As CEO of his own mid-sized environmental consulting firm, John Mundell has over twenty years to practice his “welcome to the firm” speech. “In it, I always explain that we operate a little differently.” That’s when the new hires learn that the definition of success at Mundell & Associates includes taking a portion of the profits and using them to help communities in need worldwide.
“I don’t get into the fact that my family and I are members of the Focolare movement or even that my business is part of the Economy of Communion network,” he adds, since most new employees seem satisfied with a simpler description of the company mission.
“A couple of years after the we started the company, however, two of our young associates asked to see me for a minute,” Mundell says with a chuckle. After he closed his door, one of them said, “We just have a question. We have noticed that there’s something different going on here—really different. And we’d just like to know more about what it is.”
One difference with this company is that, from a Catholic perspective, it is part of a grassroots revolution in applying the principles of Catholic social teachings to everyday life—including business life. So if you want to understand where Pope Francis and before him, Pope Benedict (who specifically mentioned the “economy of communion” in his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate), are “coming from,” we need to review some recent history leading up to this revolution in thought and action.
When Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus appeared in 1991, some American observers read it as a break with Church tradition, suggesting it somehow endorsed a particular set of economic arrangements—i.e., those of American-style free market capitalism, also known as neoliberalism.
Focolare’s founder, Chiara Lubich, read the document rather differently—perhaps more presciently, in fact. She did not read the Pope as bestowing a blessing on “business as usual.” Instead, she saw him calling for a social economy that was capable of orienting capitalistic society toward the common good rather than individualistic consumerism. Unblinkered by any technical training in economics, Lubich’s own thinking about society and business drew a special guest to one the Focolare meetings in Poland in 1978: none other than the Archbishop of Krakow himself, Karol Wojtyla, soon to become Pope John Paul II. The future pope’s interest in the meeting and in Focolare generally was due to the heightened awareness of this group to the interrelationship between spirituality and socioeconomic life. The Focolare movement’s special charism of unity, one which grew to include an “economy of the gift,” with its values of cooperation, sharing and justice, was extending outward from an initial focus on family life to an influence upon the larger community. This relational economy was indeed a form of capitalism but with a strong emphasis on the human person rather than on a deterministic confidence in an “invisible hand.”
We are not talking about tweaking the system here: this framework effectively overturns the reductionist notion of homo economicus, i.e., man viewed as merely an economic actor, long favored by classical economics. Chiara Lubich visited Brazil in 1991, only a few years after that country had thrown off a military dictatorship and adopted a new constitution. The Focolare movement first reached Brazil in the late 1950s but Lubich came to offer a new dimension to its mission and to that of Focolare centers worldwide: namely, the Economy of Communion (EoC). The EoC is a spirituality of business aimed at transforming relationships between employer and employees and between a company and its customers. In Brazil, the EoC offered a way to address that country’s unbalanced economy of skyscrapers and favelas (shantytowns). In fact, the goal was quite simply to end poverty in Brazil.
More than that, the EoC vision aims to overcome some of the most basic challenges in political economy: conflicts between labor and management, wider ownership of assets, and the need to foster collaborative workplaces, along with the goal of building up genuine community in all business relationships.
The international network of companies who subscribe to EoC principles today is comprised of some 860 small and medium-sized companies in 50 countries, within which seven EoC business parks are operating. From the beginning, the network has helped support between about 3,000 to 12,000 people in need each year, with food, clothing, shelter, health‐care, education, job training, and business startups.
These numbers indicate that Chiara Lubich’s idea of an economy based upon reciprocity, clearly grounded in Catholic social teachings and drawing on the Focolare members’ own experiences of putting into practice a “communion of goods,” has now created the largest network of socially-responsible businesses in the world.
The EoC vision has also inspired much social entrepreneurship among younger people and has offered academic communities a new model of development.
Some observers, John Mundell notes, say this EoC approach is too radical. But he emphasizes that the EoC’s growth since its founding over two decades ago is not because it is a dreamy utopian scheme. “As an entrepreneur, you must build a stable business,” Mundell points out. But in terms of implementing the EoC vision, he adds, “You must also bring everybody you work with along with you.”
The best way to accomplish that, he says, is to be a witness yourself. Then other people will see what you’re doing and want to know more.
It’s important to note that the culture of giving within the Economy of Communion is not simply about being generous or benevolent or practicing philanthropy. Rather, as one Focolare website describes the EoC, “it is about learning and living out the dimension of gift, and giving oneself as an integral part of human existence. It’s within the model of this new culture that ‘having’ and ‘giving’ are not seen in opposition but as complementing each other.”
Sooner or later, of course, enthusiasts for the EoC are asked the question: “It sounds good for small businesses, but will it scale?” While the largest EoC company currently has around 300 employees, it’s arguable that scale does matter in the creation of highly relational organizations. By EoC standards, there may indeed be such a thing as “too big to succeed,” given the likely difficulty a large company might have in maintaining its culture of giving. (We could consider the case of the multinational cooperative corporation MCC/Mondragon in Spain, but that is for another occasion.)
This is not to say, however, that large corporations cannot benefit from the lessons which much smaller companies—especially EoC companies–can offer. Take even mighty Microsoft, whose Brazilian affiliate in Sao Paolo several years ago offered a free “company makeover” (i.e., new banking relationship, new PC networking, etc.) to the local small business community. Microsoft’s international vice-president of sales even flew down to Sao Paolo for what was expected to be a short photo op at the winning company’s offices.
The winner, called Sabor e Vida, happened to be an EoC company. After arriving at the small company’s offices in Sao Paolo, the Microsoft VP immediately noticed the unusual atmosphere. Instead of a brief stop, the visit turned into a ninety-minute group conversation conducted by the VP himself, who was quite struck by the company culture and by what employees had to say about working there.
Sabor e Vida later learned that the VP enthusiastically reported back to headquarters about how much large corporations such as Microsoft can learn from smaller companies.
Within the current economic debate—usually presented as a crude choice for or against the market –the EoC is following its own particular trajectory, one which “puts life experience and not ideology in the first place, and which is in dialogue with all that is good in today´s world,” as one member puts it. As Pope Francis is saying, we must treat every person we meet in economic life with respect and dignity: we cannot have an economy of exclusion.
And the Focolare movement’s wonderful charism of unity—especially as manifested in the Economy of Communion network–helps point the way toward this kind of society.
Elias Crimis the Editor and Publisher of Solidarity Hall Publishing. He has written for the American Scholar, the American Conservative, the Washington Times and the Chicago Observer and is the co-author of Character Education That Works.