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Root of economic production not only practical but spiritual

By Glen Argan
Special to the Prairie Messenger


EDMONTON — Economists and proponents of Catholic social teaching need to overcome “a forgetfulness about the truth of the centrality of the person in the economic drama,” said a visiting scholar from Ireland.

Rev. John McNerney spoke at Newman Theological College Jan. 25 about what he called “the ultimate spiritual nature of the commercial process.”

“The human person acting as an entrepreneur is not merely froth and bubble in the stream of history,” McNerney said. Rather, the entrepreneur can overcome old economic traditions and create new ones.

The root of economics can be found in the nature of the human person — homo spiritualis, or spiritual man, he said. The root of economic production is not only practical, but also intellectual and spiritual.

McNerney is the head chaplain at University College Dublin, author of The Wealth of Persons: Economics with a Human Face and currently a visiting scholar at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

The priest quoted Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, who said, “The origins of Microsoft have little to do with money. The money was just an accidental byproduct. The purposive force was the human creativity involved in the project.”

Entrepreneurial action is a source of wealth in today’s society, wealth that is both financial and moral. McNerney cited Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus in which the late pope named virtues arising from entrepreneurship, including industriousness, diligence, fidelity, prudence in undertaking reasonable risks and courage in carrying out difficult decisions.

But he took issue with a talk given by Pope Francis in Bolivia in 2013 in which this pope emphasized “the fitting distribution of economic goods among all.”

That view of the economy makes no mention of how wealth is created and sees the economy as a purely administrative machine, he said.

McNerney said Pope Francis, in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, does speak of the creation of wealth and of technology as the fruit of our nature as human persons.

The Irish priest told of an Irish nun, Sister Agnes Morrogh-Bernard (1842-1932), who was raised in a wealthy family but horrified by the dire poverty of the Irish during and after the Great Famine of the 1840s. The Famine, he said, killed everything, including human self-determination, self-esteem and dignity.

In 1890, Morrogh-Bernard launched a woollen mill in the village of Foxford, which continues to this day. “She didn’t just harness the river, but she harnessed the creativity within the human person.”

The factory became a place where workers learned more than spinning and weaving, but also “the virtues of entrepreneurial action,” such as character, courage and change within the person, McNerney said.

The sister did not see poverty as simply the result of “systemic and ideological obstacles.” She realized success cannot be achieved by capital alone, but also requires creativity. “The person as a being who has the capacity to become more than we are — that’s what motivated her.”

Innovation, the priest said, “is constitutive of our nature as human persons.”

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