What is the end – the goal – of business anyway? Is it to merely maximize a profit or to do good, or some balance between the two? And what exactly does it mean for a business to “do good”? And if I happen to be a person of deep religious faith, do I have to check my faith at the boardroom door? What influence should my faith have on the exchanges I engage in day to day, and what are the practical implications of ethics on how I conduct myself in business relationships? Andrew Abela is the 2009 recipient of Acton’s Novak Award. He has just co-authored a very important book on the subject of the intersection of ethics and morality with business: A Catechism for Business: Tough Ethical Questions & Insights From Catholic Teaching (The Catholic University of America Press). He speaks with Acton’s Paul Edwards on this edition of Radio Free Acton.
Mark Tooley of IRD highlights a talk by Michael Novak, “Jesus Was a Small Businessman.” Speaking to students at the Catholic University of America, Novak observed:
When he was the age of most of you in this room, then, Jesus was helping run a small business. There on a hillside in Nazareth, he found the freedom to be creative, to measure exactly, and to make beautiful wood-pieces. Here he was able to serve others, even to please them by the quality of his work. Here he helped his family earn its own way. Creativity, exactitude, quality, beauty, service to others, independence – this was the substance of his daily life. In preparation for all that was to come.
Novak’s claims about Jesus being a small businessman may be a bit provocative, as Tooley puts it, but hopefully in a positive sense of provoking greater considered reflection.
Indeed, Novak’s claims have a clear precedent in CST, as in Laborem Exercens section 26, titled “Christ, the Man of Work,” which reads in part: “For Jesus not only proclaimed but first and foremost fulfilled by his deeds the ‘gospel’, the word of eternal Wisdom, that had been entrusted to him. Therefore this was also ‘the gospel of work’, because he who proclaimed it was himself a man of work, a craftsman like Joseph of Nazareth.”
You can read the whole text of Novak’s address, “For Catholics, the Vocation of Business is the Main Hope for the World’s Poor,” given at CUA this past January.
What happens if a Catholic college doesn’t require students to attend Mass, doesn’t engage in “indoctrination” or “proselytizing”, and hires non-Catholic faculty? As John Garvey, president of the Catholic University of America, says, the government will likely determine the school is not “Catholic” enough for religious liberty protections:
There is a pattern to these cases. The government has been eager to regulate the behavior of churches in ways more to its liking. It does this by defining religion down, so that only the most rigid and separatist groups are exempt. The rest are, for constitutional purposes, no different from the Jaycees or the Elks Club. We might say that the wall of separation is intact, but the government has made it so small that it encloses nothing more than a flower bed.
How distressed Roger Williams would have been.
It appears then that these Catholic academicians who have written to Speaker Boehner do not understand the distinctions the Church herself makes between fundamental, non-negotiable dogmas and doctrines, and the prudential and debatable give and take when it comes to applying the principles of Catholic social teaching. Here Speaker Boehner need only consult the text of the Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching, which the authors of the letter say they have delivered to him, wherein he will read: “The Church’s Magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions.” (no. 571)
The specifics of the 2012 Budget proposed by the Speaker and his colleagues are, the letter’s authors contend, the result of either ignorance or “dissent.” I think they are neither; they simply reflect a different, and in many people’s estimation, more accurate and economically-informed way, of proposing how we achieve worthy goals. Indeed, it could be said that what these Catholic academicians are proposing is not a “preferential option for the poor,” but rather a preferential option for the State. They make the unfortunately common error of assuming that concern for the economically weak and marginalized must somehow translate into (yet another) government program.
That assumption is wrong, and flies in the face of another principle of Catholic social teaching — the principle of subsidarity. With good reason, this is something the Catholic Left — or whatever remains of it these days — rarely mentions or grapples with, because they know that it would raise many questions about the prudence of any number of welfare programs they support.
Indeed, what strikes me about this letter to Speaker Boehner is how reactionary it is.