The Co-op Pope
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
November 2015

Question: What do Pope Francis and North Dakotans have in common? Answer: A fondness for cooperatives.

North Dakotans are familiar with cooperatives. The Quentin Burdick Center for Cooperatives at North Dakota State University estimates that there exist over 500 cooperatives in the state. We have cooperatives involving agriculture, telecommunications, financing, insurance, electricity, and more. The state has often been called the nation’s leader in the cooperative movement.

Like many legal and economic developments, cooperatives often sprung from necessity. Farmers, for example, sometimes had to join forces to reduce purchasing costs. At other times, producers needed to work together to have sufficient bargaining power when dealing with monopolies like the railroads. Cooperatives have also allowed members to access needed resources for investment.

Cooperatives offer local control, direct ownership, and equitable distribution of the fruits of labor. Interestingly, support for these principles, and cooperatives themselves, are found in Catholic teaching.

Although often mislabeled as a document on climate change, Pope Francis’ encyclical
Laudato si is really an exploration of what the Christian faith means for the economy. It is worth noting that cooperatives are praised twice in the document, once in relation to agricultural cooperatives and again concerning energy cooperatives — two segments of the cooperative model with which North Dakotans are familiar.

Pope Francis has repeatedly hailed cooperatives. Speaking to an audience in Rome, the pope said: “Cooperatives should continue to be the motor that raises and develops the weakest part of our communities and civil society.” In Bolivia he spoke of how he has seen how cooperatives “were able to create work where there were only crumbs of an idolatrous economy.” He has often spoke about how he developed an enthusiasm for cooperatives when, as a teenager, he heard his father talk about “Christian cooperativism.” Indeed, Paul Hazen of the U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council, has dubbed Francis, the “co-op pope.”

Pope Francis, however, is not unique when it comes to expressing the Catholic preference for cooperative models of ownership and production. Catholic monasteries have operated as cooperatives for centuries. Cooperatives got a significant boost in popularity after Pope Leo XIII issued
Rerum Novarum in 1891. It was the first “social encyclical” and rejected by unbridled capitalism and state socialism. Cooperatives provided an alternative. As Pope Francis puts it: cooperatives “are the concrete expression of the solidarity and subsidiarity that the social doctrine of the Church has always promoted between the person and the state.” Nearly ever pope since then, especially the last five, has promoted cooperatives as an alternative to systems where all the economic power is held by those who own the capital, rather than the workers, producers, or consumers.

Catholics have been putting the cooperative alternative into practice.The first credit union in the United States was founded by New Hampshire French-speaking Catholics in 1908. The world’s largest network of worker-owned cooperatives was started by a Catholic priest in Spain. Dorothy Day, one of the four “great Americans” mentioned by Pope Francis in his address to Congress, promoted and founded cooperatives in the United States as an alternative to communism and a form of uncaring, detached capitalism. Even today, Catholic bishops, aid organizations, and lay groups promote and create cooperatives around the world.

Several themes run throughout Scripture and the church’s social doctrine that make cooperative models and worker ownership appealing. As already noted, they can be an alternative between collectivism and individualism run amuck. They also represent ways to respect both solidarity and subsidiarity, stewardship of the land, the dignity of labor and workers, respect for private property and the universal destination of goods, and the ecological integrity Pope Francis discusses in
Laudato si.

Cooperatives may not work in every situation. Pope Francis warns that cooperatives, like other types of ownership can succumb to the temptation to put profit before people and thus become “false cooperatives.” Nevertheless, our experience with cooperatives might place North Dakotans in a better position to help create what Pope Francis calls a “healing” “economy of honesty.”