Benedict XVI and the Economy of Communion (Part 1)

Interview with Business Owner John Mundell

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By Genevieve Pollock

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana, SEPT. 8, 2009 ( People are searching for meaning in work, ways to aid people and the environment while earning profits, and Benedict XVI is pointing the way, says an Economy of Communion member.

John Mundell is the president and founder of Mundell and Associates, an environmental consulting company based in Indianapolis.

In this interview with ZENIT, he explained some reasons why Benedict XVI incorporated the Economy of Communion, a growing worldwide business network, into his latest encyclical, «Caritas in Veritate.»

Part 2 will be published Wednesday.

ZENIT: What are some of the basic tenets of the Economy of Communion?

Mudell: To understand the Economy of Communion, one has to begin to understand what the word «communion» means in the vocabulary of the Catholic Church, and what a spirituality that includes communion implies.

How do we live as «church» or as united people, and what does that mean? How does this fit into the message and mission of Jesus?

As one begins to understand this, the fundamental basis for the Economy of Communion, the rest begins to follow as a natural outgrowth.

The Economy of Communion was born from an idea that arose within the Focolare Movement and its founder, Chiara Lubich, in 1991 when she was visiting Brazil and the local Focolare community there.

The previous week she had been reading John Paul II’s encyclical «Centesimus Annus,» a reflection on the hundred years after Pope Leo XIII’s first social encyclical of the Church.

Chiara was particularly interested in the topic of the Church’s involvement in the social sphere of the world. As well, as she came to Brazil she had been made aware of the needs of the poor present in the local Focolare community. Our community down there had people who were well-off, but also had people who were suffering and needed help with food, education and shelter.

What Chiara saw is that, despite the Focolare practicing a communion of goods over the 50 years of its history at that time, despite the individual efforts to share and help those in need within our own community, we still fell short, and so something else needed to be done.

Thus the idea was born of starting businesses that could operate, share profits and help the needy associated with the community.

From 1991, this movement began to spread across the Focolare world, and 18 years later we have over 750 businesses involved in the Economy of Communion.

It is something rooted in the experience of the early Christians, a community that was described as being one in heart and mind, where there was no needy person among them. The idea of recapturing that experience of the early Christians gave rise to this way of doing business.

The mission is to promote a culture of giving and social justice through these businesses that are animated by the value of universal fraternity.

These businesses are for profit, and are present on every continent; I think we’re in 50 countries. About half of the organizations are service businesses, a quarter of them are manufacturing, and the rest are retail.

The profits from these businesses are put in common. One part of the profits is kept inside of the company to help it to grow, because without capital, companies can stagnate.

Another part of the profits goes to the education of people in this culture of giving, in this attitude of the Economy of Communion. We hold seminars, conferences and meetings to spread these ideas.

The last portion of the profits goes directly to the poor, to help with basic needs: food, shelter, education and health care. But it is a little different than a philanthropic gift of the profits.

We have relationships with the poor in each geographic location, and we really know what is happening in their lives. They are also seen as equal partners in this Economy of Communion. So when they express their needs, it is seen as something of equal value to us sharing our economic resources.

Someone likened it to: not giving a person a fish, nor teaching them how to fish, but fishing with them. In the Economy of Communion we fish with them. It is not something we do apart or for them; it is something we do together.

That is a whole mind shift in this concept of corporate social responsibility and the classic notion of businesses that are helping the poor.

ZENIT: Many people would see the values of the corporate business world as being opposed to those of Christian charity and social justice. How have you found that those two have been able to work hand in hand?

Mundell: I think the time is ripe for this idea of incorporating social mission within a business and we are seeing a lot of that over the last three to four years. We have seen an increasing interest in the idea of corporate social responsibility.

Many organizations, even Fortune 500 companies, are becoming more aware of their social responsibilities in business operations.

They talk about the triple bottom line: people, planet, profit. People, because they are interested in assisting with social problems; planet, because they want to become environmentally aware; profit, because they need it to sustain the business.

This idea of corporate social responsibility is there in the secular world, and people are grappling with it. They realize that they owe their shareholders a return on their investments, but they also realize that being corporately responsible is also good for business.

One could argue that they are being corporately responsible because it is financially advantageous to them. But I say, however we do it, and whatever the motivations, it is still a good thing.

The Economy of Communion can be seen as part of that overall movement of corporate social responsibility, but it is really more than that.

It is a different model, because in present trends, there are a lot of individual businesses trying to operate in a good way, but not connected to anything else.

In the Economy of Communion, we incorporate the model of the first Christian communities, and we operate as 750 businesses in a network that has global relationships. We stay in touch with each other, and try to operate in the same way.

In this way, we can circulate needs and move resources into different places in the world that require them, based on a collective way of thinking.

The Economy of Communion is about what we would call a «collective way of living out a spirituality,» the Focolare spirituality of unity that John Paul II has spoken about in previous encyclicals.

The spirituality of communion influences the way we operate as business owners, because we are centered on relationships, and the human person as the focal point in the company.

In a Christian viewpoint, we have the potential to develop these relationships to a point where there is mutual love. And as Christ said, «Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.» In this way, we can actually have the presence of God, of Christ, in these relationships.

So our model is a little different, but within the sphere of this talk about social enterprises, social entrepreneurs or corporate social responsibilities. We are within that discussion now, especially now that the Pope has mentioned the Economy of Communion in the encyclical.

ZENIT: When the Pope talked about the Economy of Communion in the encyclical, did you find that his ideas confirmed the principles of the project, or did it shed new light on the topic?

Mundell: I think both. The encyclical is a wonderful work and it is going to take all of us some time to take it in and grasp all of the nuances that the Pope has laid out.

It certainly has confirmed and supported our efforts over the last 18 years. For example, in chapters three and four it talks about the need to create space in th
e market for these new kind of operations, based not just on the pursuit of profit alone, but also on pursuing principles of mutuality and social ends.

It recognizes this new form of business that is between a for profit and a not-for-profit. The Pope holds up these for profit businesses with a social mission as something that is promising, something that should be encouraged and supported in the different contexts, structures and countries of the world.

He sees this kind of attitude, this Economy of Communion, as a way to steer the globalization of humanity in relational terms, in terms of communion and the sharing of goods.

The Pope has also given us a challenge, to expand what we are doing, to be more open and to have the best kind of businesses and the best models possible, so others can see that organizations can be successfully operated in this way.

Some people do not think you can operate a for profit business this way and be successful, but we have 750 organizations that can say it is possible.

We are successful, but success is also measured in different ways. It can be measured in how much we help those in need, in the impacts of these businesses in the local communities, in the relationships they have developed, and also in the way they have become models to steer other larger companies to a more civil way of doing business.

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