A comment in a Huffington Post article on the “new monasticism” caught my eye a few months back.
“Nobody wants their kid to get interested in new monasticism, ” joked Ben, a young seminarian from Michigan when he arrived at The Simple Way for a visit, “They want them to become businessmen. ”
This joke is an exaggeration of what many Christian parents want for their children—the dreaded expectation that the child pursue a “practical college major” that leads seamlessly to an ordinary, bourgeois life and career. Nonetheless, the joke would not be a joke without the sneer at business, as if the pursuit of a vocation in business necessarily means the embrace of a lesser form of the Christian life.
While not all of the folks associated with The Simple Way necessarily share young Ben’s opinion, the idea that being a monastic (whether old or new) is godly while being a businessperson is worldly reflects a widely held belief among Christians. And that is really too bad, particularly in this economy.
While I would be loath to argue that the pursuit of business is superior to the pursuit of monasticism, I nonetheless would insist that business vocations do not necessarily entail a lesser form of Christian life. Indeed, Christian discipleship can be quite meaningfully pursued through vocations in business.
Providing a needy person with a job not only eliminates want for that person, it also creates the opportunity to multiply charity through the hands of others. Paul encouraged Christians to do “honest work” with their own hands, so that they “may have something to share with those in need.” This is of course not unique to business firms, many monastic orders do work to pursue charity as well. My point is not that business is superior to monasticism (whether of the new or the old sort), but only that it need not represent an inferior form of spiritual life, especially for those particularly concerned with helping the needy.
Similarly, an example close to my own heart: One of the most prized individuals for the ex-offender is the business person who will hire people with prison records. These opportunities not only allow the ex-offender to provide critical material support for himself or herself, but participation in the dignity of labor provides a non-material reward that often can be a critical help in avoiding patterns that lead to recidivism.
On a more general level, Pius XI included this remarkable passage in his social encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno:
The grave obligations of charity, beneficence and liberality which rest upon the wealthy are constantly insisted upon in telling words by Holy Scripture and the Fathers of the Church.
However, the investment of superfluous income in developing favorable opportunities for employment, provided the labor employed produces results which are really useful, is to be considered according to the teaching of the Angelic Doctor an act of real liberality particularly appropriate to the needs of our time.
Pius XI released the encyclical in 1931, hence the reference in the last sentence of the quotation to entrepreneurship and investment that creates work being “an act of real liberality particularly appropriate to the needs of our time”—that time being the Great Depression.
It stretches Pius XI’s point little to apply his argument similarly to the needs of today—difficult times not seen as widely and persistently since the Depression in which he wrote.
But here’s the rub: The work of the business person in creating “favorable opportunities for employment”—an act of “real” liberality—is often a hidden act of liberality as well.
The liberality of which Pius writes is simply an investment that creates useful jobs. But we know that different people make investments for different reasons, and some of these reasons (perhaps even many of them) can result from goals entirely inconsistent with the spirit of “real liberality” of which Pius writes.
Perhaps an investor is our liberally spirited Piusian entrepreneur, investing superfluous income to meet needs and to create opportunities for useful work. Or perhaps the entrepreneur is a money-grubber who has no publicly oriented spirit at all, but seeks only a narrow and crabbed self interest. Or perhaps the entrepreneur is anywhere along a continuum of motives in between the two extremes. Most of us won’t know which type of entrepreneur created the firm. And too often we are satisfied to assume the worst about each other.
So we know that a person is in business. We also know that many business people are in it just for the money. So we tar all business folk with the same brush, including our Piusian entrepreneur who is charitable and beneficent, and who also invests a portion of superfluous income to create useful employment. Because so much of the Christian entrepreneur’s work is observationally equivalent to that of the non-Christian entrepreneur, we do not recognize the virtue of his or her “real liberality” for what it truly is.
As a result, the virtue of our Piusian entrepreneur is hidden. That is not necessarily a bad thing, because Jesus welcomes good deeds done in private. But the Church does need to avoid the sneer, as if it were obvious that a business person cannot pursue that vocation consistently with a deep commitment to following Jesus Christ. Indeed, she needs to communicate quite the opposite, recognizing that entrepreneurs and investors can develop institutions fully consistent with the dignity of labor and that result in that feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. That is God’s work just as fully as charity.
Because the work of the business person is often so hidden, it is proper for the Church to recognize, encourage, and teach the possibility of the godly pursuit of business among her youth as well as among those already in the world of business. It is not obvious that pious youth should be discouraged from pursuing a business degree as if they have somehow settled for a lesser form of Christian life than a pious youth who joins a community with a less hidden ways of assisting the needy.
Whether we want to call it the new monasticism or not, the Church should reject artificial divisions between her many children, all of whom can live fully as the faithful.
James R. Rogers is department head and associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. He leads the “New Man” prison ministry at the Hamilton Unit in Bryan, Texas, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Texas District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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