls one client who balked at a $3,000 bill, so Mundell countered, “you send me a check for what you think is fair.” A few days later a check for $1,000 arrived. But a third party who was aware of the situation was impressed, and referred a business opportunity to Mundell that ultimately led to a $750,000 contract.
“I’ve seen some real miracles,” Mundell said. “But it’s all in the providence of God.”
For More Information
- “The business of working in communion: Managing a person-centered business” conference at The Catholic University of America, Aug. 6-8: 845-229-2704, or email@example.com.