“We approach the subject with confidence, and in the exercise of the rights which belong to Us. For no practical solution of this question will ever be found without the assistance of Religion and the Church. It is We who are the chief guardian of religion, and the chief dispenser of what belongs to the Church, and We must not by silence neglect the duty which lies upon Us. Doubtless this most serious question demands the attention and the efforts of others besides Ourselves—of the rulers of States, of employers of labor, of the wealthy, and of the working population themselves for whom we plead. But we affirm without hesitation that all the striving of men will be vain if they leave out the Church.”[1]

With these uncompromising words Pope Leo XIII in the encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891 restates what every Catholic should already know, namely, that nearly every social, economic and political question has an important moral dimension, and that no one, no Catholic especially, should approach such questions without first ascertaining what the moral law has to say in the matter. Although it is true that in these matters it is usually a question of the natural moral law, rather than revelation, nevertheless it is still the Church and her Magisterium to whom we must turn for understanding even the natural law, for to them are entrusted the “weighty office of propagating, interpreting and urging in season and out the entire moral law” and to them must be referred “both social and economic questions… insofar as they refer to moral issues.”[2] Although Catholics are accustomed to differ among themselves on many social and economic issues, there are limits beyond which one may not go in discussing these subjects. These limits are set out in encyclicals and other papal documents and in various statements of bishops and bishops’ councils, where these do not depart from magisterial teaching. And it is important to note that even the teachings of bishops’ conferences may not be criticized from the standpoint of secular theories of the right or left, but only by reference to the Holy See’s own pronouncements.

Many Catholic commentators, however, seem to feel little need to acquaint themselves with authentic Catholic social teaching, but instead identify some theory of the right or left with the truth. Sometimes such a failure to grasp genuine Catholic teaching, though, is the result of honest ignorance, and especially do I think this is so in dealing with the subject of Vocational groups.

Vocational groups? The name itself is alien to our vocabulary and the words convey no meaning to most Catholics in America without extensive explanation. Yet the concept and the reality of vocational groups are at once both the heart of the traditional Catholic approach to solving socio-economic problems and the only answer to the assertions of both conservative and liberal social critics. For both the right and the left have got hold of a few limited truths, and these they advance as complete solutions to social and economic problems. The Left, for example, sees clearly that the market, free of regulation, always and inevitably brings about injustice and suffering. So in reaction they propose the obvious solution: more and more regulation by the central government, extending now even to areas, such as the family, where there is no question of economic injustice. The Right, meanwhile, resenting the frequent ineptitude of a bloated and centralized bureaucracy, and recognizing that government regulation is becoming both more widespread and more obnoxious to legitimate personal and familial freedoms, reacts by attempting to abolish, or reduce to a bare minimum, all regulation.

What is the solution then? Is it to take a moderate position between the excessive and interfering governmental conduct of the Left and the minimizing role of government of the Right? To espouse just the right amount of government regulation, but not too much? Although perhaps superficially attractive, this suggestion fails to appreciate the insights of either side. For a little bit of regulation leaves numerous injustices uncorrected, while at the same time giving the state a taste and precedent for intervention whenever there is a problem that no one else is presently addressing. The root cause of the difficulty, however, is the notion, accepted uncritically by most social theorists, that there is only one body which can rightly intervene on behalf of the common good with the force of law. And this, of course, is the state. But it is at precisely this point that Catholic teaching, authentically interpreting the natural law, interposes its unique solution with the principle of subsidiarity and the vocational group.


The principle of subsidiarity—the principle that higher and larger bodies, including the State, should not take over the functions and duties of lower and smaller bodies where these are satisfactorily fulfilling them – is the key to solving the socio-economic question, because it allows regulation of the economy in the interests of justice and protection of workers and consumers, yet without the immediate presence of the machinery of central government. And it does this, not by delegating the right to regulate to smaller and lower bodies, as if that right were lodged naturally in the central authorities, but by allowing the powers of self-regulation that naturally lodge in smaller groups to be exercised without hindrance, subject only to general supervision by the State, by way of “directing, supervising, encouraging, restraining” should one of these lower bodies require such.

I have spoken in general terms of lower and smaller bodies in contrast with the central administration of the state, and it is time to speak more specifically of those bodies sometimes called vocational groups.[3] The best way to introduce them is to show that, far from being another layer of bureaucracy introduced by European ecclesiastics unfamiliar with the real world, they are naturally existing groups, and an economy such as ours, where they are unorganized and unrecognized, is an unnatural economy.

When men have a common task to accomplish and are engaged upon that task, ipso facto, simply by virtue of the common work, they form a separate and special group set apart for that task. Perhaps they do not realize this fact, and perhaps the group is unorganized and unacknowledged, but nonetheless it exists. One hundred men, for example, occupied in digging a ditch, are part of a group because of their collective work and purpose, whether they recognize it or not. The relations among them are, or at least should be, governed by their mutual connections with the work being done. The more this is recognized and accepted, the better and faster will the work be accomplished. In fact, if the men refuse to allow their common task to impose any kind of unity on them, that is, if they will not acknowledge that the work itself has created a unity, they are not likely to dig a ditch at all, but a hundred unconnected holes instead.

The important point here is that, insofar as the workmen are aiming for a common end, they have a unity arising from the work itself; it is not imposed on them from the outside. This is true, moreover, whether the hundred are employees of the same firm, separate independent contractors, volunteers, or whatever. And this unity extends also to anyone who may be giving the workers instructions or direction in their effort. They too are part of this common work.

In the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno of 1931, Pope Pius XI compares this unity that arises from shared work to that arising from proximity of dwelling. People living in the same town have a unity among themselves based on their geographical nearness. The town government simply expresses and orders this existing unity, but does not create it. The inhabitants of the town naturally come together to solve their common problems—police and fire protection, sanitation, etc., and generally form structured bodies to deal more effectively with them, local governments, volunteer fire departments, community leagues, etc. But the important thing to note is that unless there were an already existing unity, natural and not artificially created or imposed, the people could not organize for themselves formal instruments, such as governments, to express that unity. Both the common problems and the bodies created to solve the problems can exist because geography has made a unity. Of course this unity need not incline them to cooperate to address their common problems, for it is a unity of geographical proximity, not necessarily of attitude.

But can factors other than geographical proximity create such unity? I argued above that an immediate shared task, such as digging a ditch, creates a unity among all involved in the work, but the Catholic principle of the vocational group believes that work on a wider scale also creates unity. Consider, for instance; all the bakers and bakeries existing in one nation. Though they have no geographical nearness nor unity arising from a physically shared joint task, yet because they are all engaged in one kind of work they have a unity based on common concerns and aims. They are all interested, for example, in price and availability of their raw materials, in new technologies, in ability to obtain skilled workers. They likewise exhibit their unity in their collective concern over questions of marketing, such as price, market share of various firms, etc. In short, they have similar problems and interests arising from their common work.

Thus it is easy to see that there is a natural unity among even widely scattered producers of the same product or service, and that, to be effective, this unity needs to be embodied in formal organizations. The industry or trade association is expressive of a part of that unity of individuals and firms engaged in the same kind of work. But there is another aspect to the unity of those engaged in the same kind of work. This is the unity between employer and employed, and is interestingly illustrated in a passage from John Steinbeck’s novel of the 1930s, The Grapes of Wrath. In the book a labor contractor is recruiting men at one of the numerous migrant camps. The recruiter is vague about the conditions of work, including the rate of wages. The following dialogue ensues:

Floyd stepped out ahead. He said quietly, “I’ll go, mister. You’re a contractor, an’ you got a license. You jus’ show your license, an’ then you give us an order to go to work, an’ where, an’ when, an’ how much we’ll get, an’ you sign that, an’ we’ll all go.”

The contractor turned, scowling. “You telling me how to run my own business?”

Floyd said, “If we’re workin’ for you, it’s our business too.” This last line, ”If we’re workin’ for you, it’s our business too,” expresses well the truth that in a real sense the business belongs to all who work for it, whether legally owners or not, for all who work for it are legitimately concerned about profits, working conditions; prospects for the future, for all of these people must draw their livelihood and their families’ livelihood from it. If a firm or an entire industry is for whatever reason declining, it is absurd to imagine that only the owners or directors rightly may worry, on the grounds that only they are involved with such questions. As if the workers should happily go on running lathes and welding pipes till the day their paychecks cease! The truth is, that everyone, worker, manager or owner, will or should prosper if the firm prospers, and everyone will suffer if the firm suffers. Especially the workers.

That there is no natural antipathy between employer and employee, but rather a unity based on their shared work and common fortune, is one of the points insisted on most strongly in papal social thought. When an industry comes upon hard times, as did the U.S. auto industry a few years ago, we see how natural it is for those working together to aid one another to keep the industry alive. We fail to see that such temporary collaboration ought to be the norm in business and industry. The obvious fact is that both labor and management must draw their living from the same source, the sale of the products they jointly make. They both depend on each other, and both have a natural interest in perfecting their joint productive work in order to obtain the greatest prosperity for the industry, and thus for themselves.

If one argues that labor and management are naturally in competition for their share of the return they make from sales, why are the laborer and the company president more in competition than the company vice presidents and president? It is true that out of a finite amount the compensation of the managers cannot be increased indefinitely without there being less for the workers to receive. But likewise, the compensation of the president cannot be increased without limit without there being less for the vice-presidents to receive. Yet no one thinks of the latter as being naturally at war with the other managers. No, the supposed naturalness of industrial warfare, between owners and managers on the one side, and workers on the other, does not arise from the nature of production, or even from the factory system, but is a peculiar state of affairs, brought into being by human greed, fueled by the lack of ethical ideals in our economic system, and the disparity in power and prestige between employers and workers.

Industrial warfare is not natural and need not be permanent. The unity which is brought about by making the same product or providing the same service extends thus to all involved in the work, regardless of position on the labor market. An organization comprising all such, that is, which includes employers, employees and owner operators is what the popes mean by a vocational group.

Such groups simply express and order the unity that already exists between all engaged in the same productive process, and allows those so engaged to more easily accomplish their common ends.

Purpose of the Vocational Group

What are the vocational group’s ends, its purposes and functions? Their first function is to unite all who labor in the same industry or profession to advance their common interests. A vocational group would obviously take an interest in both internal and external aspects of their industry, that is, relations among various subgroups within the industry, the industry’s relations with suppliers, consumers, the government, etc. In short, the vocational groups would attempt to coordinate all involved in the work to keep full the common pot out of which all must be fed, particularly striving to obtain industrial peace, between both labor and management and between different firms and proprietors, full employment, and, of course, justice for everyone involved in their work. But there is a second task, of even greater importance, also naturally arising from the work itself. In order to understand what this second task is, it is necessary to ask ourselves the question: Why does the human race engage in economic activity? Why, even, do we have the capacity to engage in such activity? The answer, obviously, is that we need to do so in order to obtain the material objects we need to live. And by “live” we certainly mean not merely bodily survival, but life as human beings, in a civilized community with appropriate family, social, intellectual and spiritual pursuits.

If this is so, then economic activity exists for a purpose, and is therefore subordinate to that purpose. Economic activity, then, must be judged by how well it fulfills its purposes, by how well it contributes to the living of a full human life by all, a life that is a fitting preparation for the life to come.

Too often, though, economic activity seemingly does not fulfill this function well. If an economic system fosters gross inequality, materialistic consumerism, and disrupts family and community life by its feverish pulse, then it does not accomplish well that for the sake of which it exists.

But how can we humans see to it that economic activity adequately fulfills its purpose? Two answers are usually proposed, both wrong. The first is that if only economic activity is left alone, or nearly so, then the free market will take care of the problem. Men, by means of their many individual choices, motivated only by a desire to maximize their gains and minimize their losses, will unerringly direct economic activity into serving the common good. But this supposition is entirely wrong. A free market indeed serves human wishes, but whose and of what sort? There is a difference between human needs and human wants, and especially between the wants of the powerful and the rich, and the needs of the community. Free competition does allow those with most power to make choices and act upon them, but what is to guarantee that their choices also promote the common good? As Pope Pius XI wrote, “unrestrained free competition… permits the survival of those only who are the strongest. This often means those who fight most relentlessly, who pay least heed to the dictates of conscience.”[4]

But the more basic problem with this attempted solution to the economic question is the notion that “unregulated competition [is] a principle of self-direction more suitable for guiding [economic activity] than any created intellect which might intervene,” as Pius XI further noted in the same encyclical. In other words, just as in every other human activity, from digging a garden to fighting a war, suitable planning and guidance must be exercised if the proper end is to be obtained, so also in economic affairs. The free market solution then, is wrong because it misunderstands human nature and the human community.

The second commonly advanced solution, though more realistic about planning and the need to intervene in the economy, also is mistaken. This solution is the intervention by the central government with a detailed plan for economic life, the introduction of statism into economic activity. Though this solution aims at the correct ends, namely justice and the provision of sufficient economic means for everyone to live as befits his humanity, because of the pervasive centralization, the results produced are invariably bad: excessive bureaucratic regulation of everyday life, limiting of legitimate freedom, in a word, treating of human persons as so many cattle or pigs, to be counted and numbered and herded into pens and fed the same from common troughs, sufficient no doubt for our minimum daily dietary requirements, but unfitting for human persons.

Though both of these approaches are wrong, nevertheless the problem is quite real. How can we insure, to the best of our ability, that all the multifarious economic undertakings of man really work together to promote human life on this earth, the life of men in the family, the community, the Church? Here again, the vocational group is the answer, for the second task of vocational groups is to orient the activity of the industry or profession in question toward the common good, to see to it that the products made or the services provided are useful, well-made or performed, fairly priced, and advertised without fraud or exaggeration. According to Pius XI, this second task of the vocational group is the more important. He wrote, “… it is easy to conclude that in these associations the common interest of the whole ‘group’ must predominate: and among these interests the most important is the directing of the activities of the group to the common good.”[5] In other words, a vocational group will not be doing its duty if, although the industry is flourishing, with both employees and employers receiving generous sums, this is being done at the expense of the public, either through shoddy products, unfair prices, the introduction of products which are harmful, useless or debasing to society, or damage to the environment.

The twin tasks of vocational groups are therefore, to bring order to the existing unity in an industry or profession so that all can work harmoniously together for prosperity, and secondly, to orient the Industry or profession, so that society is truly served.

Industry’s Internal Order

In the case of the first aim, that of bringing internal order to an industry, one can recognize that industrial disorder comes about from strife between labor and management or from strife among different firms or corporations. An end to discord based on one side’s being crushed seldom creates a stable situation. The defeated group dreams of revenge and, at best, sullenly serves the victors. But a lessening of discord based on submission to a higher rule of justice does have the potential to bring about genuine peace, at least as much as fallen man can hope to have. But such a result in industrial relations requires that all parties recognize the legitimate claims of the others. And by “legitimate claims” I do not mean simply that by a process of give and take and compromise all will get less than they want for the sake of the whole. No, I mean that all sides will recognize an overarching standard by which the validity of their own and of others’ demands can be Judged and measured.

In regard to wages, for example, if we recognize that all men, simply as men, have the right to live in human dignity, and that normally the only way people have to obtain the necessary sums to do so is by their labor, then we will recognize a worker’s right to a wage sufficient to allow for such dignity.” Thus a living family wage will not be a concession grudgingly granted as the outcome of tough negotiations, nor as a charitable largess, but as something that is simply the due of the worker, something he naturally should expect and receive.

Similarly with a level of profits adequate for maintenance of the industry, the costs of doing business, rehabilitation and enhancement of physical facilities, replacement of capital, etc. Since these are all necessary they can be granted without feeling. That management has somehow triumphed. So also with a reasonable return to managers and owners, that is, an amount that is reasonable for the time or money invested in the business. Management and owners do not have the right simply to dispose according to their will of whatever money is not needed for labor, production and other costs, for everything connected with the industry must be judged according to justice and the common good.

If we grant that the profits of an industry must be distributed according to reason and justice, rather than power, then there will be little fighting between management and labor over these questions. A living wage can be calculated if both parties will give up the practice, a practice which labor learned from management, of trying to gain as much as possible with no thought for justice or the common welfare.[7]

The strife between firms producing the same product, as well as that between labor and management, contribute to industrial instability. If the latter struggle can be lessened or eliminated by looking to what is just and reasonable, so can the former. Strife between firms is largely a matter of production. If the market for a particular item is only so large, then obviously firms can sell more by reducing the market share of other firms, and their profits as well. This they attempt to do in various ways, by pricing, advertising, product design and quality, reducing costs, etc. All this is the cause, however, not only of much industrial instability, ultimately resulting in layoffs, plant closings, and suchlike, but of deception of the consuming public as well, by deceitful advertising and shoddy but appealing products.

But if different firms making the same product would regard themselves as cooperating to provide the public with a needed item or service, rather than as competing to gain as large a profit as possible, then some kind of self-regulation naturally suggests itself. If firms agree to share the market based on factors such as the public’s real need for the product or service, a firm’s capacity to produce, production levels required by each firm to make a reasonable profit, etc., then no one’s reasonable interests will be injured, though unbounded acquisitive desires might well be thwarted.

The methods by which a vocational group might reach solutions to these problems could include the following: require all unions and firms in the industry to reach joint collective bargaining decisions or perhaps extend to the entire industry a model agreement when a certain percentage of the industry has ratified it; require all firms within the industry to participate in negotiating market sharing agreements; frame industry-wide safety standards and enforce them by mixed worker/management committees, negotiate industry-wide contracts with suppliers of raw materials, etc. Of course, all concerned would be fairly represented in reaching these decisions and agreements.

All these things involve the internal structure of an industry, either labor-management relations or relations among different companies. What of the second but more important aim of vocational groups, that of orienting the industry toward service to the common good?

Serving the Common Good

As I said above, the relationship of an industry or profession to service to the public primarily embraces the following matters: the quality of the goods or services provided, and whether they are truly beneficial to society, fairness of prices or fees, truthful advertising, and possible harm to the environment during production.

What would a vocational group do in order not to offend in these areas?

The medieval guilds, the vocational groups of their day, in order to insure that only quality products were sold to the public, carefully superintended the production of craft or industrial articles. Guild representatives made sure that only raw materials which met guild standards were used; and that the process of production likewise met their criteria. It seems to me that something analogous would need to be done by vocational groups today. In earlier times, in fact, when manufacturing processes were much simpler, the resultant finished product was easier to examine for flaws or shoddy workmanship. Today inferior mechanisms can hide beneath a shiny coat of thin metal, and most consumers are not capable of judging the complex technology of most machines. Especially with regard to major purchases, such as washing machines or refrigerators, buyer choice in the market has little influence over manufacturers, for even though the consumer may be disappointed by the product quality, the fact that he is unlikely to buy another such item for many years considerably detracts from his ability to influence manufacturers’ practices by his choices in the marketplace.

But even with frequently used items, such as soap or toothpaste, a consumer cannot always accurately gauge the product’s worth. Thus it would seem that careful supervision of production by vocational group representatives, with powers to impose fines or other punishments, is necessary to guarantee product quality.

The question of whether or not a particular product or service is truly beneficial to society or merely a means of moneymaking is more complicated. But since it involves ultimately considerations of the common good of society, it is a matter properly left to those charged with care of the common good, i.e., the state authorities, rather than to any vocational group or groups. This is true even though a vocational group’s competence and official concerns extend to its industry’s relations to others, because it is still a specialized and necessarily narrow mission.

The question of fair prices is complex. The medieval guilds frankly and firmly set prices for their members, and in the context of the more static medieval economy this undoubtedly resulted in just prices for consumers.

Twentieth-century Catholic commentators on papal social teaching, however, are not agreed on how best to accomplish this same aim today. Setting of prices by vocational groups is unquestionably licit, but it is a question of prudence whether or not it is the best contemporary method for achieving justice. Perhaps it would be sufficient merely to publish figures as to production and other costs, plus an indication of a fair profit, thus forcing each producer to adhere to a just price through force of public opinion. Still other writers have suggested that only very excessive monopoly prices or very low prices that result from low wages and give an unfair competitive edge or from an unjust situation, as a large chain competing against a small firm, should be controlled. In any case, although a just price may at times be difficult to calculate, commutative justice demands that a thing be sold for what it is worth and no more. Ordinarily this would be connected with reasonable costs of doing business.

Advertising must be conceived of more as a way of informing the public as to what is available and at what price, than of persuading anyone to buy an item. Since advertising is obviously directly accessible to the public, it should be easy to establish a mechanism whereby complaints about misleading advertising could be lodged with the firm in question, with appeals possible to the vocational group, and perhaps after that to a special tribunal conducted by the federation of all vocational groups or to ordinary courts.

In the last area, that of possible harm to the environment, the firm itself would obviously be responsible for insuring that its productive processes were harmless and safe, but again supervision by the vocational group would be necessary. In case of disputes, or complaints from the public, recourse would be available to the vocational group federation, and finally to the state, the ultimate guardian of the temporal common good.

A few more things must be said about the organization and workings of vocational groups before this brief survey ends. In the first place, a typical vocational group will be organized, first on a local basis, then on a regional basis, then on the national level. Matters will be handled at the local level where possible, and at the regional and national where necessary or fitting. Moreover, as I intimated above, at the national level all the various vocational groups will be linked together to coordinate in a cooperative manner the entire national economy, not to impose centralized planning, but to endeavor to make the national economy work harmoniously, to avoid depressions, the bad aspect of business cycles, etc. This inter-vocational organization could well have certain powers to hear appeals from its member groups. It should be noted, though, that on these organizational matters, the structure of the groups might well differ from country to country or even from industry to industry within a country.

Secondly, it must be noted that although vocational groups are independent and self-governing bodies, and not organs of the state, they are not voluntary associations, which one is free to join or not. Everyone working or producing in a particular industry would be required to join his vocational group, and the decisions of the vocational group would be backed by the force of law. Obviously this is necessary if their work is to have any effect on society. Nor is this an infringement on legitimate freedom, for true economic freedom consists in the freedom to make a reasonable and sufficient living by serving some need of one’s fellow men. Any economic freedom compatible with a community that values family and social life above moneymaking simply cannot be freedom to amass unlimited amounts of money, especially at the expense of others or of the stability of the community. If one has enough for a reasonable and comfortable human existence, then it is not true freedom to be able to acquire more, especially if that acquisition involves hurting others economically or socially, by taking over their markets, driving them out of business, closing factories, relocating workers and breaking up communities and families, etc. It is difficult to see, for example, why the owners of a large and profitable chain of fast food stores, if they already are rich, should have the liberty to continue to expand at the expense of small restaurants and food outlets, whose owners, perhaps, are struggling to survive and to support their own families. As G.K. Chesterton remarked, the institution of private property no more implies the right to acquire unlimited property than the institution of marriage implies the right to acquire unlimited wives.

The last point, one which I stated earlier and wish only to underscore here, is that a vocational group will represent all involved in a particular industry, not merely owners or managers or workers. This is one of the points most emphatically stressed by Pius XI. Though the vocational groups will insure that all points of view and interests are adequately heard, and though on certain issues separate votes by subgroups might well need to be taken, the vocational group as a whole will represent all regardless of their position on the labor market. Otherwise the group will be a formal expression of class division, rather than of the organic unity arising from the interconnection of one man’s work with, ultimately, every other man’s. Vocational groups are to aid in binding a community together, not be agents of its division into warring halves.


Of course, all these various “approaches and mechanisms for achieving justice in society and in its economic relations will not be successful without a change of outlook, a change of outlook possible only because of a real religious conversion. Men must come to see that the striving competitiveness of our economy is as incompatible with the religion of Jesus Christ as is blasphemy, murder or unchastity. In preaching and teaching this faith, this must be made explicit, however, for otherwise it is too easy to fall into a kind of Catholicism which, though real and vital on an individual level, somehow seems unable to break with our individualistic economic and social traditions. But this is not integral Catholicism, as any reader of the papal social encyclicals can immediately see.

At the end of Quadragesimo Anno Pius XI called for both a reform of society and a reform of men’s hearts. The first will be of almost no value without the second, but the second, unless accompanied by the first, cannot bring forth a community of justice and charity, a real Catholic civilization. May all of us work for both of these ends, that the reign of Christ the King will in some measure be established.

As originally appeared in Social Justice Review, vol. 80, nos. 9-10 (September-October 1989).

End Notes

[1]. Encyclical Rerum Novarum, §13. Translation from Seven Great Encyclicals (New York: Paulist. 1963); all encyclical quotations are from this edition.

[2]. Quadragesimo Anno, §41.

[3]. Vocational groups have been referred to by various names, including the following: guilds, industry councils, corporations, functional groups, professional bodies, organized industries and professions.

[4]. Quadragesimo Anno, §107.

[5]. Ibid. 85.

[6]. Rerum Novarum, §34; Quadragesimo Anno, §71.

[7]. Quadragesimo Anno, §135. See also John A. Ryan. Distributive Justice. 3rd ed. (New York: Macmillan. 1942) p. 289.


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