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Answering poverty in all its forms: The business of Catholic social teaching

Andrew Gustafson was raised on a farm in central Nebraska. Today, he is a philosopher, and a professor at the Heider College of Business at Creighton University in Omaha. Along the way, he’s developed a fascination with Catholic social teaching and the concept of business ethics, something he both teaches about and tries to practice as a local landlord in Nebraska.

He sat down this week to talk to The Pillar’s Charlie Camosy about our current political and economic debate, and a couple of buzzwords fitting into that debate: “late-stage capitalism” and “Marxist socialism.”

So, what do they mean, and where does Catholic social teaching fit into the discourse? There’s a lot to unpack.

Image credit: Zoonar GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

There is lots more talk than usual these days about the fight between "Marxist socialism" one the one hand and "late-stage capitalism" on the other. What do you make of that binary?

“Marxist socialism” and “late-stage capitalism” are both the sorts of terms whose meanings morph depending on who is speaking about them.

The general concern in the debate, I believe, is that business — as it functions today — has become a system where the rich stay rich or get richer on the backs of the poor. Concerns about “late-stage capitalism” typically have to do with a collective set of problems which arise from an unrestrained free market, which allows a lot of negative externalities, and globalism — particularly the enormous power of multinational corporations such as Amazon. The fact is that the system is set up so that the more we want cheap goods and services, the more difficult it is for many in the system to have a financial future which allows more than mere sustenance.

Socialism, of course, is a view that some or all industries should be owned and run by the government, and even in the U.S. we have some government ownership of certain civic organizations which could otherwise be left to the private sector. Marxism, with its general denial of private property, is a radical alternative to free market economics.

The binary is perhaps fruitful as a conceptual setup of polar opposites which shows a spectrum of possibilities, but I know of no examples of pure free market economies or purely Marxist economies (even in Marxist countries you will always find strong currents of private enterprise operating a black market), so the ends of this spectrum are simply heuristic concepts.

Catholic social teaching is sometimes referred to as a “middle way” in these debates. Is that how you see it?

Many people think that since Catholic social teaching emphasizes the common good, that it is socialistic, and even sympathetic to Marxism. One of the first things I bring out to my business students when we approach the relevant papal encyclicals is to highlight that the encyclicals frequently criticize Marxism specifically, because it rejects the concept of private property, and private property is one of the essential elements of human dignity.

Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum is a good example of this. Rerum Novarum seeks relief for the workers who are being oppressed by some of the business practices of the industrial revolution, but eliminating private property is not the solution. Leo clearly argues that one of the essential elements of human dignity is for every person to be able to pass on some inheritance to their descendants, but if no one has property, this would not be possible.

However, as soon as the argument is made that private property is essential, Pope Leo XIII goes on to point out that once a person has as much as they need, they have an obligation to help out others who do not have enough-- particularly the poor, orphans, and strangers. That we are specially obliged to help the orphan, widow and stranger with our excess is a clear teaching from the Old Testament, which no Christian can deny.

What “excess” is, however, is regularly debated (I especially like David Cloutier's work on the vice of luxury on this topic). There is a stewardship principle that runs deep in traditional Christianity — the notion that we are stewards of Creation and its fruits and the fruits of our labor.

With the generous gifts given to us by God, we also have obligations to steward what we accumulate with a concern for the common good, for all of Creation and especially other humans in need. It was Pope St. John Paul II who coined the phrase 'social mortgage' to capture this concept. So Catholic social teaching certainly argues firmly for private property — but not absolute private property without brakes or restraint.

As St. John Paul says in Laborem excercens, “Christian tradition has never upheld this right as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: The right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.”

Some critics of late stage capitalism (which is essentially a catch-all term for whatever seems bad about contemporary capitalism) claim that the solution is Marxist socialism. But if the problem is inequality, there is no obvious reason that we should think that the solution is to take away that particular liberty of ownership.

There are so many more solutions available on the spectrum: regulation, industry standards, and (perhaps most importantly) personal ethical responsibility of those in business who are able to determine how their own business wealth and private resources might be used for the benefit of the common good.

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How do you try to help your business students engage and understand Catholic social teaching?

My message to students is that capitalism can do amazing things, but there need to be some social restraints put on the market, and we already have those in the way of regulations on the quality of our food, pharmaceuticals, the regulation of banks, insurance and the financial industry, and progressive income taxes, etc. But regulations obviously have drawbacks and efficiency losses. So the more personal responsibility we take to help the common good in our private business practices and values, the less we might need more and more external rules and regulations.

The “economy of communion” is something we talk a lot about. How did you encounter this concept, and what is it?

I first encountered some fellow scholars who knew about the “economy of communion” at a St. Thomas University Ryan Center conference in the Philippines on business and Catholic Social Thought in 2015. One of them, John Gallagher, invited me to an Economy of Communion conference that summer at Catholic University (in Washington, DC), which I attended.

When I returned from that conference, I immediately went to my chair and dean to ask if I could offer a course on “Business, Faith, and the Common Good” for the upcoming semester, even though registration would be happening in just a couple of weeks. I also began a “BFCGI speaker series” each fall, and an annual symposium.

When I finally attended the Economy of Communion Conference, in 2015, I learned about the Focolare movement, which had started in Italy in WWII as a movement of care and compassion, as well as personal study and prayer and accountability.

And I discovered that the EOC was, in some sense, the business-oriented outreach arm of Focolare, meant to help nurture and encourage the private practice of business for the sake of the common good, focusing on people over mere profit. This was extremely exciting for me, and made sense of what I found most beautiful and powerful in business — that business provides power in the hands of the individual entrepreneur to help bring about the work of God in the world, especially among the poor, when it is practiced with that end in mind.

It seemed to be a wonderful combination of private enterprise, and freedom for entrepreneurs, alongside a Christian concern for the values of community, solidarity, and the common good.

When Pope Francis invited those involved in EOC to the Vatican to receive a speech from him in 2017, I jumped at the chance, and that really jump-started a lot of my research into CST and business. I directed and published two studies — the first on how much CST is taught in Catholic Business Schools today, and the second on how Catholic Business Schools train faculty about CST and how to incorporate it.

Since there are almost no Catholic Ph.D programs in business (accounting, finance, management, BIA, economics, etc) it cannot be expected that new faculty have ever considered how CST and business intersect, unless through private study or undergraduate training.

One of the key concepts from Pope Francis' 2017 talk which I picked up on and have tried to develop is his notion of being an “agent of communion” through our business practices. What is so very rich to me personally is his notion that it is not only business which is made more beautiful by communion and bringing faith to bear on our practices, but actually our spirituality and communion with others can be enhanced through business.

Of course, we can make more money and help the financial needs of the poor through that common charity model. But EOC calls us to engage with people fully in all of their poverties, not only financial poverty, but their poverty of community, poverty of purpose, and even existential and spiritual poverty. This is a radically transformative view of what business practice can be about and what we can do through business.

Beyond the university, you are living out the economy of communion in your own personal life in pretty dramatic ways. Can you tell us more about this?

Long before I encountered the EOC, I had begun buying houses in midtown Omaha to fix up and rent out. There were a lot of condemned and substandard properties around, and I found working with my hands physically to be a healthy counterbalance to my more cerebral academic work and teaching. I loved redeeming worn-down buildings and restoring their beauty and usefulness.  This seemed like a life-giving project and I enjoyed it.

As I bought buildings in my neighborhood, I got to know more and more of the local homeless and other struggling people in our neighborhood, and decided to work with them and create situations where they could work for me and I could help them financially and otherwise.

While they needed the financial benefits of our relationship, I came to realize that they also had these other forms of poverty (of community, purpose, etc) which needed to be addressed.

Some I provided housing for, and I generally tried to be a safety net for them. This was a different sort of grace-giving, and I found that God could use me in the lives of some around me in this way. And business was the means of our communion.

As I began to have more and more renters, I found there were a lot of ways I could provide a safety net for them. Just as an example, we have one tenant who has lost her job three different times, and we've worked with her through that, foregoing rent for months, sometimes.

During Covid, we voluntarily did the same thing for many tenants—one tenant fell behind 12 months, and there were not the same tenant protections here in Omaha as in other cities, so we had no obligation to allow her to stay, but we did, and she caught up. So grace towards tenants is another means to help the common good.

When I attended my first EOC conference at Catholic University, I was discussing my projects with one of the leaders of EOC North America, John Mundell, and he asked if I might briefly share with the group what I do in Omaha. I did a brief presentation the next day and when I was finished John stood up and said to me that “I think I speak for all of us here that you are already part of the EOC” — and so I was. I believe God led me to the EOC because they provided me with a vision and clarity about what I was trying to do.

God has been so very gracious to me by giving me the gift of communion with those in the EOC, and helping me see more clearly what business can really do for the sake of others, which I believe is the will of God for our business practices.

I sometimes fear for the future given the young people I encounter. But some have made the case that a backlash is coming in response to our fight-everything-to-death-especially-socialism-or-capitalism public discourse at the moment.

What's your sense of the future? Does the Church's alternative vision have a shot at taking root?

In the current situation, it can be quite easy to be frustrated and to feel powerless in the face of forces which we apparently cannot control.  There are market dynamics due to globalization which are like nothing we've ever known before, these frequently lead to nationalism and a focus on protect-our-own.

The world seems dangerous and scary, particularly with all the fast moving technology changes which at times seem to make the ground move beneath our feet. So it can be easy for companies to focus primarily on survival at any cost, and for individuals to take a me-first approach.

In times which seem threatening, it is harder to practice open-handed generosity. It is good to remember that things have been much worse at other times in history for humanity and the Church. And there are Christians around the world who live in societies much more socialist than ours, and some in countries with even less guardrails or restraints on capitalism than we do in the U.S.

More importantly, I still find that most of my students want to be fully human — they tend to want to be kind, decent people, and they have a general sense that if they are blessed with much, they do have some social obligation to share with the less fortunate. The Holy Spirit is at work in the hearts of our students and our fellow believers, and God is ultimately in charge of what is happening in the world. I believe that, and I am faithful to that belief.

I also think that if we can help our students to get past the traditional idea of charity — that once they make a boatload of money, they should give some away—they will get a better perspective.  Instead, we need to help them consider ways that they can become more fully human through business practices, and even through technology.

What are the truths and ways of being in the world encouraged to us through Catholic Social Teaching which can really enhance and enrich the lives of our students and of all?  I can be a witness of alternative ways to practice business, and I can say that students frequently find it inspiring. I don't want to be Panglossian about the current situation and pretend all will be well, but we also frequently drive ourselves crazy trying to control things we cannot, and worrying about things which are far beyond our purview.

God has given each of us people around us, and tasks which few others could accomplish. Our job is not to manage the world, or solve all of its problems, but to do that which is before us today. This, I think, is a very real and healthy outcome of a practical application of the concept of subsidiarity.

In my case, I own a bunch of buildings in Omaha which provide opportunities for me to share grace and contribute to the common good, and I teach at a Catholic business school, so I need to focus on the vocations which arise for me from this situation, and prayerfully do what I can.