Dr Michael Black and Stratford Caldecott continue a series of reflections on the corporate relation in crisis.
Concerns about the relationship of ethics to economics, and the moral dimensions and responsibilities involved in economic life, have been intensified by the modern experience of globalization, and the various cultural, economic and environmental crises associated with it. Great wealth has been generated, but also great poverty; great advances but also great social instability – suggesting to many that economic growth and progress, in the sense commonly understood, may be unsustainable in the long term. These questions are too huge to be dealt with in a single project or by a single group. Rather than focus on globalization, the market, the role of the State or the impact of our way of life on the environment, we have chosen to look at a topic seemingly narrower but equally fundamental, namely the unit of economic life known as the corporation, understood as a “projection” and instrument of the human person.
The rise of the modern global corporation dates from the mid-Victorian codification of limited liability, but corporate life has existed for much longer than this. The corporation
(based on the Latin word for body, corpus) is the fundamental structural relationship of civil society, rooted theologically in notions of covenant that go back to ancient Israel. The origin of the corporation is therefore not secular, but religious: the “incorporation” (and transformation) of individual interests into the interests of the whole. The Church is in fact the first corporation, a dramatic innovation in organizational relationships first articulated by St. Paul. Brought into civil law through religious motives in the middle ages, the theory of corporate organization remained a virtually exclusive concern of the Church for centuries.
The corporation has been so far neglected in Catholic social thought, but its importance is enormous. It is a building block not just of modern economic life but of social and political life as well. It helps determine the way we act together as human beings. The relationships we have through corporations of various kinds – from the hospital in which we may have been born, to the local council that collects our garbage, and the companies that supply our daily needs, from North Sea oil to Japanese cars – employ us, sustain us, dominate our waking lives, forge our culture, and help shape our very humanity. Through their impact on the environment they may threaten the survival of life on earth. Unless our corporate lives promote human value, our bodies, even our hopes and dreams, are reduced to commodities for sale and exploitation. All too often the human is subordinated to the corporate. But this is to misunderstand and distort the nature of the corporation itself, which exists for the sake of the human person and the flourishing of persons in community.
Readers might be interested to see this opinion piece by Jo Confino of the Guardian about the return of values to business, and love in the corporation.