A few years ago, I had an interesting conversation with one of our country’s most well-known and respected business leaders. It started as I was chatting with the man’s wife, and she asked me what I did for fun. I could have told her I enjoyed golf, or gardening, or skiing, or any number of acceptable hobbies of a businessperson. Instead, I answered truthfully that I have a passion for learning what our faith has to teach us about business and our work in the world.
Surprised, the wife called over her husband — and with him came the crowd. He was intrigued and wanted the “elevator pitch” of what faith could do to inform business, beyond its admonishment about the rich man’s difficulties getting into heaven. Here’s what I told him: the five things that every Catholic businessperson must know.
1. Man is called to work, and money is spiritual
Man is wired for work, to be productive. It is part of our mission and who we are as human beings.
We find this laid out in the opening verses of Genesis. God is introduced to us as the omnipotent Creator who makes man in His own image, inviting man to work the soil and cultivate and care for the Earth. Man is given dominion over all living creatures — not as a tyrant, but as a caretaker and protector. The man did not create the goods of the Earth; they are God’s creation, and man’s role is to respect and fulfill the responsibility of the stewardship of God’s material world. God is the owner, and man is His manager.
It is important to remember that work is part of the original state of man and precedes his fall. It is not therefore a punishment or curse, but something that should be enthusiastically embraced. We know that work is honorable, because it provides the resources necessary to live a decent life and to have the means of combating poverty. In its most elemental sense, work is the fulfillment of our duty pursuant to our state in life.
Of course, we’ve come a long way since the days in the Garden. Today, work is often associated strictly with the production and accumulation of wealth — and there is some truth in that. But with eyes of faith, we see there is more to it: work is service to mankind, and money is simply a medium of exchange.
Real value is not measured by money. Money itself is a spiritual thing, in the sense that its true essence isn’t material: it can be created and destroyed without ever touching it. If the world were ending tomorrow, what would be the value of your assets tonight? Immediately, wealth would be destroyed. Conversely, markets can be driven up simply based on news reports or advertising — and suddenly, wealth is created.
Why are these notions of work and money valuable? They are the basis of understanding our vocation to business as spiritual, and thus within the realm faith.
2. The Catholic Church is the repository of some of the richest and most relevant economic philosophy available to man
Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers contain great wisdom in the areas of work and wealth: Exodus and the Gospel of St. Matthew, St. Clement of Alexandria’s Who is the Rich Man Who Shall Be Saved, Pope Leo the Great’s Homily on the Beatitudes, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Love of the Poor, and many others. All of these share a remarkable consensus that wealth is morally neutral and can serve as a valuable instrument in the spiritual transformation of individuals and societies.
From these early writers, the Church draws her context, framework, and inspiration for her teachings on economic issues. Men and women in business would be well-served to read Rerum Novarum (1891),Quadragesimo Anno (1931), Mater et Magistra (1961), Populorum Progressio (1967), Laborem Exercens(1981), Solicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), Centesimus Annus (1991), Caritas in Veritate (2009) and Laudato Si (2015).
What we find in these documents is that the Church has much to say about our interaction with the material world, synthesizing a beautiful three-fold formula to guide man in his economic affairs:
- respect for human life and the dignity of the human person,
- emphasis on solidarity among men, and
- respect for the notion of subsidiarity — the delegation of responsibility to the smallest, lowest, or least centralized authority.
These are perennial truths, not subject to political whim or market sentiment.
3. Although imperfect, capitalism is the best model we have for organizing economic activity and ensuring the true development of the human person
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that “everyone has the right to economic initiative; everyone should make legitimate use of his talent to contribute to the abundance that will benefit all, and to harvest the just fruits of his labor” (2429). We understand this because we understand the nature of man and his relationship to his Creator.
Both the Catechism and Pope Saint John Paul II, in Solicitudo Rei Socialis, explain that “experience shows us that the denial of this right [economic initiative], or its limitation in the name of an alleged ‘equality’ of everyone in society, diminishes, or in practice absolutely destroys the spirit of initiative.” From a spiritual perspective, human initiative in the economic sphere can be understood to reveal man’s humanity as creative and relational.
Capitalism has proven to be the most successful economic system to recognize and support free human creativity in the economic sector and to recognize and protect its elemental ingredients: the fundamental role of private property, commerce, and the capital markets. Problems arise when capitalism becomes a system with a purely economic conception of man, where the sole considerations are profit and the law of the market.
As Catholic businesspeople, we understand capitalism to mean an economic system that is placed at the service of human freedom, within the context of a strong juridical framework that emphasizes the ethical and religious aspects of human freedom.
4. “For-profit” is not necessarily bad, just as “non-profit” is not necessarily good
Pope Saint John Paul II in Centesimus Annus reminds us that “when a firm makes a profit, this means that productive factors have been properly employed.” Similarly, Clement of Alexandria was the first to argue that if no one possessed anything, it would be impossible to obey Jesus’ commandment to give to the poor. Of course, the legitimate pursuit of profit must be balanced with the absolute protection of the dignity of workers at all levels.
“For-profit” and “non-profit” are, in the end, tax statuses. Both entities must sustain themselves, even if their sources of revenue are different. Certainly many good and honorable people work for for-profit companies, just as arguably some of the most morally questionable business initiatives have come from non-profit ones. Making a profit is not an inherently bad thing.
5. There is no such thing as “business ethics” — focus on the businessperson
It is imperative to be ethical in business, but “business ethics” is an entirely different concept. In many businesses today, ethics is discussed on a situational basis: What is the right or wrong thing to do in a given situation? This is a worthy starting point — but as Catholic business professionals, our bar is set higher.
Aristotle reminds us, “Virtue makes its subject good, and makes the subject’s work good” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book II). Virtues belong to the soul, according to St. Thomas Aquinas — but companies do not have souls; man does. And when man has perfected the virtues — prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance — he is as God intended him: a sound manager.
(First published on May 12, 2011 in Crisis Magazine.)