The Tenth Commandment: Embrace Poverty of Spirit
Human Capital is a 2014 film exposing the yawning emptiness of middle- and upper-class Italians in love with making money. The title is explained in a note at the end: it’s insurance company lingo for calculating the payout due to the victim of a fatal accident. But how can we as Irish Christians develop an alternative approach towards the money-ruled society we can sometimes feel we’re trapped in?
The Gospel’s answer is poverty of spirit, where poverty doesn’t mean deprivation, but focusing on the essential. It is to live the poverty of God, of the Trinity, of that communion of persons where what the Three divine persons have is themselves and nothing else. All they have belongs to each of them; everything is shared. So, Christian poverty means focusing above all on our relationships, on putting persons before things, as the Persons in the Trinity do. That’s why Jesus, speaking as the greatest economist, can say to us: ‘Seek you first the kingdom of heaven, and everything else will be added unto you.’
Chapter 34 of the ICCA, which deals with this issue via the Tenth Commandment and the notion of poverty, opens with a wonderful account of Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice, seen as a first-class economic and social reformer. My friend Fr John McNerney, in his forthcoming Wealth of Persons: Economics with a Human Face reminds us of another remarkable nineteenth- century person, Agnes Morrogh-Bernard, born into a wealthy family in England in 1842, who soon after moved to Ireland with her parents and lived on a fine estate.
She was horrified by the effects of the famine in the 1840s on the poorest people. Refusing the offer of marriage by a wealthy local aristocrat, Agnes entered the Irish Sisters of Charity in 1863, and later, in 1890, went to Foxford, in Co. Mayo, where whole villages had been wiped out by famine.
She saw that the river Moy, after flowing through the six arches of Foxford Bridge, suddenly plunged down a steep slope, and realised she could harness the power in that waterfall to set up a woollen mill there. Before setting up the factory, she and her community built a school and a convent. They ran community literacy projects for adults, educating them about new standards of sanitation and housekeeping, along with horticulture and animal breeding.
Sr Agnes looked for help from experienced businessmen, and wrote to Mr John Charles Smith who ran a woollen mill in Northern Ireland, explaining the situation. She told him they had no money but needed to set up this factory to help the local people out of poverty. After seeing the situation in Foxford and hearing her plans Smith said: ‘Well, Madam, the best advice I can offer you is to abandon the idea.’ Agnes replied: ‘I am deeply grateful for your kind advice and for your transparent honesty: but I may tell you that we will go on without you. Providence will provide.’ Smith took off his hat with a courteous bow and said: ‘Madam, I place myself and my experience of twenty years at your disposal.’
‘Providence will provide.’ So much so that an English Protestant friend wrote: ‘it is quite true that some Higher Power looks after your firm.’ It has prospered, with some ups and downs since then right up to today.
Pope Benedict, in his Caritas in Veritate, spoke of modern versions of Sr Agnes’s approach, intermediate between the public and private spheres, which regard profit as ‘a means for achieving human and social ends’, and mentions ‘the economy of communion’ as one of these approaches. The ‘economy of communion’ was proposed by Chiara Lubich in the 1990s during a visit to São Paolo, where the slums around the city seemed to her like a crown of thorns. Her suggestion was that businesses might use one-third of their earnings to pay their wages, another third to develop their businesses, with the final third used for training and investing in start-up businesses in underdeveloped areas.
Around one thousand businesses now operate according to the economy of communion, one being Mundell & Associates, a twenty-person Indianapolis firm specialising in environmental cleanup and design. ‘It’s about infusing society with the Gospel,’ Mundell says. For sure, to survive, his business has to turn a profit – and it has for the last fourteen years. Beyond sharing profits, the economy of communion is also about fostering a new way of doing business. It emphasises a collaborative approach inside the company, seeing other firms not as competitors but colleagues, and developing a strong sense of social responsibility in the local community.
For example, the entire firm recently took a day off to build inner-city housing in Indianapolis. For Mundell, the economy of communion isn’t only a way of living the Gospel, but is sound business practice. He gave the example of a new client who pressed him to perform a complicated bit of analysis overnight, but then balked at paying the three thousand dollar consulting fee. Inspired by an ‘economy of communion’ philosophy, Mundell told the client to pay whatever he felt was right, with the idea of building a long-term relationship. Not long afterwards, a lawyer who’d originally recommended this client to Mundell heard what’d happened and steered other work to Mundell’s firm, which developed into a contract worth one million dollars. ‘Relationships become like bank accounts that we can draw upon in tough times,’ Mundell said.
And relationships are how we live the ‘poverty of God’ lived by the Trinity too! They’re the genuine ‘human factor’ that’s at the heart of what Edmund Ignatius Rice, Agnes Morrogh-Bernard, and the economy of communion are trying to do.