My Brother’s Keeper

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5/1/2010

Charity and unity, not selfishness and relativism, provide the basis for economic stability.

by Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson

Carl A. Anderson

Earlier this year at a conference for business leaders, I had the opportunity to listen to Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus argue for a new kind of capitalism.

Yunus is one of the world’s foremost “social entrepreneurs” – using the tools and skills of an entrepreneur to create positive change in society. He won the Nobel Prize in 2006 for his work in microbanking – making small loans to the poor.

What Yunus said struck me. He explained that it was important to offer “selfless capitalism” as an alternative to “selfish capitalism.” Business leaders need to be offered that choice, he said.

But the more I thought about his words, the more I came to disagree with his question. We don’t need to ask, “Should I be selfish or selfless?” Rather, the question is the one that comes from the first pages of Genesis: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9)

We need to realize that the answer to that question is a resounding “Yes.” And as Knights of Columbus, there is no other way for us to interpret the importance of charity, unity and fraternity except by answering “Yes.”

In thinking about this, I thought about someone I consider to be one of the great social entrepreneurs of the 19th century – someone whose work we are all familiar with: Father Michael J. McGivney.

Father McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus because he understood that he was his brother’s keeper. In understanding that, he established what has become a vibrant and successful business model, all because we continue to answer: “Yes, we are our brothers’ keepers.” We put our brother Knights – and the assets they entrust us to protect – before profit.

That commitment is what has kept the Knights of Columbus strong and profitable despite the enormous economic changes that have occurred over the past 128 years. Economic models change, but the success that comes with doing the right thing, and putting people first, does not.

Our fraternal model, in which charity, unity and fraternity are our guiding principles, is not something that has value only in a Catholic organization. In fact, such a model is needed for a truly sustainable economic system. If the business community at large had embraced such a model in the past, we would not have felt the pain and turbulence of the past year and a half.

The English poet John Donne once wrote: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. … Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

This is true in our families, in our parishes and in our councils, and it is especially true in what we do today at work, in the business decisions we make.

Unfortunately, those who still believe in the option of “selfish capitalism” have fostered the illusion that our society and economy can prosper on a sea of moral relativism.

The economic reality is that it cannot. For “no man is an island,” and only when we realize that all of us are interconnected can we effectively build the safe harbor everyone is looking for.

When Pope Benedict XVI criticized the “dictatorship of relativism” shortly before his election in 2005, most people applied his words to social issues. Now, we know they have an even broader meaning. As the current economic crisis shows, the heavy hand of relativism is as much to blame in the realm of business as is the failure of economic models and forecasts.

Our task, then, is to realize that Christ gave us two commandments: to love God wholeheartedly, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. An authentic following of that first commandment must lead to the second. And in following the second commandment, we will live up to Christ’s call to be known as Christians by the way we love one another.

This is the reason charity is the first principle of the Order. This is what makes the Knights of Columbus different and as relevant in 2010 as it was in 1882.

Vivat Jesus!