During a visit to Brazil in 1991, the Italian Catholic activist Chiara Lubich called for a new way of doing business. In a speech near São Paolo, she sketched a picture of “productive communion” and “a communion of goods . . . at a superior level.” She envisioned businesses using profits not only to grow but also to benefit the poor, businesses putting “the needs and aspirations of the human person, and the common good, at the center of their attention,” businesses guided not by self-interest but by “reciprocal love.” Businesses can become “a ‘meeting place’ . . . a place of communion.” Word of the proposal spread quickly in Brazil, sparking what has become a global network of hundreds of businesses that see themselves as part of an “Economy of Communion” (EoC).
Lubich was already well-known in Brazil as the founder of Focolare. Focolare began in Lubich’s hometown of Trent, Italy, during World War II, when she and some friends devoted themselves to caring for the poorest residents in that war-torn town. The movement lived by a “culture of giving,” in which each member gave what he could, even if the only “gift” was a need. Adherents sought to mimic the habits of the early Christians. No one was forced to sell property, but everyone saw property as a trust from God to be devoted to the common good. Some of the original focolarini sold their possessions, while others committed to regular donations. They aimed to fulfill the vision of Deuteronomy: There shall be no poor among you.
Focolare wasn’t just charity work. “Focolare” means “hearth,” and evokes the solidarity, intimacy, warmth, and security of family and home. The focolarini opened their homes to give Trent’s poor a literal place at the hearth. Focolare’s work involved transfers of property, but at its heart it was an effort to foster communion.
Within a few years, Focolare had three thousand members, mostly in northern Italy. By 2000, there were four million throughout the world, with large numbers in Italy, Brazil, Argentina, and the Philippines. Today, Focolare runs hundreds of charitable and development projects, publishing houses and media outlets, and retreat centers. It promotes the arts, political action, ecumenical and interreligious dialogues, and has built model towns like Loppiano, Italy, visited by Pope Francis in May 2018.
The Economy of Communion was an outgrowth of Focolare. During her 1991 tour of Focolare communities in Brazil, Lubich saw the limits of her initial concept. Charity alone wasn’t sufficient to meet the needs of the most desperate poor, and, besides, the original movement gave no attention to the good of work or production. Focolare needed to create wealth, but this had to be done without sacrificing the movement’s original culture. EoC extends the Focolare vision of “selfless giving solidarity and attention to the least” from non-profit into profit-making enterprises. As Lubich said in a 1999 speech in Strasbourg, “the actors within the Economy of Communion businesses seek to live out . . . the same lifestyle that they live in other areas of their life.”
In a 2014 study of the EoC, Structures of Grace, John Gallagher and Jeanne Buckeye attempt to isolate the unique habits, rituals, and practices of these businesses. In many ways, they operate like any other business. They produce and sell goods and services, seek profit, hire and train workers, enter into relationships with suppliers, market and promote to expand their customer base. But there are some distinctive features.
EoC businesses distribute their profits in three directions. One portion is reinvested in the business, another supports Focolare’s charity work, and another goes to publishers, newsletters, and formation centers that advance Focolare’s “culture of giving.” Giving also characterizes the internal culture of EoC businesses. Because they’re primarily focused on persons rather than things, they nurture communion in work and labor, making the workplace into a “hearth.” This translates into specific practices, such as consultation with workers in planning, open reporting of profits and losses, celebrations and storytelling, and attention to the personal and spiritual development of employees. Following Lubich’s model, EoC businesses form “relationships based on openness and trust among all those with a stake in the business – consumers, competitors, local and international communion, public administration.” Some businesses in the network tell how sharing critical information opened up avenues of collaboration with competitors.
Spirituality is the distinctive mark of EoC businesses. Lubich said that businesses must “leave room for God’s intervention, even in concrete economic operations.” Trusting God, they find that “God never fails to provide that ‘something more’ which Christ promised: revenue which was unexpected, a new opportunity, the offer of collaboration, an idea for a new successful product.” By consulting workers, EoC managers say they’re tapping into the Spirit’s creativity. They don’t believe in an anonymous invisible hand; they believe their businesses are under the care of a loving, generous heavenly Father.
Lubich saw both Focolare and EoC as aspects of a larger mission to unite the human race. Inspired by Jesus’s prayer that his disciples “would be one, as we, Father, are one,” she advocated a “spirituality of unity,” rooted in the belief that “all people are called to live as sons and daughters of God.” Uniting people divided by politics, social class, economic status, race and ethnicity, age and sex gives a “foretaste of a more united world.” EoC businesses harness production, exchange, distribution, sales, and marketing toward fulfillment of Jesus’s prayer.
This spirituality and sense of mission grows out of Trinitarian theology, which implies a Trinitarian anthropology. God gives himself in suffering love, and has created human beings for self-giving love. As Lubich said, “I felt that I was created as a gift for the person next to me, and the person next to me was created by God as a gift for me. As the Father in the Trinity is everything for the Son and the Son is everything for the Father.” At work as much as at church, a human being is homo donator rather than homo economicus. Made in the image of the God who is love, we’re fulfilled as producers, workers, managers, entrepreneurs not primarily in having but “in loving, in giving.”
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.