As Fr. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, points out in his June 18 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical Laudato Si does indeed pose a “major challenge” for free market advocates.
Pope Francis apparently doesn’t view the free market as a primary tool for reducing poverty or increasing access to health care and other vital services. He likewise doesn’t see private enterprise as a promising school for virtue — as an opportunity to foster and develop prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice.
The Pope challenges academics, economists, politicians, clergy, communities, and others to act in order to change the dominant economic and environmental policies. He candidly admits that he (and by extension, the Church) doesn’t have ready answers for the myriad, specific problems besetting the global economy, and he offers few precise policy recommendations. He does, however, encourage “honest debate” and robust discussion regarding these crucial issues. Supporters of the free market ought to welcome this debate for we have much to offer.
In that spirit, I offer a few humble suggestions. I suggest that we start the discussion in 1197 AD with the death of Homobonus of Cremona. Innocent III canonized him in 1199. Saint Homobonus is the patron saint of business and thus serves as a model of “heroic virtue” for Catholics interested in leading lives of sanctification while working in the world. The Church provides those models to assist the faithful as they navigate the complexities of modern life.
Around 1100, with the rise of medieval towns in Italy, a new form of life emerged that emphasized trade and negotiation between and among people. It soon became apparent that this pre-capitalistic trade required special virtues in order to function properly, and the Church responded by articulating the type of ethics needed in such transactions. This ethic was first seen in the various guilds and brotherhoods voluntarily established by merchants themselves. The Church saw the need for a model of virtue and in response canonized the lay-merchant Homobonus. In this act, it became apparent that no state of life was foreign to the quest for holiness and sanctity: Business could indeed become a vocation.
The spontaneous veneration that formed organically after Homobonus’ death was a clear sign of genuine holiness. However, he is almost universally unrecognized by most Catholics. A simple explanation exists for this benign neglect: Most of the documents regarding his life, work, holiness, and canonization have never appeared in English in a collected and accessible form. Yet if we desire to have a genuinely open and honest debate, we must include these documents and consider the virtues of properly ordered private enterprise.
This important “life of the saint” exists today in rare manuscripts extant only in single copies, scattered among a small handful of archives in Milan and Cremona. The magisterial Acta Sanctorum, already 300 years old, has yet to begin editing the November saints (Homobonus’ feast day is Nov. 13) and will not reach him for at least a decade, if ever. Once collected and translated, Homobonus’ full history will provide the terminus a quo necessary for having a sustained and informed discussion.
Consequently, my colleague Don Prudlo (a professor of medieval Christian history at Jacksonville State University) and I are preparing a trip to Italy to begin the project in earnest next January. When completed and disseminated, the history of St. Homobonus will allow scholars and non-scholars alike to read and learn from this axial figure.
In this way, scholars must work with economists, business leaders, pastors, laity, and others to consider the proper relationship between faith and business. If business is truly a noble vocation — a calling for many millions of men and women — these documents will provide an apt point of departure for reflection and discovery of the venerable and classical tradition of dignified, charitable, and heroic free market activities.
By doing so, we both respond to the Pope’s call for informed, intelligent debate regarding the merits of the free market and the intersection with Catholic teaching and tradition. Once collected, the evidence in favor of a free market working in conformity with the freedom of the individual will prove to be very compelling. As Homobonus demonstrated over 800 years ago, the free market, coupled with individual virtue, is a potent mix capable of producing both individual holiness and promoting the common good and collective well-being. Let the conversation begin!