Entrepreneurship as a spiritual vocation
Implicitly, and at times explicitly, faithful parishioners assume that the only real “calling” is to some kind of full-time work in the Church. In this view, lay people don’t really have a vocation. In 1891, canon law offered a simple but devastating definition of the lay person: “Lay: not clerical.” Since then, especially under the influence of the Second Vatican Council, a far more positive view has emerged — one that plumbs the depths of God’s missionary objectives both inside and outside the Church.
Looking at the gift of business acumen in an alternative way, however, enables us to grasp its spiritual and moral potential. An entrepreneur is someone who connects capital, labor and material factors in order to produce a good or service. In The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Michael Novak argued that the entrepreneur’s creativity is akin to God’s creative activity in the first chapter of Genesis. In this sense, the entrepreneur participates in the original cultural mandate, given to God by Adam and Eve, to subdue the earth. The entrepreneurial vocation is a sacred call similar to that of being a parent, even if it’s not as sublime.
For several years, I have participated in programs designed to teach seminarians the importance of the free economy and the responsibilities of the entrepreneur. For many of these students, the ideas presented have led to eye-opening experiences. Students discover that the freemarket system is about creating wealth, about finding more efficient ways of serving others, and about providing people with jobs and investment opportunities. They discover that the chasm separating prosperity and morality is no longer insuperable.
In these seminars, I often mention George Gilder’s extraordinary book Wealth and Poverty. It can even be argued, I think, that Gilder is something of an intellectual entrepreneur. His book has been credited with being the intellectual force behind the 1980s’ supply-side revolution, which forced economists and policymakers to consider for the first time how government policy, especially in the area of taxation, affects human choices. The book’s popularity illustrates well how someone outside academia can exert tremendous influence on American economic life. In my view, however, Gilder accomplished something much more important by insisting that entrepreneurship is a morally legitimate profession.
Gilder regards entrepreneurs as among the most misunderstood and underappreciated groups in society. As visionaries with practical instincts, entrepreneurs combine classical and Christian virtues to advance their own interests and those of society. Gilder thinks it’s a mistake to associate capitalism with greed — an association with altruism would be far more accurate. When people accept the challenge of an entrepreneurial vocation, they have implicitly decided to meet the needs of others through the goods or services they produce. If the entrepreneur’s investments are to return a profit, the entrepreneur must be “other-directed.” Ultimately, business persons in a market economy simply cannot be both self-centered and successful.
Wealth and Poverty’s final chapter is perhaps the least read but most crucial. Here Gilder presents the theory that entrepreneurship is an act of faith, an inescapably religious act. Fusing traditional Christian morality with a celebration of growth and change helps us discern how knowledge and discovery are essential elements of enterprise.
Long before Wealth and Poverty was published, an entire school of economics had grown up around Joseph Schumpeter’s insight into entrepreneurship. According to Schumpeter, it was entrepreneurship — more than any other economic institution — that prevented economic and technological lethargy from retarding economic growth. He thought that the function of entrepreneurs is “to reform or revolutionize the pattern of production by exploiting an invention … for producing a new commodity or producing an old one in a new way, by opening up a new source of supply of materials or a new outlet for products, by reorganizing an industry.”
Entrepreneurs, as agents of change, encourage the economy to adjust to population increases, resource shifts, and changes in consumer needs and desires. Without entrepreneurs, we would face a static economic world not unlike the stagnant economic swamps that socialism brought about in central Europe.
The economic analysis that has its roots in Schumpeter’s work taught that entrepreneurs are impresarios, visionaries who organize numerous factors, take risks, and combine resources to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Entrepreneurs drive the economy forward by anticipating the wishes of the public and creating new ways of organizing resources. In short, they are men and women who create jobs, discover and apply new cures, bring food to those in need, and help dreams become realities.
FR. ROBERT A. SIRICO is the founder of The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. This article is reprinted with permission from his 2001 essay The Entrepreneurial Vocation.