When the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace issued a Note last year on the global financial system, it would be an understatement to say that it generated a stormy debate. Today, however, the president of the same Council, Cardinal Peter Turkson, released a new — and very different — Note entitled, The Vocation of the Christian Business Leader, at a conference in Lyons, France.
Though it doesn’t shy away from making pointed criticisms of much contemporary business activity — and there is much to criticize — the Note articulates, perhaps for the first time in the Catholic Church’s history, a lengthy and thoroughly positive reflection from a body of the Roman Curia about the nature and ends of business.
Unlike the October 2011 Note, this new document avoids grand theorizing about the nature of economic development throughout the 20th century. Nor does the Note lend itself to absurd claims that the Church is to “the left of Nancy Pelosi” on economic issues. Instead, this text’s analysis of life as a business leader is rooted in a sophisticated appreciation and application of the principles of Catholic moral and social teaching. It also reflects a background of solid natural law reasoning about what Benedict XVI has called “integral human development,” and recognizes the sheer diversity of forms assumed by business in the modern economy. To that extent, the Note reflects a very welcome (and much over-due) “bottom-up” rather than “top-down” method of analysis of life in business.
So what are some of the document’s key themes?
The first is that business is not a necessary evil or a mere means to an end. Business, the Note states, is a vocation. It is “a genuine human and Christian calling”from God and therefore an opportunity to engage in human flourishing. This point has been made in a round-about way by popes. Never, however, has a Curial text spelt out in so much detail the potential nobility of life as a business leader. Business, the Note states, makes “an irreplaceable contribution to the material and even the spiritual well-being of humankind.” That’s very powerful language. Not only is business the normative means by which many of our material needs and legitimate desires are satisfied. It’s also a sphere in which people can acquire virtues.
A second theme is that we need to embrace a sophisticated appreciation of the opportunities and challenges facing modern business leaders. The Note recognizes, for example, that there are negative and positive dimensions to the financialization of much of the economy. This and other developments mean that business leaders confront, often on a daily basis, enormous ethical and economic difficulties, and the subsequent choices they need to make are not simple. While the document makes it clear 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, the Note indicates that in many instances the primary, even decisive responsibility for addressing many such challenges lies with business leaders themselves.
Third, the text recognizes that most business activity occurs at the micro-level of the economy. So, instead of presenting a series of broad macro-economic recommendations far removed from the everyday reality of most entrepreneurs and business leaders, the Note 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 and which open up further possibilities for human flourishing.
Fourth, the Note contains a powerful appeal to business leaders to live integrated lives. All of us — but perhaps especially business people — are tempted to live fragmented existences, whereby we cordon off our work from our essential beliefs and moral principles. To that end, the Note illustrates in a fresh and compelling way how business leaders can freely integrate the principles of solidarity and subsidarity into the daily life of their companies, however big or small.
Fifth, the Note stresses that the relativism and utilitarianism 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 — including at many Catholic business schools — that undermines many future business leaders’ capacity to think coherently about, well, anything.
Sixth, the words “creativity” and “initiative” are repeated over and over again throughout the Note. In one sense, this reflects the classic Christian position that one thing that distinguishes humans from other species — that makes us “god-like” — is our creativity. At the same time, it also derives from the Council’s recognition of a truth that becomes very 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.”
But perhaps the broadest message that can be taken from this Note is indirect. And it is recognition of the fact 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, the Note 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.” It’s difficult to read this as anything other than a condemnation of the essentially condescending view of business often adopted by some clergy. To the credit of the Pontifical Council, this Note represents a clear repudiation of such mindsets — something that will not only benefit business leaders but the Catholic Church as a whole.
— Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy, and his 2012 forthcoming Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and America’s Future.