Saints are an antidote to whatever the age neglects, as G.K. Chesterton once pointed out. Such figures restore the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever it has overlooked. In today’s world, some might argue that a large dose of Dorothy Day is long overdue for American society. But just as Chesterton juxtaposed brilliantly St. Francis and St. Thomas, the more to underline their complementarity, so we might propose a figure (also with a cause for canonization underway) to set beside Dorothy. Besides her radical charity, we need a model of radical solidarity—an apostle of cooperation, to use a key term of the new economy movement.
Fr. Josemaría Arizmendiaretta (often shortened to Arizmendi) was a Basque, as were his illustrious predecessors St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Francis Xavier. In February 1941, the young priest arrived in his new post of Mondragon where one of his predecessor priests had been shot by Franco’s forces. Battered by the war, the little Mondragon suffered from severe unemployment. But the new padre had no training in business or economic matters.
He was, however, a close student of Catholic Social Thought (especially Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno), as well the writings of figures like Jacques Maritain and Emmanuel Mounier (whose work on personalism profoundly impacted Peter Maurin and by extension the Catholic Worker movement). Don Josemaría, as he came to be called, became the chaplain of the local branch of the Catholic Action movement. He believed that the social solidarity which had been typical of Basque communities historically could be rejuvenated. In his plan for social reconstruction, the first step was technical education and then the creation of a cooperative business. By 1943, his efforts led to a new polytechnic school, a democratically-administered institution open to all young people in the region.
Importantly, the training at the school was not only technical: it was also informed by the personalism of its founder and his vision of the connection between Catholic social thought and the cooperative model, with all its benefits for both workers and consumers, indeed, for the larger society itself. In 1955, five graduates of the school were ready to create their first industrial cooperative, the beginning of what would become the Mondragon Corporation, today an international federation of worker cooperatives, the fourth largest enterprise operating in Spain, and an employer of almost 70,000 worldwide with annual sales of $16 billion. It is an accomplishment both in terms of the practical implementation of Catholic Social Teaching, as well as one which makes Arizmendi arguably the most successful social entrepreneur (a term he would not have known) of the twentieth century.
Amazingly, Mondragon continues to operate today on ten basic cooperative principles: Open Admission, Democratic Organization, the Sovereignty of Labor, Instrumental and Subordinate Nature of Capital, Participatory Management, Payment Solidarity, Inter-cooperation, Social Transformation, Universality and Education. The average wage differential between employees in the lowest and highest paid positions continues to be 1:5. Until the 2008 recession, no employee had ever been laid off at Mondragon. As a way of better understanding this Catholic vision and its relevance for our current situation, we might turn to the collection of Don Josemaría’s remarkable Reflections (a new English translation will be forthcoming from Solidarity Hall Press this May). These selections were edited by Arizmendi’s Basque friend Joxe Azurmendi, author of an excellent intellectual biography of the late priest, El hombre cooperativo.
Much more here. Read and learn!