Ed. Note: The following is the text of a stirring address delivered by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Colorado, to a group of business leaders in Canada on February 24, 2009. The archbishop’s presentation was sponsored by the Archdiocese of Toronto, the Salt and Light Catholic Television Network, Regis College and the Meritus, an archdiocesan group for Catholic business leaders.
“People Make History; Not the Other Way Around” by Archbishop Charles Chaput
I usually like to start my breakfast comments with some humor, but when you’re speaking to business leaders the day before Lent in the middle of an economic meltdown, that might not be such a good idea. So let’s start with a quote instead:
“History is a record of the encounter between character and circumstance.” I’ve always kept those words close, even though I’ve forgotten the author, because they remind us that people make history; not the other way around. We often can’t control our circumstances. But we can usually control our own actions, and our actions have real consequences for ourselves and others — now and into the future.
I’ve always had an interest in history because history is to a nation or people what memory is to individual persons: It roots us in reality. It gives us a context for the present. And it teaches us some of the lessons we need to build a better future. Here’s an example of what I mean, and I’ll use four facts that don’t seem related at all.
1. Religious Muslims don’t use interest as a financial tool.
2. For many years, Catholics also saw the interest charged on money as a sin.
3. In general, Protestant countries have outperformed Catholic nations economically.
4. Despite the huge holes in his ideas, Karl Marx inspired millions of people and a century of revolutionary action.
Obviously I’ve oversimplified these facts, and they’re separated by time and culture. But they’re related by a single thread: the power of money. Church leaders originally condemned interest because it allowed the rich to take even greater advantage of the poor, and it reduced the bonds of family, fealty and friendship to impersonal transactions (see Exodus 22:25-27; Leviticus 25:36-37; and Deuteronomy 23:19-20).
Devout Muslims still hold to this view. Protestant individualism led to economic initiative. Catholic distrust of the new economy tended toward heavy economic controls and conservatism. If we compare the traditional economic assumptions of countries like the United States with those that were dominant in Latin America until very recently, the differences are pretty clear.
And I think Marx rightly saw that the pursuit of capital without a moral compass tends to erode traditions and traditional relationships, beginning with the family. As a result, people often misread Scripture to claim that money is the root of all evil. But that’s not what Scripture says.
The Bible says that “the love of money is the root of all evils” (1 Tim 6:10). And that’s useful for our thoughts today. We can love people. We can’t love things. People are the subjects of history. Things are the objects and tools of history. When we treat things with the attention and reverence due to people, people suffer. Today we know that a free market can be a powerful force for good in the world. Despite the economic challenges we all face right now, it’s still true that more people in more places live better and longer than at any time in history. That’s an astonishing modern achievement.
But it’s also true that more people are poor and suffering than at any time in history. One of the lessons of history — and also the Christian and Jewish Scriptures — is that the rich forget the poor. Power, including economic power, can become a kind of addiction. The language of appetite subverts the language of ideals. If we associate the idea of freedom with cars or cell phones or computers, as we relentlessly do in our advertising, pretty soon we lose the real vocabulary of freedom.
The Importance of Faith and Moral Principles in the Marketplace
Adam Smith alluded in some of his early writings to the importance of religious faith and moral principles in guiding the very powerful machine we call the market. There’s a reason why he did. At its root, the market is basically a “service-for-compensation” or “product-for-compensation” transaction. And the better we become at it, the more we risk losing sight of the larger moral environment of our culture.
The need for a profit and today’s specialization of skills and interests narrows our horizon — not just at work, but in the way we connect with the world and perceive others. In all the great religions, but especially in Christianity, the world and its resources exist for the use of all people.
And therefore, the market exists for the benefit of everybody. People have a right to enjoy the results of their success. There’s a wonderful dignity in financial success rightly earned. But we never lose responsibility for the people around us. And when we do lose sight of that responsibility — when we reduce other people to statistics or impersonal social problems; when we ignore the moral implications of money; when we let greed, dishonesty and financial voodoo take over our economic life — then the bonds that hold a nation together begin to unravel. And we end up in the train wreck we all find ourselves dealing with now.
C.S. Lewis once said that each human life, no matter how disabled, poor or infirm, is more valuable than every great empire in history. What he meant is this. Every human person is a child of God designed from conception to live forever. But every nation and every culture will sooner or later die and be forgotten. This is why the dignity of the human person — including his or her economic well-being — is at the heart of Catholic social teaching.
But Catholic or not, any sensible businessperson can understand the logic of the Golden Rule. We reap what we sow. If we act like pirates, that’s what we become. If we act ethically, we create an ethical world — even if its borders only reach as far as our family, business colleagues and friends. More importantly, we can’t really be free until we live, in some sense, for others.
That’s why the saints are the freest people in history. Freedom never comes from things. It never comes from avarice or envy or any other addiction. Real freedom comes from self-mastery. It comes from talents that we turn outward for others. The deal God puts on the table is very simple: We need to give to receive. And that makes sense, because God is love; his essence is charity.
He’s the author of all our talents — and the “ecology” of our lives, to be in balance, requires that we help others if we hope to help ourselves. In the long run, there’s no way to be a “successful” person — in business, in politics, in the Church or anywhere else — by wanting and taking more than we’re willing to give. The habit of giving creates abundance. The habit of taking steals from everybody — beginning with ourselves and our own integrity.
Where does God belong in the marketplace?
Where does God belong in the marketplace? He belongs in the hearts and the actions of the people who make the market succeed. And that means you. “History is a record of the encounter between character and circumstance.” Each of us becomes “powerful” by becoming free, and we become free by mastering ourselves and living for others. Business, like art, law, literature, music, and architecture, is a window on the soul of a culture — and that puts a rather unflattering light on the soul of the past five months, doesn’t it.
What we do, what we create, reveals who we are. And that’s as true in the marketplace as it is in the painter’s studio. The rest of us need good leaders like you to change things; to light the marketplace with habits of generosity, justice, and honesty. The philosopher Hugo Grotius once said that, “A man cannot govern a nation if he cannot govern a city; he cannot govern a city if he cannot govern a family; he cannot govern a family unless he can govern himself; and he cannot govern himself unless his passions are subject to reason.”
I’d add just one more thing: A man’s reason can’t truly serve himself — or anyone else — until he roots it in moral integrity. As some of you know, John Adams was one of the great founders and leaders of my country, and Americans owe him for much of the freedom we enjoy today. But Adams also found a way to perfectly combine his professional life, moral character and religious faith. Adams always argued against slavery, and he did so because he felt that it violated human dignity, ignored the Gospel and was unworthy of a Christian people.
But I think the most revealing fact about John Adams was his relationship with his wife Abigail. Adams loved his wife and his children with a tenderness and fidelity that spanned a lifetime. St. Augustine once said, “to be faithful in little things is a big thing.” Adams never allowed the big demands of his public life to eclipse the seemingly “little” things that were really the important things — a devotion to his wife, his children, his friends and his God. Devotion to family sounds like a simple thing, and it is.
Gratitude, honesty, humility, faithfulness — these all are simple things. They’re also very difficult. It’s easy to talk about fixing the problems of society with big national programs and policies, because we can always blame somebody else when they don’t work. Personal change, personal moral integrity, personal fidelity to people and principles — that’s much harder work, because we’re stuck with the clay of who we are, and there’s nobody to blame but ourselves if we fail. But in persisting in these little things, we accomplish a big thing.
We affect others. Our lives matter. We’re here for a reason. One life, lived well, won’t change the world — but it’s s a start. That’s where revolutions start; with one life. So lead well, with honesty, generosity and vision; with moral character and unselfishness. Lead well, not only with what you say, but with what you do — and in your example, that’s where the renewal of your nation’s public life will begin.