The Business of Conscience
Making more than a hobby of religious faith.

Andrew V. Abela (left) and Joseph E. Capizzi


A business isn’t a person, critics — and Barack Obama’s Department of Justice — argue in response to challenges to the Department of Health and Human Service’s Obamacare abortion-drug, contraception, and sterilization mandate, the first of which is being heard today before the Supreme Court. But businesses are run by individuals, who do have religious freedom. This is increasingly hard for many to understand. “At work, many managers who consider themselves to be faithful are all too willing to ‘check their religion at the door,’” Andrew V. Abela and Joseph E. Capizzi write in the introduction to the new book they’ve edited, released this week, A Catechism for Business: Tough Ethical Questions and Insights from Catholic Teaching. This privatized view of religious faith in the workplace can be quite innocent — businessmen are “often simply . . . unaware of the implication of their faith for their business practices,” Abela and Capizzi write.

While the evangelical and Mennonite families who run Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, respectively, go to court today, A Catechism for Business seeks to help people understand the implications of the Catholic faith on business practice. Abela, who is the dean of The Catholic University of America’s School of Business and Economics, and Capizzi, who is director of moral theology at CUA’s School of Theology, talk with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez (an alumna of CUA) about religious freedom at work and what the Catholic Church has to offer the business side of our culture and our lives.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: I have to start with the question of the week on account of the Hobby Lobby case at the Supreme Court: Are businesses people? Do they have religious freedom? Does your Catechism have anything to say on the matter?

ANDREW V. ABELA: Businesses are communities of people and communities of people have religious freedom. The Hobby Lobby case is so important because the government is in effect arguing that religious people should “check their faith at the door.” In question 14 of A Catechism for Business (“Is Catholic teaching relevant to business management?”), we provide several direct quotes from Church teaching over the past 50 years that affirm that we are to live our faith every moment of our lives, including at work. We quote the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which wrote that “dividing the demands of one’s faith from one’s work in business is a fundamental error.” In the Hobby Lobby case, the government would like us to believe that this fundamental error is now the law of the land. We trust the Court will determine it is not.

LOPEZ: What’s the guidance for the Evangelicals and Mennonites and Catholics fighting the Department of Health and Human Services abortion drug, contraception, and sterilization mandate if they lose in court?

JOSEPH E. CAPIZZI: The moral guidance on this is pretty clear. We address this briefly in question 46 from our book, where we quote John Paul II from The Gospel of Life. Christians are not to formally participate in practices contrary to the natural law. And even material cooperation, which seems to be the case here, concerning grave attacks on human life, is to be considered illicit (according to the Pontifical Academy for Life). 

LOPEZ: We talk about conscience rights but does conscience have much standing? Most of us seem to live a privatized, compartmentalized faith, don’t we? And the law is just reflecting that, isn’t it? Is your book aiming for a conscience revival?

ABELA: To the extent that we live a privatized, compartmentalized faith, we are not living the Catholic faith. Our love for one another in Christ should penetrate everything we do, including what we do at work. It is our hope that our book will help people learn more about what the Church teaches about how to live as a person of faith in all our economic activity.

LOPEZ: The Catechism obviously relies entirely on Catholic teaching and documents, but are its ethics for everyone?

ABELA: Yes. The social teaching of the Church is based on reason and the natural law, and therefore can be helpful to everyone, not just Catholics. (See question 17: “Do the principles of Catholic social teaching apply only to Catholics?”)

LOPEZ: What are the “apparent tensions and even contradictions” within your Catechism?

ABELA: There are several, but they are always only “apparent,” because Church teaching does not contradict itself. For example, the Church teaches that we have a right to private property (question #1) but also that the goods of the earth were created for the benefit of all (the “universal destination of the earth’s goods”; questions 2 and 3). How do we reconcile these apparently contradictory statements? By recognizing that private property is the way to achieve the universal destination — i.e., in general that property is best managed when managed privately, the goal of our management of our property should be the service of others.

CAPIZZI: We should recall that any such tensions stem from our own limited understanding. Tensions in Church teaching are invitations to self-knowledge; they should engender in us the desire to know why we perceive them as tensions and what stands in our way of living the faith as taught.