Pope Francis’ concern for small and medium size businesses is timely. It comes after the COVID disruption left shopping strips with many shops shut down and others with new proprietors to replace those who were forced to sell out. Many established businesses have struggled to find staff and to run profitably. Although many small businesses were helped by the support given during the restrictions, large employers profited more and were able to expand their businesses. As overseas tourists declined in number and people increasingly worked from home, stores, cafes and pubs in seaside and rural areas also struggled.
We may ask why this matters. After all, many small businesses have always failed, and big shopping centres can provide consumers with food and other goods more cheaply and offer the convenience of one-stop shopping.
The reason why it matters lies in the definition of people who shop as consumers. Consumers are people without faces, anonymous numbers with an impersonal relationship to the businesses they visit and to the people who work in them, interested only in the convenience and the economy of their patronage. Consumers are not people. Catholic Social Teaching, which insists on the value of small businesses and organisation, insists that the people who buy and sell cannot be defined by their buying and selling. Most deeply they are human persons. When they buy and sell they connect with other human beings like themselves, and the connections matter.
The more that we interact with people as persons, the stronger our local communities will become, the more we shall notice the people of our neighbourhood, and the more we shall be able to look out for one another. Pubs and coffee shops do more than sell drinks. They are places where people know and are known, meet friends and are introduced to strangers, enter a world that lies between home and business. They expand our world. Similarly in small chemist shops we meet staff who know our habits and our needs, to whom we are not merely customers at the check-out counter but people with a story.
Small businesses form networks that link people together locally and help shape a community of people who look outwards, who do not merely sleep in a suburb but live within a community. The businesses themselves are ideally small communities in which people work together to build an enterprise that will benefit the community. We notice the difference if they fail to do so.
At Jesuit Social Services we try to encourage communities of justice in which people in need are accompanied, those with skills notice people who are disadvantaged and advocate for them, and institutions look beyond profit and security to the common good.
Catholic Social Teaching sees people as more than individuals who choose to join other people. They are persons whose relationships shape who they are and help them to be complete as human beings. We rely on others to be born, be educated and to create all the networks of technology, health and transport on which our lives depend. In a healthy society we are grateful to be served by others and consider it a privilege to serve others. Our happiness is tied up with theirs. It is important that these relationships form part of our daily lives, and that the people whom we meet are more to us than substitutes for cash machines and robots, even if these may be more efficient.
A supermarket offers lower prices, convenience and anonymity. A small shop offers conversation notices on the windows about a lost dog, requests for a room to rent, and fetes for the local kindergarten or softball club. There is a space for big business and a time for small business; there is a time for saving time and a time for wasting time. Small business with its nurturing of community is a building block in a healthy society.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ
Feature photo by Clem Onojeghuo.