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Question 97: What costs and risks may a man impose in launching an apostolic business venture?

I believe this country needs a large, efficient distributor of Catholic literature and audiovisual materials—books, pamphlets, tapes, movies, film strips, CD ROM disks, and so forth. The service I have in mind would handle only doctrinally sound materials, but it would try to handle everything sound and of decent quality available in English or Spanish—though I realize that is not literally possible. All materials would be listed and described in a widely distributed catalogue, also supplied on computer disk and available on-line. Orders would be accepted both by mail and through a 24-hour toll-free number. An important goal would be to ship orders within one day with very few exceptions, though meeting that goal would require a large stock. Ideally, substantial discounts would be offered, and packing and shipping charges would be limited to a small, fixed fee for each order.

The point would be to support study, evangelization, and catechesis faithful to the Church’s teachings by making sound and good quality materials widely and easily available. Such materials might then compete more effectively with the unfaithful, unsound, and poor quality materials that now have a distinct advantage in channels of distribution as well as in favorable publicity in the secular media—and even in many so-called Catholic media.

For thirty years, I have managed my own small mail-order company, specializing in items businesses sometimes need but cannot get from most stores handling business supplies. Meanwhile, I have kept up with what is going on in the Church and been active in a lay organization that supports faithful catechesis. I now am sixty-two and I could retire. But the prospect of retiring lost its appeal when my wife died several years ago. Since we had no children, though we hoped for them, and I have no other family responsibilities, I am quite free. By liquidating all my assets—the business, our home, my retirement plan, investments—I could realize about two million dollars after taxes. I could then set up a nonprofit corporation and capitalize it by irrevocably transferring my assets to it.

I could rent suitable warehouse and office space, and equip the office with the facilities minimally required for me to live there. I also could cut my expenses by doing without a car and dropping all my insurance. Initially, I could live on my social security income, while taking advantage of food stamps and other programs for the poor. Working constantly, I would be able to keep the payroll to a minimum.

Especially at the beginning, extensive advertising and direct mail promotion would be necessary. That would be a substantial investment, and I cannot predict the response. Beyond that, to carry the project through the critical period—from start-up to the point where it became self-sustaining—I would need substantial donations and/or some loans, with the first payment deferred at least two years. While I already have a few promises of help, I would have to count on additional backers coming forward as the project became known. In merely human terms, then, the likelihood that this venture would succeed is not great. But many saints have taken risks in starting or expanding their apostolic projects, and it seems to me I should be able to undertake this project even though doing something like this as an ordinary business venture would be foolhardy.

If the project succeeds, I will take a modest salary so that I will be able to do without help from public programs for the poor. Of course, if the project fails, I will be left with nothing. I am ready to accept that risk; I expect I would find a way to support myself for some years, and then, if need be, I could make do on social security, food stamps, and so on. However, failure also would affect others adversely. Backers would lose the money they donated or loaned; employees would be out of work; suppliers who extended credit would go unpaid; and my personal needs would be met from the public purse, a cost that might be substantial if, for example, I live out my life in a nursing home with Medicaid paying the bill. Also, to maximize the chances of success, I would have to keep the operation going as long as possible, even if the chances of bankruptcy became great.

Provided I do not lie to anyone, may I accept these risks of adverse consequences to others in undertaking an apostolate I am convinced is needed and would benefit many people?


This question primarily concerns the moral permissibility of accepting risks of harm to others as a side effect of undertaking an apostolic project. With respect to private individuals and groups, the question can be answered by applying the Golden Rule; with respect to the public at large, it requires consideration of the project’s bearing on the nation’s common good. The questioner not only must refrain from lying but must at all stages take care to obtain the fully informed consent of potential supporters, employees, and suppliers and to comply with laws that justly apply. A secondary, implicit question concerns the role supernatural hope legitimately plays in judging acceptable risks when undertaking an apostolic project. Answering this implied question requires clarifying the proper object of hope—the heavenly kingdom—which does not ensure the earthly success of any apostolic project.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Noting that many saints have taken great risks in undertaking apostolates, you suggest that the apostolic character of your plan provides a ground for hope absent in an ordinary business venture. Of course, many good apostolic projects fail, and many wicked business ventures succeed. Yet if you undertake this project, I think you do have a ground for special hope, namely, your readiness to put everything you have into it. Surely, your evangelical generosity will be met by corresponding divine generosity. Still, supernatural hope bears primarily and directly, not on desired results in this world, but on the kingdom (see LCL, 85–86; q. 6, above). You can be confident of finding the good fruit of your effort in heaven (see GS 38–39), but that hope is relevant to judging the morality of accepting the risks involved only insofar as they are risks to yourself or others who share your reasons for being ready to accept them. Some saints who took great risks in launching apostolic projects may have violated this norm; if so, that was wrong, though presumably sinless due to lack of sufficient reflection.

Everyone has a duty to provide for his or her own genuine needs, and no one may set aside this responsibility in making any commitment, however good. Still, in committing oneself to any element of one’s vocation, one must forgo some goods in which one has shared or might share, and risk suffering some evils one could otherwise avoid. Even in committing oneself to an apostolic project such as you have in mind, one still should provide with minimal adequacy for oneself, and that seems to be your plan. Having done that, one can rightly give up comfort and risk security, even health and life, if the prospective benefits make great sacrifice reasonable. Though you judge that your proposed venture is not likely to succeed, its prospective benefits would be very great. Therefore, in my judgment, you may proceed despite the risk of losing everything and the other costs to yourself. Foolish by worldly standards, such a commitment can be an appropriate response to Jesus’ call to set aside everything else to join him in service to the kingdom (see Lk 12.32–34, 18.18–30).

Not lying is an important and necessary, but not sufficient, condition for establishing just relationships with others. In seeking people’s cooperation in any apostolic work, one also must avoid misleading them, so that their consent to cooperate will be adequately informed. Indeed, not only honesty but candor is necessary whenever one foresees that failing to provide information or answer questions straightforwardly is likely to generate unrealistic expectations. In seeking backing for your project, hiring and dealing with employees, and doing business with suppliers, your enthusiasm for and commitment to the undertaking could lead you to ignore or brush aside various obstacles, exaggerate the prospects for success, and make implicit promises—for example, of ongoing employment or of payment of bills—without there being reasonable grounds for confidence that the promises can be kept. Before considering the acceptability of risking adverse consequences to others, you first must firmly commit yourself to be honest and candid with them. Likewise, you should consider the legitimacy of imposing burdens and risks on the public only after first meeting the more basic and obvious responsibility to inform yourself about relevant laws and committing yourself to abide by those that justly apply.

The chances of your imposing unfair risks on other individuals and organizations will be greatly reduced if they give adequately informed consent to their cooperation with you, not only initially but at every subsequent stage. For instance, no matter how great the prospect of bankruptcy, you are unlikely to impose unfair risks on suppliers if you are always entirely candid with them about your operation’s condition and prospects. To determine whether you may accept any remaining risks of adverse consequences to them and others, you need only apply the Golden Rule. But putting yourself in others’ places should not extend to their moral defects, so that, for example, you ought not to consider it fair to accept credit from a supplier or a loan from a supporter who should not be advancing the credit or should be keeping the money to meet some other obligation. Also, when applying the Golden Rule, you should leave behind your enthusiasm for the project and your commitment to it, and consider the acceptability of risks to others in the light of their own true interests and responsibilities.

Since laws normally are designed to safeguard the common good, conforming to all justly applicable laws will greatly reduce the chances of wronging the public at large by voluntarily impoverishing yourself, taking advantage of programs for the poor, and obliging the taxpayers to meet the cost, perhaps substantial, of supporting you.

Someone might argue that to impoverish yourself voluntarily would be an unjust imposition on society. However, impoverishing oneself need not be unjust in itself, and it seems to me you would be justified in doing so. To determine whether you are morally free to accept the social costs and risks you can lawfully accept, you need only consider how what you are doing is related to the nation’s common good. That means comparing your project’s potential risks and costs with its potential benefits for the nation. Though a political society’s constitution perhaps rightly forbids the state to promote religious truth, patriotic citizens ought to use nonpolitical means to promote it, for their nation’s sake among other reasons (see LCL, 840–42). As you say, “this country needs a large, efficient distributor of Catholic literature and audiovisual materials.” Your service, if successful, will help the country learn about Catholic truth and resist socially corrosive secularism. Its potential benefits for the nation, therefore, argue for the acceptability of its social costs and risks. Therefore, provided you abide by the law, I think you may take for granted that the social costs and risks involved in carrying out your plan are morally acceptable.

Someone might reject the preceding argument’s claim that your project will benefit the nation’s common good, and argue that taking advantage of programs to aid the poor will be unfair to fellow citizens who do not share your faith. I do not concede the soundness of that argument. But even granting its premise, an argument can be made that impoverishing yourself will not be unfair to fellow citizens. The public programs of which you plan to take advantage indiscriminately benefit all who meet their requirements. That includes many people who have contributed little or nothing to society and some whose need is a product of their own irresponsibility, perhaps even their criminal activities. I assume that you, by contrast, have been a law-abiding citizen, have paid your taxes, and have contributed in other ways to the common good.

Besides the responsibilities on which your question focuses, you have another important one that you may have overlooked: to investigate and take into account how your undertaking might affect others’ apostolates. Since every authentic apostolate is a way of cooperating in the Church’s single mission, sound dedication to any apostolate presupposes ecclesial spirit: the determination to harmonize one’s effort with others’ somewhat similar projects and avoid working at cross-purposes.

For this reason, it seems to me, before proceeding with your plan you should seek episcopal review of it. I do not mean that you must obtain formal episcopal approval, but that you should ask for episcopal criticisms and suggestions, with a view to harmonizing your apostolic effort with theirs and other related operations. Since your undertaking will have a nationwide impact, communication at least with all the ordinaries—if not also with the auxiliaries and retired bishops—would be appropriate. Many probably will not reply, but some will, and you will gain useful insights. Moreover, your demonstration of ecclesial spirit, the potential value of your apostolic undertaking, and your own dedication to it are likely to gain some episcopal approval and support.

A final suggestion, though you may well have thought of it already. Before proceeding, seek comments on your plan from publishers who will be among your suppliers and from others already engaged in somewhat similar apostolates. For example, the Daughters of St. Paul operate a chain of bookstores that sell both their own and others’ publications faithful to the Church’s teachings. You should forestall damaging competition with their apostolate, and perhaps should try to work out some form of collaboration. Again, this preliminary consultation is likely to prevent various problems from arising, lay a foundation for cooperation, and enable you to improve your plan and perhaps significantly increase its chances of succeeding.