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“Vocation of the Business Leader”

May 4, 2012

There has been a lot of buzz about a new pamphlet just out from the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace:  Vocation of the Business Leader.

As John Allen notes, this document is quite different from many official Catholic texts:

One distinct note is the text’s rather lofty conception of the business enterprise: “When businesses and market economies function properly and focus on serving the common good,” it says, “they contribute greatly to the material and even the spiritual well-being of society.”

As Samuel Gregg observed for National Review Online, that’s a powerful corrective to “the essentially condescending view of business often adopted by some clergy.” In effect, the document acknowledges that business doesn’t just fill bellies or line coffers; properly practiced, it also cultivates virtue.

Among other things, the document says that ethically responsible business is a “vehicle of cultural engagement” and a force for “peace and prosperity,” that it has “a special role to play in the unfolding of creation,” and that through creative work, people don’t just “make more” but “become more.”

The document also says something out loud which might seem stunningly obvious, especially to Americans raised on the capitalist creed, but which hasn’t always appeared so in official Catholic teaching — that financial profit is a perfectly legitimate aim of business, albeit not the only one.

“If financial wealth is not created,” the document says, “it cannot be distributed and organizations cannot be sustained.”[…]

Perhaps the most striking element of the text, however, comes in its appendix. There one finds a “Discernment Checklist for the Business Leader,” composed of thirty questions which amount to an examination of conscience informed by Catholic social teaching.

Some are fairly broad (yet still packing a punch), such as, “Have I been living a divided life, separating Gospel principles from my work?” and “Am I receiving the sacraments regularly and with attention to how they support and inform my business practices?”

Others are more concrete, and with real bite. For instance:

  • Am I creating wealth, or am I engaging in rent-seeking behavior? (That’s jargon for trying to get rich by manipulating the political and economic environment, for example by lobbying for tax breaks, rather than by actually creating something.)
  • Is my company making every reasonable effort to take responsibility for unintended consequences [such as] environmental damage or other negative effects on suppliers, local communities and even competitors?
  • Do I provide working conditions which allow my employees appropriate autonomy at each level?
  • Am I making sure that the company provides safe working conditions, living wages, training, and the opportunity for employees to organize themselves?
  • Do I follow the same standard of morality in all geographic locations?
  • Am I seeking ways to deliver fair returns to providers of capital, fair wages to employees, fair prices to customers and suppliers, and fair taxes to local communities?
  • Does my company honor its fiduciary obligations … with regular and truthful financial reporting?
  • When economic conditions demand layoffs, is my company giving adequate notifications, employee transition assistance, and severance pay?

Human nature being what it is, not every business professional is likely to take these questions seriously, or to answer them honestly. Yet if even a handful were to do so, the result could be a new moral depth in what has long been regarded as a basically amoral realm.

Vocation of the Business Leader may thus be that rarest of Vatican texts: Something that isn’t just dissected by vaticanisti and other denizens of the church’s chattering classes, but actually used out in the field.[…]

[T]he real novelty of Vocation of the Business Leader is that it manages to bring Catholic social teaching down to earth without actually floating a single concrete policy proposal. Instead, it asks hard questions and trusts people of intelligence and good will to figure out the right answers.

Socrates would be proud.

One aspect of this document that is especially interesting to me is that it is making stirs outside the Catholic community.  Alan Brill, a prominent Jewish rabbi and professor, says “I can already see the potential Al Het sheets for Yom Kippur that can-be based on this.”  Brill focuses on passages such as this:

When managed well, businesses actively enhance the dignity of employees and the development of virtues, such as solidarity, practical wisdom, justice, discipline, and many others. While the family is the first school of society, businesses, like many other social institutions, continue to educate people in virtue, especially those young men and women who are emerging from their families and their educational institutions and seeking their own places in society.

Chief among these obstacles at a personal level is a divided life, or what Vatican II described as ‘the split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives.’ The Second Vatican Council saw this split as ‘one of the more serious errors of our age.’

Brill goes on to comment on this passage, referencing Samson Raphael Hirsch, the prolific Frankfurt rabbi who was perhaps the most important forerunner of of the Modern Orthodox movement in Judaism:

This message was the original message of [Samson Raphael] Hirsch in his Bible commentary in dozens of places. We have to let the eternal values guide our everyday actions, when guiding means does it increase dignity, virtue, and help our education of how to act in that situation. It is not a bifurcated view where once something is permitted then I can become Mr. Hyde for the rest of the time. The extension here is that a well-run business is spoken of like a family. Business educates “people in virtue” therefore it should not stop when people are out of day school. The business does not only exist for profit but is at the heart of a just society. Right now, we imagine that we have justice in our home community and project our own vices onto the outside world.[…]

The interesting moral call is not to give back to your religious community but to give back to your work environment.[…] It is not free enterprise supply side nor socialist, rather social responsibility- leaving enough room for interpretation.

Vocation of the Business Leader is an unusual and challenging document in many ways.  I hope it finds a wide readership.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 4, 2012 11:32 am

    ” that financial profit is a perfectly legitimate aim of business” Profit may be an aim – but only because it is a necessity. Businesses don’t survive (as governments may) when they don’t pay their bills. But profit is not an adequate objective. Peter Drucker’s first question “What business are you in” is as he says “always a decision”. Yet I can say Yes to most of the article. Businesses have key roles in developing people, fostering cooperation in complex projects, and delivering value, impact, and outcome (measured in more than $). I spent my early years with IBM before starting my own business. Their old mottos – IBM = Service and World peace through world trade still have formative power and were revolutionary when first put forward. The public collapse of many large businesses (Worldcom, Nortel, and many others – not to mention the housing bubbles) in the last 15 years in North America shows however, that power creates opportunities for a lapse of good in the decision makers.

  2. May 4, 2012 11:48 am

    Bob, if you have a chance to skim through the document I link to above (it is not too long), I’d be interested in your impressions.

  3. May 4, 2012 2:51 pm

    I have printed it out and will review it in a post. It is too important to toss off a comment. My real question is whether the adjectival use of Christian can be extended and whether the reality of engagement with the word of God is addressed in this particular 32 pages. Much of what I have read so far is quite bearable, but it should be noted that any sense of power hierarchy [church over business or business over itself] works against the role of the Spirit in the fullness of self giving. My own story likely cannot be told till all the protagonists are deceased and have agreed in the world to come on how to phrase their mutual support and criticism.

  4. May 4, 2012 3:10 pm

    Bob, I’m looking forward to your detailed review. If you like, please post a link to it here when it is ready.

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