Fostering a "Culture of Giving" in the Business World

Luigino Bruni on the Economy of Communion

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MILAN, Italy, FEB. 28, 2005 ( Ethicists say an increasingly complex and globalized world demands scrutiny of business practices and economic models if they are to contribute to human development and foster the dignity of work.

To that end, the Focolare movement has tried to help establish a more personalistic economic system by setting up a network of business known as the Economy of Communion.

One of the EoC’s major theorists, Luigino Bruni, shared with ZENIT how the model of communion and a «culture of giving» extend far beyond simply charity.

Bruni is the researcher of economics at the University of Milan-Bicocca and is the author of the forthcoming book «The Happiness of Social Interaction» (Routledge).

Q: What is the «Economy of Communion»? More specifically, how does the initiative understand the word «communion» as distinct from an economics based simply on the theological virtue of charity?

Bruni: The key word, «communion,» puts the emphasis on «reciprocity,» or mutual love. Of course, the virtue of «caritas,» or charity, also has in itself a dynamic of reciprocity because Christian love is always a matter of «reciprocal love.»

Nevertheless, in the historical development of Christianity, «caritas» — that is the Latin translation of the Greek «agape» — has not always been intended in the sense of «communion.»

Today, the Economy of Communion stresses in a new way the Trinitarian dimension of social and economic life.

To grasp more deeply the difference between a simple, charity-based economics, or economy, and a communion-based one, a Christian entrepreneur who gives part of his profit to the poor, pays all taxes, and does not pollute the environment, can be perfectly animated by the virtue of charity — and also by communion, but through «external people» with respect to his or her business.

An EoC entrepreneur, instead, is such only if she transforms the governance of her firm into a communion-based governance, based on reciprocity. In other words, a firm can be an EoC firm only if at least two people try to live charity in reciprocity not only toward people at large or externally, but within the firm too.

I think this is the true novelty and challenge of the EoC project.

Q: How did it become a part of the Focolare movement’s mission?

Bruni: The idea and the experience of communion is a pivotal element of Focolare’s spirituality, centered on «unity» as a charism.

For this reason, communion of goods was the key experience in the first community of Focolare at Trent [Italy] in the 1940s, where the social problems of most of the city following the war were solved thanks to that «charismatic» experience of the communion of goods — as all the narratives of the first days of the Focolare tell. Then, all social experiences of Focolare put communion at their spiritual and concrete roots.

Q: The Economy of Communion initiative claims to foster economic solidarity. How is this concept important for the Economy of Communion, and does it differ from the notion of solidarity developed in the encyclicals and writings of John Paul II?

Bruni: Of course we are in continuity with Catholic social thought, John Paul II included. An interesting coincidence is that in May 1991 the EoC was born just days after the promulgation of «Centesimus Annus,» an encyclical that emphasized, for the first time so clearly, the positive and civilizing role of the firm in society.

Solidarity is much like communion, but, at the same time, is different. In my words, solidarity aims at making different people equal, while communion aims at making equal people different, because, more than in solidarity, relationality and identity matter. In other words, solidarity is based on justice and equity, communion on reciprocity and freedom.

Q: Focolare founder Chiara Lubich says that the Economy of Communion is in direct contrast with fundamental economic principles. What does she mean?

Bruni: EoC is in contrast with some standard economic principles, such as the idea, very deeply rooted in official economics, that human beings are activated only by self-interest; that only material incentives matter for obtaining results in the market; and that work is a «bad» and only leisure time is «good.»

EoC says and shows with experience that people are often activated by genuine concern for others’ well-being, and that what moves people is the pursuit of happiness — a concept very different from self-interest, because … one cannot be happy alone; that intrinsic motivations matter also in economic behavior; and working can be a «good» if conceived as human community and a place for deep interpersonal relationships.

Q: What is required of businesses that are part of the Economy of Communion? Have these enterprises been successful financially?

Bruni: The financial success is not the most important element in evaluating the impact of the EoC firms.

The added value of such businesses has to be measured by inserting into the accounting other variables, such as the so-called relational goods — i.e., goods made of genuine and not instrumental interpersonal relationships — «social capital» and «religious capital» that are as important for economic and social development as the standard economic goods and technological or financial capital.

Q: Theologians such as Michael Novak have attempted to develop an authentic theology or spirituality of the entrepreneur. In what ways is the Economy of Communion, and solidarity in general, fostered by the individual Christian entrepreneur?

Bruni: EoC humanism is not very close to Novak’s. First of all, EoC recognizes the value and the goodness of the firm and market but, at the same time, is very careful in avoiding an unconditional trust on the virtues of the market.

The market is an aspect of civil society but works properly only when coupled with fair institutions and people animated by a culture of reciprocity. For this reason the EoC project assigns one-third of the profit to the building of a culture of giving and of reciprocity.

Therefore, we do not foster the idea of a «spirituality of the entrepreneur»: The EoC is a project much broader than just a spirituality for entrepreneurs.

Our focal point is, on the one hand, the community of the enterprise — relationships based on communion between entrepreneurs, employees and the other stakeholders — and, on the other hand, the poor who are also essential elements of the project; they are not just «assisted» but are in a relationship of reciprocity with all the other members of the EoC.

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