Bernardo M. Villegas
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The New Idolatry of Money

           Although Pope Francis will have few opportunities to interact with people of business during his forthcoming four-day stay in the Philippines ( he prefers to have intimate meetings with the poor and the needy), he will be happy to know that there are more and more young people in our country who do not believe in what he called “the new idolatry of money.”  I have attended numerous workshops and conferences in which entrepreneurs, especially those in their twenties, have reported on the social enterprises that they have organized over the last five to ten years.   These are for-profit businesses which are established, not with the primary objective of enriching their investors, but to attain a social objective such as improving the conditions of the poor or underprivileged, protecting the environment, or fostering values and virtues among certain segments of the population, especially the youth.  Among them are very innovative solutions to addressing the problem of mass poverty:  giving access to electricity, potable water and quality primary education to the poorest of the poor; helping small farmers create wealth in the countryside such as Gawad Kalinga’s Enchanted Farm in Bulacan; linking isolated communities with a variety of service providers and large businesses, etc.  The Philippines is not far behind in this world-wide movement of utilizing the business model to attain social objectives.

          This favourable trend is a direct answer to Pope Francis’ lament about twentieth century capitalism that predominated in the West and may be spreading in the emerging markets like China, Russia and Brazil.  In going to the roots of the recent Great Recession that rendered tens of millions of people impoverished and unemployed, especially in a number of countries in Europe, our soon-to-be visitor wrote in “The Joy of the Gospel”, “One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies.  The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis:  the denial of the primacy of the human person!  We have created new idols.  The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32; 1 - 35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.  The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone:  consumption.”

          The Pope will be happier, however, if the top 1,000 corporations in the country who have not adopted the form of a social enterprise, still giving  priority to serving their stockholders and other investors,  would go beyond what is known as Corporate Social Responsibility and assume fully its  God-given obligation to promote the integral human development of each of its stakeholders:  the consumers; the rank-and-file-workers, especially those at the borderline of poverty; the suppliers, especially the micro-enterprises; the individuals who reside in the environs in which   their businesses operate.  From this standpoint, all business enterprises should be social enterprises since they are run by human beings who must always consider the common good of society in their every action.  It is in this sense that every business is a social enterprise, even if its primary purpose is to make a profit.  The top 1,000 corporations cannot wash their hands from the obligation of all human institutions to promote the common good.

          I hope the few industrial leaders who may have an opportunity to say a few words to the Pope (possibly during his visit to Malacanang) will be able to reassure the Supreme Pontiff that we are creating an economy in which businesses “say no to a financial system which rules rather than serves.”  As the Pope wrote in “The Gospel of Joy,” when the market becomes the only rule, “there lurks the rejection of ethics and a rejection of God.  Ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision.  It is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative.  It is felt to be a threat, since it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person.  In effect, ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside of the categories of the marketplace.  When these latter are absolutized, God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement.  Ethics—a non-ideological ethics— would make it possible to bring about balance and a more humane social order.  With this in mind, I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder these words of one of the sages of antiquity:   ‘Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood.  It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.’ ”

          I sincerely hope that the business people who will be operating in the devastated areas of Eastern Visayas (Leyte and Samar) and the other regions affected by Yolanda will take to heart these words of Pope Francis.  They are the ones in the best position to combine their legitimate profit-making activities with the task of “bringing about balance and a more humane social order.”  In the industries which can be reconstructed in these regions, such as agribusiness, tourism, education and retailing, among others, the small farmers, the landless rural workers, the urban poor and other underprivileged people could be given their rightful share to the fruits of their work.  Such models as the nucleus estate farming perfected by the Malaysian; the cooperative approach to marketing and finance; and the fixing of just family wages are among the means that can be considered for “sharing one’s wealth with the poor.”   Caring for the poor and the needy should be an integral part of the business strategy of every enterprise, and not relegated to the “extracurricular activities” usually denominated as Corporate Social Responsibility.  For comments my email address is