Jesuits anticipated modern business

In: Daniel In The News

29 Mar 2015

This is the text of my latest feature for the Financial Times (published last Thursday)

Religion and wealth have long been seen as separate realms. “Ye cannot serve God and mammon,” says a famous passage of the King James Bible. But look more carefully and it becomes apparent that the links are closer and more surprising than widely assumed.

The connections go way beyond the routine injunctions for businesses to behave more ethically. Max Weber, one of the founders of modern sociology, is noted within his field for writing about the relationship between the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Less well known are the parallels between the Jesuits, an order of the Catholic Church, and the commercial world.

To understand the link it helps to go back to 1540 when the Society of Jesus, as the Jesuits are officially known, was founded. Its creation was at least partly a response to the Reformation, with the new force of Protestantism ascendant in Europe. It was also, many historians argue, the dawn of the modern age when capitalism was emerging.

It was not long before the Jesuits had set up a network of missionaries around the world. Members of the order quickly became known for their international and cosmopolitan character. They were also renowned for the emphasis they put on the value of a classical humanist education.

In important respects, the development of the organisation foreshadowed the emergence of the multinational corporation. “The main comparable feature was the way they locally adapted,” says Jose Bento da Silva, assistant professor of organisation and human resource management at Warwick Business School. While strategic decision-making was centralised, the local subsidiaries, or “provinces”, had considerable autonomy.

John W O’Malley, a Jesuit priest and a professor of theology at Georgetown University, endorses this view. “There was a lot of local autonomy,” he says. He adds that in some respects the Jesuits can be seen as “empowered employees”. Every Jesuit province has a meeting every three years at which they vote for someone to send to Rome to decide whether to call a general congregation — the order’s highest authority.

A second similarity is the emphasis the Jesuits place on what in a business context would be called management education. Becoming a Jesuit priest is a notoriously rigorous process that typically takes 15-18 years. They are required to have a thorough grounding in classics, philosophy and theology as well as to speak several languages. “They are really highly trained people,” says da Silva. “For them talent management is not a buzzword.”

Indeed this high level of education has led some to compare them with management consultancies. McKinsey consultants in particular are sometimes referred to — by both admirers and critics — as “the Jesuits of capitalism” for their emphasis on elite educational attainment. However, the Jesuits were there almost four centuries before the consultancy was founded.

One perhaps surprising way in which the Jesuits anticipated modern business practices is in accounting. Not only was the Society of Jesus at the forefront of developing financial accounting but it ran parallel to the organisation’s more spiritual operations. O’Malley says in the past many Jesuits monitored, “very diligently how many confessions they heard, how many people came to mass, how many communions they distributed, how many members they had in their different lay organisations”. From this perspective, “you don’t know what is going on in people’s souls, but there is a way of counting”.

Paolo Quattrone, a professor of accounting at the University of Edinburgh Business School, says in some respects Jesuit accounting was superior to the contemporary discipline. It was not simply a way of keeping track of financial transactions but a method of reflecting on the society’s goals in any given situation. In that respect, there are contemporary lessons to be learnt from the Jesuits.

He points out Jesuit accounting emerged out of classical humanism. In the 16th century, the term did not refer to an atheist or anti-religious outlook. Instead it meant a viewpoint grounded in classical Greek and Latin texts on what it meant to be human. “The Jesuits translated humanist knowledge into a coherent system of administration and accounting that was functional to the organisation’s quick spread and long-distance control,” says Quattrone.

The study of rhetoric — which was concerned with the invention and classification of knowledge — was important to the development of Jesuit accounting, providing a means of reflecting on possible futures, rather than just an accurate representation of financial transactions.

For Quattrone this meant developing a system that could handle what nowadays are referred to as “unknown unknowns”. “When you go to the Amazon forest without a map you do not know what you do not know,” he says. There are, he says, parallels with path-breaking current projects such as hugely expensive development programmes for combat aircraft.

For Jesuits the point was not to add an ethical afterthought to traditional accounts but to develop a system that facilitated the making of judgments. It was a world away from the box-ticking compliance regimes in many contemporary companies. “They embedded into daily operations this highly sophisticated moral and philosophical basis,” says Quattrone.

Perhaps now is the time to start rediscovering classical humanist texts.

Comment Form