Angelo Matera on The Vocation of Business

Angelo Matera was kind enough to give a kind review to my book, The Vocation of Business: Social Justice in the Marketplace, for the July/August edition of the The Houston Catholic Worker. His review:

It is ironic that because the Church refuses to accept the reduction of man to one dimension--homo economicus--thereby reducing all of life to matters of utility and exchange and profit, it is accused of being unrealistic and out of touch with economics. Médaille, in the opening pages of The Vocation of Business, thoroughly refutes the idea that the Church doesn't have the right to interfere with the "science" of economics (we've heard this before from extreme Darwinists who want the Church silenced on evolution). He asks "Is life, both the life of the world and the life of the individual, thus consigned to a kind of schizophrenia in which our moral life--the life of love and personal relationships and our deepest longings--is forever at odds with our 'scientific' life, the life in which we earn our daily bread?"

Médaille takes on the critics of CST [Catholic social teaching] on their own turf, accepting the challenge that "a 'teaching' which cannot be enacted in daily life and mundane concerns, which has no 'practical' application, is not really a teaching at all, but a mere set of platitudes." HE painstakingly builds the case for introducing ethics and justice into economics and business, starting with the most basic issues. He begins in the territory of Alasdair MacIntyre, the acclaimed Catholic philosopher who, in his 1981 book, After Virtue, argued that moral discussion isn't even possible in western societies anymore because we no longer share a common vocabulary. Médaille confronts this problem directly, and carefully reconstructs the process of moral reasoning, taking the reader all the way from the Bible and the Greeks to the Enlightenment, and the separation of reason from faith--the source of our modern (or post-modern) predicament, where relativism rules.

Médaille's range is breahtaking; he explains classical economic theory and the Church's social encyclicals, the arguments of the Catholic "neoconservatives," the history of "Distributism"--the Catholic-influenced movement for a wide dispersion of land and property which was promoted by G. K. Chesteron and Hillaire Belloc in England, and by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in this country. (Many progressives would be surprised to know that Day's urban-based Catholic Worker Movement advocated a radical, faith-based agrarian vision.) He continues on to the "just wage" and the theory of the corporation, and then presents several case studies of recent social and business innovations that illustrate how CST can be implemented. (These include the Distributist-inspired Mondragon Cooperative in the Basque region of Spain, and the Grameem micro-bank of Bangladesh.) Throughout, he weaves in history and theology, from the ancients through the medieval era to contemporary thought.

I've only touched on the breadth of ideas and examples that Médaille includes. The book is a densely packed 325-pages, yet the writing is always clear and elegant. It's not for the casual reader, but neither is it for the theological or economic specialist. It's aimed at the intelligent layman willing to put in some effort. Médaille covers so much, I'm surprised the book works so well. You would expect a few embarrassing simplifications, but there are none--the argument is airtight, and Médaille leaves almost nothing out (I wish he had addressed the mid-twentieth century economist Joseph Schumpeter, who coined the phrase "creative destruction," and reworkd classical economics to account for "disequilibrium" and the dominance of large firms. And although Médaille includes the communitarian economies of South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, he doesn't mention the Catholic-influenced "Social Market" economy of post-World War II Germany.)

The Vocation of Business may be the definitive book on Catholic Social Teaching. But did Médaille accomplish his goal of bridging the gap between moral theory and business practice? I'm not sure. In the final paragraph, he says: "The world we live in is a world built by businessmen and -women." Unfortunately, I don't think this book will reach that audience. Theologians? Yes. Economists? Probably. And that's no small accomplishment. But I doubt it will engage the business leaders who run MBA programs and business magazines, or make the sort of impact that E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful did. I don't think The Vocation of Business will spark a revolution of virtue-based business practicies (although I hope I'm proved wrong and it becomes the guidebook for thousands of social and business innovators.) It's an important stepping stone in that direction. But we still await that oh-so-necessary book. In the meantime, we should thank Médaille--and God--for this one.

Thanks, Angelo. I'm glad you found it useful, and I hope others will as well.

11 comments:

Gen Ferrer Wednesday, August 1, 2007 at 8:39:00 PM CDT  

I can't wait to start reading it and I want to again offer my congratulations to you John. Something tells me this is going to be a classic.

Dan Thursday, August 2, 2007 at 6:01:00 AM CDT  

Congratulations - that's a wonderful review! What great news! I'll have to pick up a copy of the book now!

John Thursday, August 2, 2007 at 11:00:00 AM CDT  

I also want to read the book more than ever now -- good job!

Taliesin Thursday, August 2, 2007 at 4:51:00 PM CDT  

I'm about 1/2 through it. I'm going to be opening my own solo medical practice next year, and hope to enflesh Catholic economic and social teaching in what I do. Medical economics is hard for me to understand. I think the answer may lie back in the ideas of the Guilds, and of the classical understanding of the Professions. If you have any other reading suggestions, I'd be interested in hearing about them.

Jim Wednesday, July 16, 2008 at 4:59:00 PM CDT  

I am new to all this and trying to learn how to apply my Catholic faith to economic matters. I have been looking at the Acton Institute stuff and stumbled across this blog when I did a search on "Vocation of Business"

BTW - did you know that the Acton Institute has done a review of your book "Vocation of Business" ?

Its password protected

http://www.acton.org/publications/mandm/111review06.php#

I have purchased and read The Vocation of Business and also purchased The Call of the Entrepreneur DVD and accompanying study guide.

I also have purchased and read "Virtue Based Management" by Mr. Orsini.

It is all very confusing at times. I am trying to sort through the philosophical and get to the practical as I want to start a business, but have to sort through so much stuff to find what I am looking for.

I am on my 2nd read of "Vocation" (I'm not the brightest bulb in the shed and certainly no academic) so it take me a while to "get it". But what I've read so far seems pretty exciting.

John Médaille Wednesday, July 16, 2008 at 5:16:00 PM CDT  

Jim,

Was the review good? I haven't seen it, and I am loathe to support the work of the Acton Institute; I believe that have done their best to subvert the Social Teaching and make it the house pet of Corporate Capitalism.

As for the "Call of the Entrepreneur," see my critique at http://distributism.blogspot.com/2007/10/cult-of-entrepreneurship.html

I am surprised they are still pushing that film. While it was media slick, and two of the characters were very attractive, the hedge fund manager displayed his ignorance of the banking system; it is easy to see how the credit collapse happened with beliefs like that. But Acton thinks its wonderful. They would. But it must be a great embarrassment to them now, assuming they are still capable of embarrassment.

Thanks for your kind comments, and for taking the trouble to study my book; that's the best compliment an author can receive.

John

Jim Friday, July 18, 2008 at 2:48:00 PM CDT  

I thought it was pretty fair. I sent you a copy by email

John Médaille Friday, July 18, 2008 at 3:55:00 PM CDT  

Jim, you did, and you spend $10 on it. I appreciate that. I was pleased with the review, especially given the fact that the JMM and I do not often see eye to eye. Prof. Savage noted the dispute, but gave it a glowing review nonetheless.

I now have good reviews from both left- and right-wing journals, which pleasantly surprised me, since I am neither and I expected to get slapped pretty hard by both. I can't complain; I've administered a few dope-slaps myself.

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