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Encyclical brings light to Economy of Communion movement

Encyclical brings light to Economy of Communion movement

by Jessie Abrams
published in the Catholic News Service on Aug. 12, 2009

WASHINGTON (CNS) Walking through the downtrodden areas of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and seeing the stark differences between the lifestyles of the "haves" and the "have-nots" pushed Chiara Lubich to question the effects of capitalism.

Her thoughts and actions sparked the Focolare Movement, which in 1991 birthed a new business philosophy called the Economy of Communion, which promotes operating a business both to make a profit and benefit society.

Pope Benedict XVI's social encyclical praises such alternative business thinking, because its top priority is not to rack up large profits solely for a company and its employees.

"Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty," the pope wrote in his encyclical "Caritas in Veritate" ("Charity in Truth").

He emphasized that mankind is more important than capital and put the highest price on the integrity of every human person. He said that in recent decades "a broad intermediate area has emerged" between companies that are solely profit-based and those that are nonprofit: companies that "do not exclude" profit but consider it "a means for achieving human and social ends."

Worldwide, there are 754 businesses involved in the Economy of Communion initiative.

These business owners still want to make a profit, but they distribute their profits differently from other businesses, said Linda Specht, director of the accounting program at Trinity University, a private, Presbyterian-founded school in San Antonio.

Monies are split into three categories: The first is what goes back into the business; the second, what is put into educating others about the Economy of Communion principles; and the third, what is donated to people in need.

The categories are of equal importance, Specht told Catholic News Service in an interview.

She said she thinks the Economy of Communion and its principles are good for humanity and can still be profitable for businesses in a society based on capitalism.

John Mundell, owner of an Indiana environmental consulting agency called Mundell & Associates, said he has been able to contribute in each category every year, although he has taken personal cuts to do so, especially in the early months after his business was started.

"It's kind of like voluntary poverty," Mundell told CNS in an interview. "We're going to take less of a salary to give something to the Economy of Communion."

The company also gives to those in need through nonfinancial means, he said. Whether that means employing those who aren't considered by others employable because of previous records or disabilities, spending company time on refurbishing inner-city homes for the poor or sending employees to work with disadvantaged children in local schools, Mundell said his business is committed to helping vulnerable members of society.

Mundell first discovered the Economy of Communion philosophy while he was at Purdue University in Indiana and was a church musician. After practice one evening, Mundell and his fiance at the time attended a meeting about the Focolare movement and learned about creative ways to live out the Catholic faith.

To promote the Catholic faith, Mundell said he had hoped his musicianship would help bring more people to Mass and renew their church involvement. But now he said running a business based on the principles of the Gospel has better fulfilled his goal. He said he was initially excited by the network of Christians working together as well as the idea that he could not only study religion, but live it in an everyday manner.

Although the number of the businesses currently involved in Economy of Communion is relatively small, Joan Duggan said she thinks many more organizations follow critical pieces of the ideology without embracing the entire idea.

Duggan, a board member of the Economy of Communion in Freedom organization based in Rome, said she hopes the number of businesses will expand and is pleased with the number currently involved given what has been a rather short period of growth for the movement.

"It's only been 18 years and we've tried to survive for the first 10," Duggan, who is in New York, told CNS in an interview. "We're just now getting the opportunity to start sharing the ideas because we're established now and we have the additional time now to meet others and share our ideas."

Mundell said: "For us it's not important to be in large numbers but rather to be good role models. I'm not disappointed at all because I see the pope's encyclical saying this is a viable way to run a business."

The Economy of Communion has yet to catch the attention of many in the world of business education. Even those involved with the idea of corporate social responsibility told CNS they were not aware of the movement.

Educators from the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and the Carroll School of Management at Boston College all declined to speak to CNS about the initiative, saying they were not familiar enough with its business philosophy.

Nevertheless, Duggan said the movement's thinking should help companies prosper in a wide range of businesses. For businesses with profit as their priority, however, she said the Economy of Communion may not gel because this way of business does not see the bottom line as the most important piece.

She echoed the thoughts of Pope Benedict in seeing the human person as the key, the center, of business success.

Although his business does not share profits with local charities, Nicola Sanna said he personally is devoted to the principles of the Economy of Communion. As president and CEO of Netuitive, a software company in Reston, Va., Sanna said his company's stockholders count on good returns.

Still, he said he hires and manages employees and customers based on Economy of Communion guidelines, such as promoting a culture of giving, and has taught classes on corporate social responsibility at business schools across the country, including Adam's State College in Colorado and Columbia University in New York.

"It has changed my life and fulfilled my dream of business to help others," Sanna said. "I don't have to wait until Friday to be happy."

Sanna said he hopes within the next two or three years to start his own business, which would fully be part of the Economy of Communion.

Sofia Violins' CEO John Welch said he, too, sees people as the most important part of any business. Welch, who is over 70, said he is devoted to the Economy of Communion more than ever because of his experiences. The Indiana company produces about 350 handmade violins a year and, at times, Welch said it can be an act of faith to assist others and also ensure the financial stability of the business.

Still, he said, helping others has always proved rewarding and is in accordance with his beliefs about responsible business practices. He said he believes good business is "to live God in the present moment."

In 2005 the World Trade Club of Indiana named him the Global Business Person of the Year, an annual award given since 1990 to those who have succeeded in encouraging global trade and development in Indiana.

Mundell, who spoke highly of Welch, said he would like to see more companies become part of the Economy of Communion.

He said he was encouraged by the growing movement toward corporate social responsibility regardless of whether businesses participate in responsible actions for the good of society or in an effort to increase profits.

A few years ago, he said, "that wasn't even on the radar screen."

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