Robert A. Sirico, M. Div., is not your everyday Catholic priest. He quotes Thomas Aquinas and Genesis, to be sure, but in the next moment he’s citing Milton Friedman, Solzhenitsyn and Peter Drucker. In 1990, concerned that insufficient grasp of economic principles left many students of religion poorly equipped to address real-life social issues, he founded the Acton Institute, whose mission is “to promote a free, virtuous and humane society … by demonstrating the compatibility of faith, liberty and free economic activity.”
Father Sirico is also the recipient of honorary doctorates in Christian Ethics and Social Sciences, is a member of the prestigious Mont Pelerin Society, sits on the Board of Advisors of the Civic Institute of Prague, and served on Michigan Civil Rights Commissions from 1994 to 1998. His pastoral ministry has included a chaplaincy to AIDS patients at the NIH and the recent founding of a new community, St. Philip Neri House in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Robert and the Acton Media also produced the 2008 film, The Call of the Entrepreneur. We recently sat down to talk with him about the critical role he sees the independent entrepreneur playing in the development of a just society. — J.D.M.
How does somebody of your background come to this involvement in issues of commerce and capitalism?
I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in a working-class family led by pretty conservative values. It was a turbulent time, and I eventually became disaffected from my faith, and enamored with the social activism of the left.
If you’d asked me then what I thought about business, I would have said, “Business is exploitive! What we need is a redistribution of wealth.” I’ve always been a passionate person, but I was not well-grounded in economics, history or philosophy.
Eventually, a friend gave me some books to read, including Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom and F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, and this precipitated two separate conversion experiences.
The first was political and economic. I began to understand that if we want to ensure the well-being of the poor, we have to produce more wealth. Wealth is not a pie to be divided up, but is something that can actually be grown; the fact that somebody has wealth doesn’t mean that they have obtained that wealth through injustice or expropriation, but more likely through sheer economic productivity.
My second conversion came about a year later, while I was still in college, when I bumped back into God. I realized that questions of utility and profit were not the whole truth of the human being—that the transcendence of the human person could not be accurately accounted for simply by tallying up the sum total of his material parts. This brought me back to my faith.
After finishing college, I pursued a vocation in the priesthood, and have since made this integration between economics and moral theology in a more formal way.
So, you became a theo-economist!
I view myself as being bilingual: translating back and forth between businesspeople and clergy.
When I was in seminary, I encountered people who were still enamored of the left. “How can you be a believer,” they would say, “and not be concerned about the poor?” But the debate isn’t whether or not the poor should be taken care of, but how do we provide for the poor?
When I got out of the seminary I began writing to formulate the experiences I’d had. Working with the network I had developed by this point, we decided to create an institute for seminaries of all denominations. That was the birth of the Acton Institute.
Most people associate the name Lord Acton with his negative postulation, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But there’s more to the man than that.
What he actually, said was, “Power tends to corrupt.” But yes, there are many other wonderful quotations from Acton, for example, “Liberty is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization.”
It was also Lord Acton who said, “The liberty of which we speak is not the freedom to do what I want, but the liberty to do what I ought.”
The most common rallying cry I hear in networking and home-based business is this call of freedom.
If your readers are anything like me, they chafe at standing in line at the post office, because of the waste of time and the bureaucracy. But freedom is just a vacuum, an empty chasm. It has to be filled with something. Freedom is simply an option—but people want more than options. They want a mission.
Is this call to freedom something we’re moving into progressively as a society, or something cyclical that we have to constantly renew?
In my lifetime, there have certainly been great strides made for human freedom. I’m thinking particularly about the collapse of the greatest threat in the last century to human freedom, which was the ideology of communism.
Talk about chafing in line at the post office!
You read [Solzhenitsyn’s] The Gulag Archipelago, or Whitaker Chambers’ Witness, and you see what happens under communism. But then, how discouraging to see the Soviet Union collapse, and the people within that system not be able to take advantage of their freedom—which tells us that freedom needs institutions.
During the seventy-year existence of the Soviet Union, the moral fabric and culture of the people was stripped bare. There was no transcendent perspective. People saw themselves as no more than physiological entities.
This is where the danger of a kind of “savage capitalism” emerges, rather than a capitalism that is, as Katharine Lee Bates put it in “America the Beautiful,” “confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.” Our liberty has to be protected by institutions, the institution of private property, contract, a judiciary that adjudicates differences among people based on law, rather than on man—those kind of things that safeguard our liberty and set the boundaries.
So you see the role of entrepreneurialism serving as a critical social force?
It’s key, and it’s underappreciated. The Austrian economist Israel Kirzner says that one of the key features of the entrepreneur is that he or she is a discoverer, one who discovers a use for something that other people have overlooked. And it’s very often something that’s quite common, only it’s uniquely put in combination with a few other common things.
Very often, when we see the entrepreneur’s achievement, we all say, “I could have done that.” But the point is you didn’t. You didn’t see the need for it. How could we live without Post-its®? We think it’s always been with us all along.
That’s an example of creating wealth, as opposed to simply looking for different ways to split up the existing pie. It sounds like that’s what you’re describing here.
Exactly: that’s what entrepreneurs do, and it’s an essential institution.
At the same time, the entrepreneur is often not a very good manager. This gets into a kind of spiritual reflection: we have to be ruthlessly honest with ourselves about our capacity.
Often the entrepreneur is not the person best suited to take the discovery to the next level, building the institutions, marketing plan and all of the rest of it. Some people can easily shift between the necessities of growth and institutional arrangements. Others just have to go and sell it off and then go come up with the next great idea.
When and how well that happens depends on the person’s honesty, self-reflection and humility. Humility, that is, in the classical sense, as used by Thomas Aquinas. Humility is not obsequiousness, or being a doormat. Humility is loving the truth.
You talk about spiritual values in business, yet there seems to be such a common view that business and spiritual principles are antithetical or somehow mutually exclusive.
This is because people a) don’t understand business, and b) don’t understand spiritual principles.
Some years ago, in the midst of all of the priest-pedophile scandals, I got a call from Vatican Radio in Rome, saying they wanted to invite me to “discuss the scandals on the radio.”
I said, “This is not my area of expertise.”
“But Father,” she replied, “we were told that you were the priest to go to who knows about this.”
And I said, “Who told you such a thing? I have no background in this area!”
She said, “But Father, you’ve written so much!”
I said, “What are you talking about?”
And she said, “We want to talk to you about Enron.”
When she said “scandals,” I assumed she meant sexual abuse in the church. She was talking about Arthur Andersen, Enron and the corporate scandals!
Then it dawned on me: both of these scandals were failures of vocation: they were failures of men who were called to do a specific thing—because that’s what the word vocation means, a calling—and who then allowed their own greed, avarice and appetites to overwhelm what they were called to do.
This notion so many people have, that entrepreneurship and the production of wealth is antithetical to the spiritual life, misses the point that the spiritual life is not anti-material. In the Judeo-Christian revelation, our spirituality is encased in the material reality. When God creates man and woman and forms him from the dust of the earth and then breaths into him the breath of life, he is then called to have dominion over this material world.
So, there’s this interplay between the material and the spiritual, the transcendent and the physical. If you have a business run simply on the ideals of efficiency, you may have something productive but not necessarily something that is good. And if you have spirituality that is so disembodied—as the Baptist preacher says, so Heavenly minded it’s no earthly good—then you have an irrelevancy to the real world in which we live.
These two things need to interpenetrate each other. I’m fond of quoting an insight by the philosopher Étienne Gilson, who said, “If you want to build a cathedral that has a façade like that of Notre Dame, that represents the rising of the soul to God, you must first understand geometry. Because piety is never a substitute for technique.”
We need to respect both of these gifts, technique and piety.
What is “the call of the entrepreneur”?
The term suggests that it is something that transcends your own decision; in other words, it’s something that seeks you out, something you don’t initiate, but which you respond to.
The successful businesspeople I know speak precisely in those words. They say that it’s almost like something is calling them, something they are drawn to.
This is true even on a purely economic level. People often think that the capitalist, the owner of the means of production, determines the price of the thing. But that’s nonsense. You can say, “This widget I’ve made will cost $100.” But that doesn’t mean anyone will buy it at that price.
I ask seminarians to think about this, because it’s very different than how they usually think. The capitalist has to be attentive to the demands of the market, in relation to the price of the object, the color of its packaging, its shape, its form and its function.
He has to respond to a call from consumers.
Yes, and he also has to respond on a more cosmic level, as I alluded to before, by virtue of our creation. Having dominion over all of creation, as in Genesis, is also a calling.
It seems that phrase “dominion over” has been the source of some confusion.
It has. The responsibility God entrusts to the human family is a function of stewardship, not an arbitrary ability to do anything at any time.
So as an entrepreneur, who is expressing that spirit of stewardship, you have to be attentive. You can’t just charge out there and dominate—you have to keep your ears and eyes open.
Yes, exactly. And that’s one of the main traits of the successful entrepreneur: he is attentive to things. He’s constantly on the lookout for something that other people have discarded, like the man in the documentary we produced [The Call of the Entrepreneur], who transformed cow manure into wealth. I find that such a beautiful metaphor—to take dung and build a business out of it.
And this happens constantly in a market economy.
“Show me the stone the builders have rejected, and I’ll make it my cornerstone.” Robert, can you speak for a moment about business as an expression of life purpose?
It concerns me that some people who speak in the realm of business and religion say, “We need to go from success to significance.” I resist that notion, because it implies that there is a separation between success and significance.
Human beings are whole. You are simultaneously a father and a businessman, an uncle and a benefactor and a number of other things. You’re one person, not separate functions.
I think that the success we have should be significant. Given the extraordinary liberty this great nation has given us, to have the freedom to choose to work and to be creative and innovative, why would you do anything that isn’t significant? Why would you do anything that doesn’t reflect, in some sense, the purpose of your life? How anemic! How tedious!
I don’t mean to imply that everything we do should always be fun. Part of the discipline of business is to delay gratification, to put up with the tedium in the pursuit of the goal. But if we can keep the purpose of our existence in mind when we order our temporal affairs in accord with that, that radiates joy.
So is it when the values of success and significance part ways that we get into trouble, like Enron and Arthur Anderson?
I think that’s exactly it. When we dichotomize and compartmentalize our lives, we’re playing with fire.
I heard a story of a man who went out on a date. They stopped at a fast-food restaurant to buy some lunch, then drove to a beautiful meadow, where they spread a blanket on the ground and put out their boxes of food. As they sat there viewing the beautiful pastoral scene, the man opened one of the boxes, and found that it was jammed with money! By mistake, the server at the fast food place had given him their bank deposit!
The man leapt up and drove back into town, walked into the restaurant and asked for the manager. When the manager came out, the man said, “You meant to give me my lunch, but instead you gave me this.”
The manager opened the box and his face turned ashen. “Oh my God,” he exclaimed, “thank you! What a wonderful man you are! I have to do something for you!”
The man replied, “Could I just have the lunch? Because I have my date waiting…”
“No, no,” the manager insisted, “stay right here. I’m going to call the newspaper and the radio, because your honesty is a wonderful example for people in the community.”
The man protested again and said, “No, please, don’t. I just want the lunch.”
And the manager replied, “No, I insist.” He picked up the phone to call the newspaper—and the man took the phone from his hand and set it down.
“Please,” he repeated firmly, “don’t do that.”
“Why not?” exclaimed the manager. “You’re so modest!”
The man’s face fell. “No, I’m not,” he said very quietly. “I’m here on a date—and it’s not with my wife.”
The man had compartmentalized his life. With regard to finances, he could be very honest, but at the same time, he was living a duplicitous life. That’s the danger of compartmentalization.
I was going to ask, “As self-employed entrepreneurs, how do we pursue living a life of significance through our business?”—but I think you just answered the question.
I think this takes an interior formation. We begin by really knowing who we are and the “why” questions of our existence.
I know that businesspeople often say, “No, no, it’s the how questions.” But I think it’s crucial to meditate for a bit on the why of things, and then you can associate the how with that. That’s what gives you a meaningful business, rather than just a means of production.
As Drucker and other business gurus point out, if you’re going to create a business with a healthy morale, each person involved in the process needs to have a sense of the whole of the process. Because then, whether we’re putting widgets together or distributing products or materials to people, we have a sense that what we’re doing counts. It is both success and significance.
You’re not just laying bricks, you’re building a cathedral.
Exactly. That’s a good way to put it.