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The editors of the new A Catechism for Business talk with the Register about how they’ve created a way for business to know an obligation to achieve a just society.
BY PETER JESSERER SMITH
WASHINGTON — Running a business on the ethics and social teachings of the Catholic Church has never been easier, thanks to the production of a concise, easy-to-read handbook called A Catechism for Business.
A Catechism for Business is the product of a herculean seven-year labor by two professors at The Catholic University of America (CUA), Andrew Abela, dean of CUA’s School of Business and Economics, and Joseph Capizzi, associate professor of moral theology at CUA.
The two editors have made it easy for people in both small business and big business to engage with the Church’s social doctrine and understand what their obligations are to work for a just society as business people. The new book helps answer challenging ethical questions faced daily in the 21st-century global economy by providing quotations and references — not the editors’ interpretations — to the relevant social teaching.
The Register spoke with Abela and Capizzi before the March 26 launch of their book at the Catholic Information Center in Washington and discussed how A Catechism for Business can evangelize the business world and build the foundations for a more just economy inclusive of those on the margins of society.
Why is A Catechism for Business so important for our modern context?
Abela: What we wanted to do with this book is make [the Church’s social teachings] more accessible for busy business people — especially faithful business people who are trying to live the Gospel in their business but not sure how to do that. This treasure of the social doctrine is scattered throughout many, many documents, and they don’t necessarily know where to look. So the book collects all of that and makes it much more readily accessible.
How did you put the social teachings of the Church in this book for people?
Abela: This little volume is seven years in the making. It took a long time to gather and find all the materials because we had to read everything. All the social encyclicals, all the documents of Vatican II, the Catechism …
Capizzi: And then there’s the process of distillation. You’re obviously not putting in every quotation that pertains to every question. Instead, you’re trying to find the ones that are the most emblematic of the teaching as a whole or somehow crystallize the point as much as possible.
So you both did a lot of work to make it easy for people?
Capizzi: [Laughing] We think so; yes.
A lot of people view the purpose or end of the economy as just about profit and say that’s what business is all about. But what is actually the purpose, or end goal, of the economy, in the Catholic view?
Abela: Basically, serving the material needs of human beings. The view that profit is the end of business is actually a relatively recent innovation, even in the secular world.
Really? How recent is it?
Abela: Certainly the last 100 years, at the most; and in terms of making it the conventional wisdom, only probably in the last 30 or 40 years.
And it’s not even as widespread as you would think. We speak to small business people, and they don’t think they’re in it [for profit] — yes, they’re in it for profit, in the sense that they have to make profit, but they don’t get up every day and go to work and say, “I am going to make profit.” They say, “I am going to make shoes" or "I am going to run a shop.” So there’s this strange distortion.
So what are you trying to change here?
Abela: What we’re trying to do with this book — and it’s actually part of a broader strategy we’re doing at our School of Business and Economics at Catholic University — is to combat this notion that business is amoral.
Human beings — we’re moral beings. We don’t really do anything amoral. So if you pretend that business is amoral, then other people are going to try to shove morality in somehow, which usually involves heavier government regulations.
If businesses aren’t striving to care for society, then government feels like it has to do it. One of our board members said the other day, “If business had taken care of the 17% of Americans who didn’t have health insurance, then the Affordable Care Act never would have happened.” So when business leaders decline the responsibility, we hand it over to government. And how’s that working out for us?
You talk about the need for a just wage in the book. Too many people don’t have the wages to create savings, afford housing, meet basic needs,and support a family. Do you think this is an area where people in business can take a lead, rather than the government?
Capizzi: For sure. Now again, the Church’s teaching on the just wage is directed first to business leaders, not to the state. When it first arises in Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII is speaking to employers, not to the state. He’s telling them, “This is your obligation; your obligation as employers is to care for your employees.” It’s in the context of talking about the duties and obligations that employers and employees have to each other that this term first arises.
So, absolutely. It relates back to what Andrew [Abela] just said about health care. The responsibility of the employer is to take care of the employees as well as the business allows them. When they forfeit on that responsibility, that’s when the state assumes a role. It will do that either because the state thinks it has that role or it’s an opportunity for the state to expand into the spaces left vacant by businesses.
How does the book relate the social teachings with the Pope’s call for evangelization in Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel)?
Capizzi: Again, the whole point of [the book] is to show that business is not exempt from the call to evangelization. Business people, businesses: From the Catholic perspective, all of this must be evangelized. All of this has been claimed by Christ, essentially. The business leader, the workers — in order for them to engage each other better, they’ll be doing so along principles which are in line with what the Church is teaching.
Does the businessman have to make a conscious decision to engage those at the margins of society, as Evangelii Gaudium talks about?
Abela: I think so. As Joe [Capizzi] said, just because you are in business doesn’t exclude you from the obligation to solidarity, to care for the other. Business has so much scope to do that, and there are so many examples. I was just talking to a fellow the other day, the father of one of our students, who runs a recycling business. He goes out of his way to hire people who have disabilities: finding work that they can do, which elevates their dignity, which brings them into the economy.
Business has huge scope to do that, and it’s so much more rewarding when somebody in business draws in someone who is otherwise excluded and gives them a job and a way to contribute, rather than gives them a handout and says, “We’re taking care of you.” It’s so much more in accord with human dignity to allow someone the opportunity to do work than to sustain them in some other way — which is important if they cannot sustain themselves. This way is so much better, and business can do that and should do that.
What do you hope to ultimately accomplish with this book and with the CUA School of Business?
Abela: Our grand goal is transformation of the way business is done in this country and worldwide, so that it is pursued in the service of others, so that Christians in particular can live out their vocations fully in the world of business and not see it as something where you check your faith at the door when you step into the workplace.
Capizzi: The book itself is just a first step in what we hope is a long process of this transformation: a little nudge (by virtue of these texts) towards something that we think is good for business and good for everyone beyond business itself.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.