National Catholic Register


Good gets a Bad Rap

Does God really call some people to be entrepreneurs and make lots of money?

BY Gregory Gronbacher

December 14-20, 1997 Issue | Posted 12/14/97 at 1:00 AM


When Catholics think of vocation they usually think of a calling to priest-hood or to the religious life. However, Catholic theology has always held that any calling by God is a vocation, whether it is a calling to marriage, the military, teaching—or even business.

But Catholics often fail to think of entrepreneurship as a vocation. Surely God does not call someone to make money, manage a shop, or work in a corporation. Surely these activities are too mundane to be considered vocational. Such thinking, common in certain quarters of the Church, betrays a faulty theology, traceable to misguided attitudes about the goodness of the created order.

At Odds with the Spiritual World?

When people regard the created order with suspicion they also call into question the fundamental goodness of the material dimension of human existence. This attitude is at the root of conflicts over the morality of the free-market and the entrepreneurial vocation. It stems from the Gnostic-inspired view that sees the material world as evil and unrelated to spirituality.

Those who hold this perspective think that since matter is evil, its possession and use must also be evil. There have been several forms of this position throughout Christian history. For example, the Franciscan Spirituals (an early faction within the Franciscan order which has now disappeared) were radical proponents of apostolic poverty in a dispute over whether the followers of St. Francis could own any property at all. Another example from our own times is the stream of liberation theology inspired by Marx. For these groups, poverty becomes the “narrow gate” of renunciation spoken of by Christ. They do not limit the demand of poverty to those who have a special call. The implication is that wealth is sinful, and that the wealthy must relinquish their money in order to be absolved of worldliness.

An appreciation of the balanced view of man's relation to the material world—held by the majority of Christians throughout the ages—offers a corrective to such an imbalance. Such a view can be found in one of Christ's parables.

Parable of the Talents

In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells the Parable of the Talents. Parables, it must be remembered, contain many layers of meaning. The essence of these teaching stories has to do with how humans manage God's gift of grace. Yet in terms of the material world, the Parable of the Talents is a story about capital, investment, entrepreneurship, and the proper use of scarce economic resources. It issues a challenge to those who see a contradiction between the Christian life and success in business.

The word ‘talent’ has several meanings. But in this context it appears to have two primary meanings. It was a monetary unit. More broadly interpreted, the talents refer to all of the various gifts God has given us for use in his kingdom. This definition embraces all the gifts—natural, spiritual, and material. It includes our natural abilities and resources, our health and education—as well as our possessions, money and opportunities.

The parable also teaches about how we are to use our God-given capacities and resources. In the book of Genesis, God charges Adam with cultivating the earth so that it might bring forth fruit. Similarly in the parable, the master expects his servants to cultivate the wealth he entrusted to them. Rather than passively preserve what they had been given, they were expected to invest the money.

Jesus admonishes us to make good use of our talents. We have little problem understanding talents as helping the poor, creating works of beauty, and so on. However, if that talent is understood as making money—entrepreneurship—many Christians think that an entirely different set of rules applies.

Christians are called to use what we might call human capital. Capital is best defined as anything that can be used as a means of production. There are four primary kinds of capital: physical capital (which includes land and natural resources, as well as machinery and other produced means of production), physical human capital (manual labor), intellectual capital (creativity, intelligence), and inter-personal capital (an individual's relationships which help him produce things he cannot produce by himself).

Capital is instrumental to human action. Nature has ample resources to provide for man's needs, but only after man interacts in some way with his surroundings and utilizes the world in which he finds himself. Capital is a tool, not an end in itself, and the creation or accumulation of capital is always for some other purpose. Every person requires capital in order to exercise his freedom effectively and obtain even the most meager standard of existence. Thus the entire concept of capital and capital formation points back to the centrality of the acting person who is capable of being creative.

Human Creativity

What, exactly, does it mean to “create?” To create means to make something of value that did not exist before. The ability to create is a capacity reserved only to persons. Animals, for example, make things not by choice but by instinct. Thus animals lack the crucial aspect of creativity, namely, choice. While human persons do not exhibit the same degree and type of creativity as God (the ability to create something from nothing), nonetheless they are capable of exercising creative powers.

When we think of human creativity, however, we often think only of people who work in the realm of ideas or the non-physical world. Or we think of someone working in the fine arts such as a sculptor or a musician. But creativity is broader than that. It is a constituent of human action.

Everyday experience shows that we create things in order to fill needs. And the scarcity of goods and services causes us to search for ways, often new ways, of satisfying our needs. Furthermore, we must be creative because every need is related to the subjectivity of a person, and thus every need is unique. In addition, similar needs arise in different circumstances and so require different responses. It follows, then, that creativity is intrinsic to our response to human need—which is another way of saying that creativity is intrinsic to human action.

Moreover, to act creatively—that is, to create something— requires interaction with the external world; it requires action. And far from being only a small segment of people's lives, creativity is a central expression of human personhood. In fact, the primary form of capital is our ability to respond creatively to need as it arises. Therefore, Catholic social teaching asserts that the fundamental economic and social reality is human capital because only when the intelligence, industry, and creativity of the human person is brought to bear on other resources can needs be met productively.

Entrepreneurship: The Universal Vocation

The application of human capital can be described broadly as entrepreneurial. The prudent person finds ways to maximize his potential and thus adequately meet his needs and the needs of others. Since each person possesses human capital and must develop it to some degree, it is fair to speak of entrepreneurship as a universal vocation.

Entrepreneurship is linked specifically to business and market activity—to the creation of wealth. Such a vocation is often disdained, or at least held in moral suspicion. But there is a universal human vocation to creative enterprise.

The total dynamism of the Christian life necessarily encompasses the material order—including the world of business and finance—by virtue of the Creation and the Incarnation, as mentioned previously. The vocation of the business person, the vocation of those who have the talent to produce wealth, to use their abilities to build the kingdom of God in conjunction with their leaders, is nothing new.

What does all this mean to those in the vocation of enterprise? It means that they must strive to be more fully what they are by calling to display more fully the virtue of inventiveness; to act more boldly with the virtue of creativity; to continue to be other-regarding as they anticipate market demands, as they develop and educate others in the virtue of thrift; not merely to share their wealth with those in need, but to tutor others, by their example and their mentorship, how to become wealth producers themselves. An entrepreneurial vocation requires a continued watchfulness in the art of discovery, to create employment opportunities for those who would otherwise go without.

The temptation is to think that the worlds of finance and business have no spiritual dimension or meaning. Or perhaps to be tempted in the opposite direction: to think that all that matters is the bottom line, and that no other values should have any bearing. In those moments, recall the Incarnation, and the price that was paid by the Son of God in that freely chosen act to enter the material world and to sanctify it.

The capacities of each human person for love, creativity, reasoned acquisition, and application of material resources, and for generosity and charity, all bespeak the notion of human capital. The richness of the human person is humanity's greatest resource.

We are all called to apply our human capital for our own sake and the well-being of others. This application will take many different forms. Some will be called to be doctors, others teachers, and still others to go into the marketplace and find ways to serve their neighbor through the production of a specific set of goods or services. This latter vocation, the call to business activity—to entrepreneurship—should not be immediately seen as improper or morally suspect. While any vocation may be motivated by greed or the pursuit of selfish gain, clearly not all entrepreneurs suffer from such corruption.

Christ's Incarnation sanctifies the whole material world and attests to the dignity of man. The call to a life in consonance with our God-given talents brings with it the expectation that we will share in the traits of our Creator and Father. Namely, that we will use our love, intellect, and labor to create for ourselves, others, and the glory of God.

Over the next few months the Register will present examples of Christian entrepreneurs, highlighting men and women who have been successful in business while remaining faithful to God, exemplars of those called to an entrepreneurial vocation.

Gregory Gronbacher, PhD, is Director of the Center for Economic Personalism at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan.