The moral good of business
Sam Gregg writes that when the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace issued a “note” last October on the global financial system, it would be an understatement to say that it generated a stormy debate. In March, however, the same Council released a new — and very different — document entitled The Vocation of the Christian Business Leader. Every businessman should read it.
by Sam Gregg
When the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace issued a “note” last October on the global financial system, it would be an understatement to say that it generated a stormy debate. In March, however, the same Council released a new — and very different — document entitled The Vocation of the Christian Business Leader (VCBL).
Although this new document doesn’t shy away from making pointed criticisms of contemporary business activity — and there is much to criticize — it articulates, perhaps for the first time in the Catholic Church’s history, a thoroughly positive reflection from a body of the Roman Curia about the nature of business.
This new analysis of business life is rooted in a sophisticated appreciation of Catholic moral and social principles — as well as a background of solid natural-law reasoning about what Pope Benedict XVI has called “integral human development.” VCBL also engages in a very welcome (and much overdue) “bottom-up” rather than “top-down” method of analyzing life in business.
The document has several key themes. The first is that business is not a necessary evil or a mere means to an end. Business, it states, is a vocation. It is “a genuine human and Christian calling” from God and therefore an opportunity to engage in human flourishing. Several popes have made this point in a roundabout way. Never, however, has a Curial text spelled out in so much detail the potential nobility of life as a business leader. Business, VCBL states, makes “an irreplaceable contribution to the material and even the spiritual well-being of humankind.” That’s powerful language. Not only is business the normative means by which many of our material needs are satisfied, it’s also a sphere in which people can acquire virtues.
Another theme is that we need to embrace a sophisticated appreciation of the challenges facing modern business leaders. VCBL recognizes, for example, that there are negative and positive dimensions to the financialization of much of the economy. This means that business leaders confront, often on a daily basis, enormous ethical and economic difficulties. The subsequent choices they need to make are not simple. While VCBL suggests that the state has a role in addressing many of these issues, it wisely refrains from entering into detailed policy recommendations about how governments should act in these areas. Instead, it indicates that in many instances the primary responsibility for addressing many such challenges lies with business leaders themselves.
The text also recognizes that most business activity occurs at the micro-economic level. The document subsequently focuses on helping business leaders to discern, accept and faithfully carry out their vocation by using their unique set of gifts to meet others’ concrete needs in ways that are just.
VCBL contains a powerful appeal to business leaders to live integrated lives. All of us — but perhaps especially businesspeople — are tempted to live fragmented existences, whereby we cordon off our work from our essential beliefs and moral principles. To that end, the document illustrates in a compelling way how business leaders can freely integrate the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity into the daily life of their companies, however big or small.
A further theme is that the relativism that disfigures many contemporary cultures represents a clear and present danger to a sound understanding of the vocation of business. For confirmation of this, one need only consider the consequentalist nonsense that characterizes most contemporary “business ethics” programs.
VCBL uses the words “creativity” and “initiative” over and over again. In one sense, this reflects the classic Christian position that the one thing which distinguishes humans from other species is our creativity. It also derives from the document’s recognition of a truth that becomes evident once you start talking to actual business entrepreneurs: that they “are motivated by much more than financial success, enlightened self-interest, or an abstract social contract as often prescribed by economic literature and management textbooks.”
Perhaps VCBL’s broadest message is indirect: Recognition that many Catholic leaders have not always taken the world of business seriously — and have tended to see it as a source of funds for various Church projects rather than a sphere for human flourishing. Indeed, VCBL even acknowledges that business leaders have sometimes been confronted by “a civil or ecclesiastical culture hostile to entrepreneurship in one or more of its forms.” To the credit of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, this document represents a clear repudiation of such mindsets — something that will not only benefit business leaders but the Catholic Church as whole.
Dr. Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including his prize-winning “The Commercial Society” and the forthcoming “Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and America’s Future.”