Papal CorrespondenceProfessor Amy Uelmen in America Magazine, November 30, 2009
In the Market for Humanity
By Amy Uelmen
In recent decades a broad intermediate area has emerged between the two types of enterprise. It is made up of traditional companies which nonetheless subscribe to social aid agreements in support of underdeveloped countries, charitable foundations associated with individual companies, groups of companies oriented towards social welfare, and the diversified world of the so-called ‘civil economy’ and the ‘economy of communion’ (No. 46).
It is rare for a specific project to be given a favorable mention in a papal encyclical, but “Caritas in Veritate” seems to present an exception. When Pope Benedict XVI described the “broad intermediate area” between nonprofit and for-profit sectors with the buzz-phrase “economy of communion,” some connected the dots with the Focolare movement’s network of businesses in which profit serves as “a means for achieving human and social ends” (No. 46).
The Economy of Communion in Freedom project (edc-info.org) was launched in 1991, when Chiara Lubich, the founder of Focolare, visited the communities in Brazil. Focolare is a movement with origins in war-torn Trent, Italy, inspired by the example of the first Christians (Acts 2:44-45). Focolare communities practice a “communion of goods” aimed at meeting the basic needs of all of their participants. But as was evident from the shantytowns surrounding the large metropolis of São Paulo, Brazil, where Focolare people also lived, the needs were outweighing the shared resources.
As Ms. Lubich brainstormed with the community in light of the then-recent encyclical “Centesimus Annus,” an idea emerged: to form for-profit businesses that could generate additional jobs and voluntarily allot profits in three parts: 1) for direct aid to those in need, 2) for educational programs that foster what Lubich described as a “culture of giving” and 3) for the continued development of the business.
The response was immediate. The materially poor of the community were among the first to sell their chickens and other livestock in order to purchase shares in the initial businesses. The initiative now embraces more than 750 businesses throughout the globe, in various sectors of production and service, mostly small and medium-sized, but some with more than 100 employees. All are committed to fostering a “person-centered” life of communion in both the internal operations and external impact of the business.
Inspired by the prayer of Jesus for unity, “that they may be one even as we are one” (Jn 17:22), the Economy of Communion project gains particular strength from being embedded in a thick international network that is deeply committed to the larger cultural project of building, as Pope Benedict puts it in “Caritas in Veritate,” “the one community of the human family” (No. 54). Within this vision, openness to the needs of others is experienced not as a call to arduous sacrifice, but as an opportunity to welcome the “astonishing experience of gift” (No. 34).
As the pope explains, the life of the Trinity—“even as we are one”—can serve as a model for social relationships in which “true openness does not mean loss of individual identity but profound interpenetration” (No. 54). As Chiara Lubich described the dynamic, “I am myself not when I close myself off from the other, but rather when I give myself, when out of love I lose myself in the other.”
Within this vision, distribution of direct aid to those with material needs involves not merely assessing concrete concerns and priorities, but also helping to create a dynamic that fosters a true sense of reciprocal love and the full participation of “free subjects in favor of an assumption of shared responsibility” (No. 17).
For all who participate in the project, the primary protagonist is neither the generous business owners nor those who courageously work to improve their living conditions, but God’s loving intervention in their lives. A “culture of giving” is also expressed in how the participants renounce the help they receive as soon as they are able. As soon as he secured a job, a young man from the Dominican Republic wrote: “Now I do not need the help anymore, and I am happy that someone else will be able to experience as I have the concrete love of this family.”
The Economy of Communion project extends a broader and more profound invitation to delve into all the ways in which we are “made for gift” (No. 34) in our personal, social and economic life.
Amy Uelmen is the director of the Fordham Law School Institute on Religion, Law & Lawyer’s Work and a member of the Focolare movement.