No shame in success

by Jason Negri

Most Christians would agree wholeheartedly that our culture needs strong Christian leaders now more than ever. However, disagreement arises when we start offering ideas on how to accomplish the massive task of re-converting our culture. Everyone has his or her own role to play in this effort, but I would like to highlight an often-overlooked element of it, and in doing so, pinpoint what I see as an imbalance or mis-emphasis in the general culture of Franciscan University.

In many ways, Franciscan University prides itself in being countercultural. Our school proudly graduates its share of homemakers and those who enter religious life, in the face of a nation who sees these roles as impractical and nigh-worthless. However, our efforts to be countercultural and emphasize the value and vital necessity of these roles sometimes has led us to underemphasize how joining the workforce (like the average secular college graduate) is just as vital a calling—or vocation, if you will. I understand that society has glorified business and temporal success and has disparaged motherhood and simple ministries, but in our efforts to uphold the dignity of the person rather than their worldly achievements, we sometimes cross the line and start disparaging temporal success as if it were somehow a bad thing. I have spoken with more than a few students and alumni who feel that their professional ambitions and aspirations were sometimes stifled on our campus. In some respects, we are encouraged to focus on humility and St. Theresa’s “Little Way” as if it were the only way.

I try to understand that “stone by stone” humility is part of Franciscan spirituality, but I believe we do ourselves and our country a disservice by suggesting that politicians, entrepreneurs and professionals can only be second-class Catholics because they happen to be successful in the eyes of the world. Because of this outlook, some FUS graduates will not consider a job in the “secular” arena, because they don’t believe they are serving God if they are not working for the institutional Church. These young graduates must certainly make their own decisions based on where they feel comfortable or believe themselves to be called, and I cannot and will not judge them. But I do wonder if their formation was not perhaps colored by a misunderstanding of the virtue of humility that is sometimes conveyed here. I cringed some years ago when everyone on campus adopted the motto “Faithfulness, not Success,” because it cast success itself in such a negative light. And I believe some of our students and thus some of our graduates are, perhaps not uncoincidentally, prone to equate worldly success with religious unfaithfulness.

Fr. Michael repeatedly emphasizes how vital it is that our graduates stand for Christ in all arenas, including the business world. And many professors and administrators do encourage ambition to a degree. Still, as I know many fellow alumni, students and staff can testify, the problem is real. There is a more-or-less subtle disparagement of success hovering in the atmosphere of FUS.

Again, I realize that much of the resistance to worldly success that I have seen is the natural Christian reaction against a culture that idolizes wealth, power and influence. However, I see these goals as good things, and means to an end. That end is positive peer pressure, a return to a strong social mores and a culture based on natural law, so that Christianity can once again flourish in our country, instead of fighting for mere acceptance.

The late Russell Kirk observed that every civilized society has an aristocracy of sorts—leaders who through a combination of luck, ambition, skill, knowledge and wealth will rise to positions of influence. Well, if social, political and business leaders are going to exist anyway and influence the entire culture by their actions and character, then let those leaders be committed Catholic men and women who will use their temporal influence for the good. Do you want to see the re-Christianization of our arguably post-Christian culture? The conversion of the marketplace and the political arena must be a part of that, and it won’t happen if we continue to keep to the fringes and discourage young committed Catholics from aspiring to greatness and success in these secular areas.

Some might interpret my position as one of holding the less-than-glamorous life in contempt; I do not. I simply believe that the social influence and power that the masses pursue and Christians eschew are necessary parts of the conversion formula, and they are being downplayed or ignored. Would Disney be pulling its current garbage if a Franciscan University graduate were at the helm instead of Michael Eisner? Would corporations be extending benefits to “domestic partners” of employees if more influential businesspeople were strong Catholics? Would abortion still be legal if a majority of our political figures were committed Catholics?

We will not see Christian ideals in the marketplace if top executives and professionals in these fields don’t stand for them. Our graduates, who may otherwise be well-equipped to rise to the top of these corporations, will never get there if their ambitions are stifled by the very institution that should have worked to instill and clarify them.

Also, we should ask ourselves how other groups, such as the Ivy League schools and the Masons maintain their influence in society. I know one reason—they take care of their own. They network through their own; they give preference to their own; they hire their own. It’s high time we Catholics did the same. Let those who are well-established in a professional field do what they can to encourage and favor those who are just joining the workforce or “coming up through the ranks.” And let the committed Catholic students of today not fear to aspire to greatness, if that is their calling. Let them use their time here to study, pray, work and prepare for the challenges of maintaining their faith and integrity while excelling in the workplace.

I am aware of Acton’s maxim “Power corrupts,” as well as Morton Blackwell’s warning (paraphrased), “The problem with getting our people into positions of influence is that by the time they become influential, they are no longer our people.” These are sobering thoughts, but they need not be self-fulfilling prophecies. We can look at many historic examples to see that worldly success, sound morals and deep piety can and frequently do coexist in the same person: St. Thomas More, King St. Louis V, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton, who signed the Declaration of Independence specifically to give religious freedom to Catholics in colonial America. In modern America, we have people like Congressmen Chris Smith and Henry Hyde, business moguls like J. Peter Grace and Tom Monaghan, and others, like Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. These people show us how we can be successful in positions of social influence without abandoning our morals or our faith; in other words, how we can do God’s work in the corridors of power.

Temporal success and personal holiness are not mutually exclusive. We cannot throw the baby of success out with the bathwater of glory-seeking. If we do, Christians will continue to be marginalized from mainstream society, and society will get worse for lack of a Christian presence in it.

“God’s plan for the world is that men should work together to renew and constantly perfect the temporal order. All those things which make up the temporal order, namely, the good things of life and the prosperity of the family, culture, economic matters, the arts and professions, the laws of the political community…not only aid in the attainment of man’s ultimate goal but also possess their own intrinsic value” (Pope Paul VI, Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity).

Jason Negri graduated in 1992. A few months ago he returned to Steubenville from Phoenix, Arizona to take on the position of Director of Alumni Relations at FUS. He and his wife Samantha (Browner, ‘94) have two children.