Business as a Community of Persons
These six principles point us to the purpose of business, which Blessed John Paul II stated “is not simply to make a profit, but is to be found in its very existence as a community of persons who in various ways are endeavouring to satisfy their basic needs, and who form a particular group at the service of the whole of society”.1 While the phrase “community of persons” is not common in business literature today, it actually best expresses the full realisation of what a company and corporation can be. The etymology of the words “company” and “companions”—cum (with), and panis (bread)—suggests “breaking bread together”. The etymology of the word “corporation”—the Latin corpus (body)— suggests a group of people “united in one body”.
When we consider a business organisation as a community of persons, it becomes clear that the bonds which hold us in common are not merely legal contracts or mutual self-interests, but commitments to real goods, shared with others to serve the world. It is dangerous and misinformed simply to consider business as a “society of shares”, where self-interests, contracts, utility and financial profit maximisation exhaust its meaning.2 An inherent characteristic of work is that “it first and foremost unites people. Therein lies its social power: the power to build a community”.3 This understanding helps avoid the spiritual poverty that often arises in market economies from a lack of human relationships within and around a business.4
Building a company as a community of persons based on the six principles above is no easy task. Large multinational corporations in particular can find it challenging to create practices and policies to foster a community of persons among its members. Yet leaders in large or small firms are greatly helped by the practice of personal virtue, those life-enhancing habits and qualities of character essential to any profession. Two very important virtues for the business professional, which we discuss in further detail in the next section, are practical wisdom and justice. There is no substitute in practice for sound judgment (practical wisdom) and right relationships (justice). The six principles above do not provide all that is needed for good judgment in response to the challenges of daily work. They do not provide blueprints or technical solutions, nor are they meant to do so. Ethical social principles, illuminated for Christians by the Gospel, provide direction for good businesses, but the navigation falls to the seasoned and intelligent judgments of virtuous business leaders who can wisely manage the complexity and tensions arising in particular cases.
John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, 35.
John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, 43.
John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Laborem Exercens, 20.
Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate, 53.