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East German Norbertines Do Business in Magdeburg

In 1989, as the Berlin wall fell and – as the Rev. Clemens Dölken, O.Praem., was finishing his doctoral thesis in economics – the economic challenges that East Germany would face following reunification were becoming clear. 

Soon afterwards, Dölken – on campus last month for Heritage Week – blazed the trail for a small group of Norbertines sent from the Abbey of Hamborn to reestablish the order’s presence in the East German city of Magdeburg. 

In this time of economic turmoil and transition, a very Norbertine perspective disseminated from the cathedral city would provide a useful lens on the ways an ethical approach could help business not only succeed but thrive. Dölken explained more in a lecture offered in Old St. Joe’s during Heritage Week: “From Marxism to Communio: The Contribution of the European St. Norbert Foundation in Magdeburg.”

A time of transition
In the years following reunification, the former East Germany dealt with unemployment rising close to 50 percent; aging infrastructure in manufacturing; a lack of modern management, market development and branding; and a need to found new enterprises.

Describing these post-communist realities, Dölken alluded to Pope John Paul’s second social encyclical Centesimus annus (1991). In this encyclical, Dölken explained, the pope pointed out how the inflexible and ideological structures of communist and socialist planning did not allow man to be creative and productive in his labor. The American Catholic social ethicist Michael Novak summarized the pope’s ideas in his concept of homo creator – creative man – whose creativity was neglected by socialism and communism. 

Dölken continued: “The output of the economy thus is so bad that neither socialism or communism as a system of centralized planning for the future is acceptable to the social teaching of the church. ... You can also reconstruct this more theological and anthropological argument in terms of economics. To fit in an appropriate way to the nature of man, an economic and social system is needed that is able to implement locally available but diverse and even idiosyncratic creativity of man by an informational system that is available for the complete economy. 

“I think of Catholic social teaching as very close to the insights of modern economics.”

In fact, the first chair of business ethics in Germany would be established at a Catholic university. “In this regard, the Catholic Church was ahead,” Dölken explained. “A lot of students came to this business school because of this chair for ethics. That made obvious to me that you can get young people, not just for ideas of profit but also of socially responsibility and faith.” 

An ethical way of doing business
Meanwhile, as the small Norbertine community settled in Magdeburg – a city dear to the order as the very place where Norbert of Xanten himself had once served as archbishop – questions in both faith and business communities were aligning: How can the economy be changed in a sustainable way? Where is the space for ethics? 

Dölken told his audience, “If you use the company’s money to remove or overcome obstacles for the company, and they include moral obstacles, the shareholders might benefit.” If a business advertises that it does not use child labor, people might like your product even more. If you offer vacation practicums to pupils from schools in poor regions, it might help you build a base from which you can eventually recruit more experienced staff. 

“What is the remedy the social teaching of the church recommends to imperfect competition?” Dölken continued. “You need workable competition to the benefit of all. You should not make rules or laws or social prescriptions so that people act immorally in the long run. Ethics in general must be feasible on the level of society; workable on the entrepreneurial level; liveable on the individual, personal level. That is a question, first, of political implementation; second, of sustainability in the economy; third, of mercy, on the humanitarian level of Christian faith.” 

A Norbertine entrepreneurialism
Eighty percent of the population of the former Eastern Germany at this date knew nothing of the Judeo-Christian system of ethics, nor of faith, explained Dölken. It was an issue in business ethics education, and in an effort to close the gap, the European St. Norbert Foundation was founded in 2006 to promote a crucial dialogue between economics and Christian ethics. “We had the idea to found it under the protective shield of St. Norbert and the protective shield of the Premonstratensian order. St. Norbert was, in his way, an entrepreneur in the church. He started without waiting for permission, but with great motivation and the ambition to motivate others – to get collaborators.” 

Today the foundation works with Catholic and other organizations to continue its work of fostering dialog between Christian social ethics and economics, between Catholic social teaching and business and management theories. Established close to a future new home for the Magdeburg priory that is being built with the support of many Norbertine canonries, the foundation publishes important lectures, and organizes discussions and conventions. 

A good ecumenical relationship is crucial for the positive visibility of Christianity in the region, explained Dölken. “The spirituality of St. Norbert, patron of entrepreneurs, will hopefully work to advertise for ideas of Christian faith, Judeao-Christian ethics and the European tradition in an environment that for decades, both from the Nazis and communists, was kept away from faith.”


Nov. 1, 2016