Skip to main content

We laymen expect ministers to lead us to the threshold of mystery. Our work is terribly rationalistic, and rationalism is always in opposition to the profound nature of man. Consequently, ministers should not try too hard to base their reflections on economic or financial facts, but, starting from the nature of the human person illumined by revelation, on the heart of human mystery. Truly, the Original Sin was an attitude that rejected mystery, an attempt to find a rationalism that has led us to disaster. Further, the mission of Christ was revealed through parables, a parable itself being a door to the mystery that we expect from ministers.

Consider Sirach 38:24–34, which speaks of the artisans and the scribes. The scribes are in their public places, making beautiful discourses and recounting all manner of things. The artisans sustain creation. Without the artisans, the cities would not exist. And the object of their prayers is the business of their trades. This is why we laymen have need of men of prayer, reason, and contemplation. Mystery surrounds us, and ministers lead us to the heart of the problems of man amidst this present-day technological civilization.

The Mystery of Unique Human Personality

Permit me to share some of the experiences I have had in industry. The first, which has greatly impressed me, is the following: One day, into my office—which is the office of my grandfather, the founder of our firm—a sixty-five-year-old man came to bid me adieu as he went into retirement. He said to me, “I am very moved to be in this office. Permit me to explain. In 1938, when your grandfather was seventy years old and I was but sixteen, I came here bearing a letter for him. And that man, your grandfather, when he saw me coming, told me, ‘Come in, monsieur, please take a seat.’ And that ‘monsieur’ pronounced by your grandfather has remained with me, in my mind and in my heart.“

We then spoke a bit about what that monsieur means. Monsieur is the contraction of Mon seigneur—in English, my lord. If I, for example, say that you are my lord, I am recognizing that you have within you some irreducible part in your personality that transcends my rapport with you, that you have some part of the truth that only you possess. As Pope John Paul II has often affirmed, every person is unique and unrepeatable. This is the true foundation of enterprise; if one does not take the time to listen to the people around him, he commits a grave mistake—I would say, almost a sin—because he has not been attentive to the truth that God has placed in those people and that he needs to welcome and receive if he wishes to do well in his business.

A second story. The inventor of the radial pneumatic, Mr. Marius Mignol, who, sadly, is dead now, came to our firm as a typographer, without any intellectual formation. Normally, he would have been sent to the printery, but my grandfather had told the personnel officers, “Don’t stop with labels. Look around and remember that it is necessary to break through the rock to get to the hidden diamond.” So Mr. Mignol was placed in a position where we could observe how he reacted to increasingly complicated problems. He showed himself to be a man of amazing imagination and strong character, perhaps difficult—I knew him—but, nonetheless, a veritable technological revolutionary.

This attitude toward Mr. Mignol must be the attitude of every entrepreneur, of every manager. And the opposite applies. If employees regard their superiors with the label “superior,” they lose sight of the man. This applies to François Michelin as well: Take away the “Michelin,” and it is “François” that counts, because “Michelin” is but a label. Thus we return to the notion of mystery. As Pope John Paul II reminds us, every man and woman possesses a unique potential that must be developed; it does not matter how.

Who Is the Worker? Who Is the Boss?

A third story. One day, when returning to the factory, I came face-to-face with a representative who was distributing some leaflets and who was from the French Democratic Confederation of Workers, one of the largest industrial labor unions in France. I do not remember his name, but I recall his sharp blue eyes. We spoke but, regrettably, could not agree. We were discussing what a worker is, and I asked him, “Am I a worker?” He responded, “You are not a worker because you do not have the status of a worker.” (To define a man by his status seems to me extremely reductionist, profoundly materialistic, and, essentially, Marxist. In any event, we continued the conversation.) I asked him, “Then what should I tell my wife? If I am not working, what am I doing?”

He replied, “Look here, you cannot be a worker, because a worker is someone who receives orders. The boss, by definition, is someone who gives orders and does not receive them. Consequently, you are not a worker.” I responded, “In your opinion, what defines the form of a plowshare? Is it the will of the farmer or the nature of the terrain?” “Obviously, the nature of the terrain,” he answered. Then I told him, “The nature of the terrain gives an order to the farmer. One sees in the word ‘order’ something of the coercive, but that order is but the expression of a reality one cannot go against. Furthermore, that reality is necessary to give sense to creation.”

I continued, “At the factory we make tires. Where do they come from? What are they for? Aren’t they something that touch the ground, and don’t we put a certain number on each vehicle? Thus, what determines the form of the tire is the nature of the rubber, of the road, and of the vehicle over it, and, above all, the desires of the passengers. Consequently, it is the customers who want to ride down the road in a vehicle who give us the order to manufacture tires with such-and-such characteristics.”

I went on to add, “When Mr. Mercedes or Mr. Opel or Mr. Ford or Mr. Fiat or Mr. Renault ask me to manufacture tires for their vehicles, it is an order they give me. Then I have to order the rubber, the steel, the nylon, and the like, to make a tire that works for their automobiles.” By the end, I was a worker, and the class struggle completely disappeared, for we all had the same responsibility to transform raw material into the objects our clients need.

“With Sweat on Your Brow Shall You Eat Your Bread”

Now allow me to make some reflections on the papal encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus in regard to how they speak about workers and owners—a manner that, to me, seems to smack of Marxism. This manner is understandable, since Rerum Novarum was—and Centesimus Annus is, to a certain, lesser degree—a reaction to the Communist Manifesto. It is, however, dangerous to locate things within this dialectical model. It may be intelligible to those who see things by the light of faith, but it is difficult for those in the world, especially a de-Christianized world. In the words of Pope John XXIII, we need to “discourse anew in new terms.” This is what happened at the Second Vatican Council, which, as Pope John Paul II reminds us, was the first council that was positive and without anathemas.

Perhaps I am going too far. I recall, however, a discussion about Original Sin with one of the most intelligent entrepreneurs in France. He told me that it did not exist, and I found myself without a response. I was saddened because I felt that I had to share with him the hope that is within me, so I searched for a way to explain Original Sin. What I ended up with was a poor analogy, but it sufficed to put us on the path toward a reflection on the mystery. I told him that Original Sin is like someone who refuses to read a machine’s instruction manual, thinking, out of pride, that he can understand it by himself. Admittedly, it is a poor analogy, but for those who work the land or in factories, it does have a very precise meaning. We continued along these lines and spoke of the account of the Fall in Genesis, chapter 3, of “The woman you put with me gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate it” and of “With sweat on your brow shall you eat your bread,” or in other words, “You will work with sweat on your brow.”

What did God mean by that, “with sweat on your brow”? I do not think it is only a result of Original Sin, since one perspires when one is hot or due to physical exertion. Perspiration is essential for the regulation of the body’s temperature; thus, it is a natural phenomenon. No, God intended some other meaning when He spoke of “sweat on your brow.” Rejecting the mystery of creation, man found nature totally incomprehensible to him. Thus, the sweat on one’s brow is the sweat of pride, which is obligated to kneel in order to understand the world. Consequently, work is painful insofar as it humbles the pride of man. But there is something beyond this: the joy of knowing and participating in creation. This interpretation is not something I am inventing; it can be found in Pope John Paul II’s book The Sign of Contradiction—a book that one would do well to read and reread.

I remember another occasion in a factory during a strike led by a communist unionist whom I had come to like, a Mr. Jacqson. A large group of excited people surrounded me, and we began a discussion that lasted about three hours. At the end, he said, “Let’s go, comrades; we know well that it’s the customer who commands.” In fact, when one poses the question “Where does the money to run the factory come from?”, the answer is, from those with money—capitalists in the working sense of the term, not the Marxist—and the customers. Our firm has an operating budget of some seventy billion francs, some thirty billion of which are salaries paid by the customers who buy or do not buy our tires.

You Cannot Buy a Rack of Lamb with a Tire

I posed a similar question to some politicians in the early 1980s, which was then in France an era of triumphant socialism: “Who, in your judgment, is the principal mover in an enterprise?” The answers varied with the background, education, and age of my interlocutor. Some said it was the financial officer; others, the unionist; others, the factory manager; and still others, the worker. One person came close with the suggestion that it might be the marketing director. To all these I answered, “I think you have forgotten something: The customer is the principal mover of enterprise.” And some replied, “But the customer isn’t part of the enterprise! He’s on the outside.” My response: “Perhaps, but to manufacture a tire is one thing and to sell it, another. Wealth is created only when the tire is sold. Tires in stock represent salaries, and I cannot pay salaries in tires. It would be a tad difficult to go to the grocery store carrying a tire with the intention of trading it for a steak or rack of lamb!” Effectively, my interlocutors were led to understand that while the customer may not be within an enterprise, he is its heart.

Why its heart? Because—and this is in the theological sense of the word—he is both its point of departure and its object. The customer has needs to satisfy, and the purpose of enterprise is to find ways to satisfy these needs; thus he is at both the start and the finish. He is an essential part of the enterprise, even if from outside the firm, although it would be better to say that he transcends the firm. It has been a strongly Marxist tendency to consider business as an end in itself without reference to customers. It certainly is easier to reason and easier to satisfy pride thus, but it is completely false. It must never be forgotten that economic democracy consists in the service of people with needs.

And one needs to know when to tell the customer that one does not have the product the customer needs. Here we come to the notion of industrial ethics, but therein is also a mystery. The foundation of ethics is love, the concrete love of service to man, love that crosses over from serving the customer to serving people within the business. There are indeed owners who go too far, who practice the capitalism of the jungle, but one does not ban marriage because there are pederasts. The drama of free enterprise cannot camouflage the fact that we are sinners and will abuse our freedom. Yet the economy of responsibility—what we call the market economy or free-choice economy—is a true educator. It permits experimentation, and what we have in the wake of Original Sin is the need to experiment. We learn from experience, and there is no experience that compares to the market economy as a demanding teacher, capable of putting our pride in its place.

There is a phrase in Laborem Excercens—echoed, I believe, in Centesimus Annus—that speaks of the structures of sin. It is a vast question, one which shocks me. If one references acting persons in this context, however, one can see how the structures of sin can be restrained. Separate an act from its consequences, and one kills all possibility of education and self-determination. Thus the structures of sin are revealed—any structure that separates the act from its consequences and thus renders the act incapable of educating.

Kneeling Before the Mystery

Once more I appeal to ministers to lead us all to the heart of mystery. Human intelligence is incapable of comprehending God; she is merely capable of kneeling and, by grace, making an act of faith. Saint John of the Cross teaches us that faith is a possession in an obscure state, but ministers steward the light that can permit us to accept this darkness. This is the essential role of their vocation. We need a bread of which we do not have sufficient quantities. As children, we need bread, and we need someone to break it.