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The Vocation of Business: Social Justice in the Marketplace by John Médaille. Continuum Books, 2007

In his new book , The Vocation of Business ,  John Médaille, a businessman who teaches “Social Justice for Business Students” at the University of Dallas, makes a comprehensive case for introducing values such as justice and equity into business practices by applying the principles of Catholic Social Teaching (CST).

It certainly seems like a reasonable and necessary proposal. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the final collapse of communism in 1989, free market capitalism has ruled uncontested over the global economy. Marxism as an economic theory and a political movement is dead-despite holdouts like Cuba and North Korea, and the rise of political cranks like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela-and nothing else has arisen to oppose capitalism’s excesses. (Marxism was evil, but its critique of unrestrained capitalism was mostly correct).

In The Vocation of Business , John Médaille presents the only possible alternative—Catholic Social Teaching. Mèdaille, a Catholic, explains that CST is his standard because it is a “sustained meditation by the Church over the past 120 years on questions of social justice,” and “at the very least influential among the vast majority of Christians.” Exactly right. At a time when it’s hard to get five people in a room to agree on anything, the Catholic Church is literally the only place to find authoritative teachings on important matters from bioethics to economics, and it’s the last, best hope for a systematic, coherent alternative to “Turbocapitalism”— Médaille’s term—where profit and individual autonomy trump transcendent values and the common good.

This is a good place to make an important point. Médaille’s bio mentions that he has been a businessman for thirty years. Neither he—nor I, for that matter—are “anti-business.” What we both oppose is a system where economic freedom is unrestrained. When I refer to Capitalism in this review, that’s what I mean. In his 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus , Pope John Paul II explained the difference by addressing the question of whether Capitalism was now the preferred economic system:

“If by ‘capitalism’ is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a ‘business economy’, ‘market economy’ or simply ‘free economy’. But if by ‘capitalism’ is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.”

This distinction might not seem like a big deal, but if you consider how economic issues are handled in the world today, profit almost always rules, even if human dignity, the natural environment, and the common good, are destroyed in the process. Médaille says our task as Christians is to oppose this ideology, in the name of genuine freedom:

“…we must decide to accept responsibility. We must reject the idea that we are powerless pawns in a socioeconomic game whose rules are fixed and whose only object is acquisition. We must discover our freedom of action… there must be metanoia, a change of heart, a conversion. There must be a commitment to true freedom.”

Of course, unrestrained capitalism has powerful defenders—even among Catholics—who say that CST has no practical program, and doesn’t even understand itself as an alternative to capitalism. They point to the 1987 papal encyclical, Sollicitudo rei socialis , where Pope John Paul II famously wrote: “The Church’s social doctrine is not a ‘third way’ between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism, nor even a possible alternative to other solutions less radically opposed to one another: rather, it constitutes a category of its own. … It therefore belongs to the field, not of ideology, but of theology and particularly of moral theology.”
This remark has been used by conservative Catholic defenders of the status quo to relegate CST to the seemingly non-relevant realm of theology. But these Catholic apologists for Capitalism miss the point. The theology that makes CST “a category of its own,” makes it amore rather than less , radical critique of Capitalism, because it subordinates economics to other, higher, dimensions of society (see the Pope’s previous quote from Centesimus Annus)

It’s ironic that because the Church refuses to accept the reduction of man to one dimension— homo economicus s—thereby reducing all of life to matters of utility and exchange and profit, it is accused of being unrealistic and out of touch with economics. Médaille, in the opening pages of The Vocation of Business, thoroughly refutes the idea that the Church doesn’t have the right to interfere with the “science” of economics (we’ve heard this before from extreme Darwinists who want the Church silenced on evolution). He asks “Is life, both the life of the world and the life of the individual, thus consigned to a kind of schizophrenia in which our moral life—the life of love and personal relationships and our deepest longings—is forever at odds with our ‘scientific’ life, the life in which we earn our daily bread?”

Mèdaille takes on the critics of CST on their own turf, accepting the challenge that “a ‘teaching’ which cannot be enacted in daily life and mundane concerns, which has no ‘practical’ application, is not really a teaching at all, but a mere set of platitudes.” He painstakingly builds the case for introducing ethics and justice into economics and business, starting with the most basic issues. He begins in the territory of Alasdair MacIntyre, the acclaimed Catholic philosopher who, in his 1981 book, After Virtue, argued that moral discussion isn’t even possible in western societies anymore because we no longer share a common vocabulary. Médaille confronts this problem directly, and carefully reconstructs the process of moral reasoning, taking the reader all the way from the Bible and the Greeks to the Enlightenment, and the separation of reason from faith—the source of our modern (or post-modern) predicament, where relativism rules.

Médaille’s range is breathtaking; he explains classical economic theory and the Church’s social encyclicals, the arguments of the Catholic “neoconservatives,” the history of “Distributism”—the Catholic-influenced movement for a wide dispersion of land and property which was promoted by G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc in England, and by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in this country. (Many progressives would be surprised to know that Day’s urban-based Catholic Worker Movement advocated a radical, faith-based agrarian vision). He continues on to the “just wage” and the theory of the corporation, and then presents several case studies of recent social and business innovations that illustrate how CST can be implemented. (These include the Distributist-inspired Mondragón Cooperative in the Basque region of Spain, and the Grameem micro-bank of Bangladesh.) Throughout, he weaves in history and theology, from the ancients through the medieval era to contemporary thought.

I’ve only touched on the breadth of ideas and examples that Médaille includes. The book is a densely packed 325-pages, yet the writing is always clear and elegant. It’s not for the casual reader, but neither is it for the theological or economic specialist. It’s aimed at the intelligent layman willing to put in some effort. Médaille covers so much, I’m surprised the book works so well. You would expect a few embarrassing simplifications, but there are none—the argument is airtight, and Médaille leaves almost nothing out (I wish he had addressed the mid-twentieth century economist Joseph Schumpeter, who coined the phrase “creative destruction,” and reworked classical economics to account for “disequilibrium” and the dominance of large firms. And although Mèdaille includes the communitarian economies of South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, he doesn’t mention the Catholic-influenced “Social Market” economy of post-World War II Germany).

The Vocation of Business may be the definitive book on Catholic Social Teaching. But did Mèdaille accomplish his goal of bridging the gap between moral theory and business practice? I’m not sure. In the final paragraph, he says: “The world we live in is a world built by businessmen and -women.” Unfortunately, I don’t think this book will reach that audience. Theologians? Yes. Economists? Probably. And that’s no small accomplishment. But I doubt it will engage the business leaders who run MBA programs and business magazines, or make the sort of impact that E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful did. I don’t think The Vocation of Business will spark a revolution of virtue-based business practices (although I hope I’m proved wrong and it becomes the guidebook for thousands of social and business innovators). It’s an important stepping stone in that direction. But we still await that oh-so-necessary book. In the meantime, we should thank Médaille—and God—for this one.

Editors’ Note: This review was written in 2007. Perhaps today in 2009 Médaille’s book will receive the attention it deserves.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVII, No. 4, January-February 2007.