The Economy of Communion in Africa

Africa is a continent of great spiritual and cultural wealth, but also of great material poverty. The way forward for African economies is not aid and development assistance, but prudent business management that enables African workers to attain higher levels of productivity for their efforts. But what model of business management is appropriate for the communal cultures of Africa?

Soon after the Soviet Union collapsed onto the ash heap of history, John Paul II asked in Centesimus Annus: “Can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress?” He then answered his question by explaining that it depends upon what we mean by “capitalism:”

If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy,” “market economy” or simply “free economy.”  But if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.

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Some Catholics, emphasizing the first half of this answer, have erroneously interpreted it as a paradigm shift in Catholic social teaching and an endorsement of capitalism. What the passage says, however, is that the species of capitalism taught in most American business schools should not be recommended to Third World countries. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace – whose president, Peter Kodwo Appiah Cardinal Turkson, hails from Ghana – recently released “Vocation of the Business Leader: A Reflection.”

According to this document: “Shareholder value has become virtually the sole metric by which business leaders determine their performance and their worth. In the current climate, the call to ‘maximise shareholder wealth’ remains dominant and is the leading theory taught in many business schools.”

The good news about the doctrine of shareholder-wealth maximization is that many people do not accept it at face value. It is often taken to mean something like “increase shareholder wealth significantly, but not by doing anything really nasty.” The concept of maximization, however, is simple and clear: to maximize is to increase as much as possible. If you could attain x units of shareholder wealth by acting virtuously, but x + 1 units by acting viciously, then the imperative of maximization requires acting viciously. To understand with John Paul II that ethical and religious considerations should be taken into account when making business decisions is to reject the doctrine of maximizing shareholder wealth. Yet it is dominant in American business education today. And the existence of courses in business ethics or corporate social responsibility that contradict the rest of the business curriculum is not an antidote.

The Catholic social tradition rejects both socialism and all variants of capitalism that disregard the natural law and the virtues. Pius XI nailed socialism in Quadragesimo Anno: “If Socialism, like all errors, contains some truth (which, moreover, the Supreme Pontiffs have never denied), it is based nevertheless on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity. Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.” And John Paul II rejected both Marxism and “radical capitalism” in Centesimus Annus:

The Marxist solution has failed, but the realities of marginalization and exploitation remain in the world, especially the Third World, as does the reality of human alienation, especially in the more advanced countries. Against these phenomena the Church strongly raises her voice. Vast multitudes are still living in conditions of great material and moral poverty. The collapse of the Communist system in so many countries certainly removes an obstacle to facing these problems in an appropriate and realistic way, but it is not enough to bring about their solution. Indeed, there is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, in the a priori belief that any attempt to solve them is doomed to failure, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces.

Many African universities are attempting to emulate Harvard Business School. At the same time, many African leaders believe that partnering with China will be more beneficial than looking to the United States for guidance. In this situation, it is encouraging that one new Africa business school has chosen a model that is neither capitalist nor socialist and neither American nor Chinese: the Focolare Movement’s Economy of Communion. Cameroonian Bishop Immanuel Bushu, with Rev. Frs. George Nkeze Jingwa and Joseph Bomnsa, recently established the University Institute of the Diocese of Buea, which offers degrees in accountancy, banking and finance, management, marketing, insurance and risk management, and human resource management and employment relations. The University Institute of the Diocese of Buea states that it is “an Economy of Communion university.”

The Work of Mary, popularly known as the Focolare Movement, was founded in Italy by Chiara Lubich in 1943. Lubich launched the Economy of Communion during a visit to Brazil in 1991. Italian economists Luigino Bruni and Stefano Zamagni introduce an essay on the Economy of Communion with a passage in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics that confirms the philosopher’s dissent from the doctrine of shareholder-wealth maximization: “Clearly wealth is not the good we are in search of, for it is only good as being useful, a means to something else.” Bruni and Zamagni then provide an account of the founding vision of Economy of Communion:

While driving through the city of São Paulo, Chiara Lubich was struck by the extreme poverty and the many favelas (slums) around the city; a strong impression due mainly to the enormous contrast between the shacks (where a number of people from our Movement also lived) and the many and modern skyscrapers. Faced with this scenario, the idea, or the inspiration, consisted in extending the dynamics of communion from individuals or families to business enterprises, inviting people to start up new businesses and to transform existing ones, all within the fullness of freedom – actually, the full name of the project is ‘The economy of communion in freedom.’  These firms, therefore, are not non-profit organizations, but the business profits are to be pooled and used for three precise goals: first, to finance the development of the business itself; second, to spread the culture of communion by means of press conferences and various infrastructures; and third, to help people in need, by beginning with those who are in contact with the Focolare communities, according to the principle of subsidiarity.

Amelia J. Uelmen, writing in Theological Studies in 2010, reported the growth of the Economy of Communion: “Currently just over 750 Economy of Communion business initiatives are in operation in more than 50 countries worldwide, with about half operating in the service sector. Most are small and medium-sized; some have more than 100 employees. The businesses commit themselves to permeating all their relationships—with employees, customers, suppliers, regulatory agencies, the general public, and the environment around them— with gospel values of love and respect.”

The University Institute of the Diocese of Buea will have to meet the challenge of adapting the Economy of Communion to the cultures of Cameroon. It must also work out the details of how business education according to the Economy of Communion should differ from business education according to the doctrine of shareholder-wealth maximization. But this project of academic entrepreneurship has enormous potential to promote the common good in Cameroon.


  • David W. Lutz

    Dr. David W. Lutz is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Holy Cross College in Notre Dame, Indiana.

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