As it is for many converts, it was the Catholic intellectual tradition that drew Jeffrey Cornwall to the Church. So it’s natural that he should bring his faith to his intellectual work.

Cornwall directs the Center for Entrepreneurship at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., and is the coauthor of Bringing Your Business to Life: The Four Virtues That Will Help You Build a Better Business — and a Better Life.

In a Register Inperson feature last week (“In Business for Good”) Cornwall opined that the business news of the past couple of months has revealed “not just the financial instability of our economy, but the moral instability of business, as well.”

“The moral collapse of the financial and other major economic sectors was, for the most part, not caused by vicious people,” he said, “but by people who lost sight of any moral norms in their attempts to achieve their economic goals.”

Register correspondent Anna-marie Adkins continues her conversation with Professor Cornwall.

Many believe that Catholicism is antithetical to business and that a competitive market economy undermines tradition and the good society through its “creative destruction.” What is your view?

The book came out of a class that Dr. Michael Naughton and I team-taught at the University of St. Thomas. [Naughton, who holds the Moss Endowed Chair in Catholic Social Thought at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., coauthored Bringing Your Business to Life with Cornwall.]

At this Catholic university, students are required to take three theology classes. Our goal was to create a theology class that could serve as an integrative capstone for entrepreneurship majors. We sought to use writings from the Catholic intellectual tradition as a lens to examine the process of starting and growing businesses.

We found a rich array of writings from C.S. Lewis to Josef Pieper to Pope John Paul II that helped us explore the entrepreneurial process. Entrepreneurship is morally neutral — it is simply an economic tool.  It is the values that the entrepreneur brings to the process that makes it good or not.

The term “creative destruction” comes from the economist Joseph Schumpeter to describe the process of creating new products and finding new markets. In the process of doing so, old products can become obsolete. The abacus gave way to the adding machine, which gave way to the calculator. 

Although each entrepreneurial act destroyed an old product, it also created a new good that helped improve people’s lives. Sometimes the change is one of convenience, such as the calculator. But with others, it can be changes that truly improve our lives, such as health care.

We must be careful to not only focus on the destructive part of entrepreneurial capitalism. Without the act of destruction, we cannot have renewal and growth. The creative part of the process has the capacity to create better lives and a better society.

The Catholic social tradition can help guide the entrepreneur to pursue the process of entrepreneurship using good means, while always seeking good ends. That is the essence of what we call “the good entrepreneur.”

Pope Pius XI spoke of the need for business leaders to be munificent, that is, use their resources generously to create opportunities for others. What are the social responsibilities and allied virtues of the “good” entrepreneur?

The social responsibility of entrepreneurs starts with creating a good company. The good entrepreneur has a responsibility to build strong and just relationships with employees, with customers, suppliers, funders and with the community in which the business is operating.

The good entrepreneur also has a responsibility to his or her family and to the families of employees to temper the typical high-octane work ethic we see in many entrepreneurs.

The entrepreneur cannot just be an entrepreneur. The entrepreneur also has a duty to be a good spouse, a good parent, and a good member of the com-mu-nity. The entrepreneur also has a responsibility to provide a work environment that allows employees to do the same.

Entrepreneurs like [Charles] Hagood, [Luke] Wooten, and many others in our book, offer a rich variety of examples of good entrepreneurs employing good practices in how they start and build their businesses.

It’s easy to talk about entrepreneurial virtues in the vacuum of a classroom. But many business people believe that focusing solely on profit margins is the only way their business can survive in a competitive market economy, particularly in the present state of the economy. How would you respond?

First, most entrepreneurship classrooms are not “vacuums.” Many of the students in our programs are actively starting and growing businesses while they study entrepreneurship. Of course, we help them learn how to successfully bring a product or service to the marketplace. But, we also challenge them to integrate their faith, their values and their ethics into the culture of the businesses they create.

I would challenge the assumption that entrepreneurs focus solely on profit margins. Most surveys of entrepreneurs show that while profits are important for a business to thrive and survive it is not at the top of the list of how they assess their success in business.

The virtue of courage challenges the good entrepreneur to overcome obstacles when building a business. Even tough economic times cannot be an excuse to ignore what is truly right.

For example, many businesses are experiencing great challenges managing the cash flow in their ventures due to tight credit and customers who are cutting back on their spending.

The temptation might be for the entrepreneurs to push the burden and impact of these cash flow woes disproportionately on others, including their employees.

While they may face difficult decisions that leave them no choice but to cut hours or even lay people off, they should have the courage to approach these difficult decisions justly.

It may be necessary to cut costs, but these decisions should be made fairly and include asking all in the business — including owners, managers and employees — to carry a fair portion of this burden.

Annamarie Adkins is based

in St. Paul, Minnesota.