CHICAGO — Many Catholic business leaders find their greatest tests of faith in the workplace, where they must try to reconcile the sometimes contradictory imperatives of their religion and their jobs.
In many cases, “there's a basic dishonesty that's geared towards making money,” said Father Mark Miller, a Canadian bioethics consultant, author of the book Making Moral Choices, and of articles on business ethics.
Finding ways to ways to apply their Christianity to the workplace is the focus of Business Leaders for Excellence, Ethics and Justice, or BEEJ, a collection of about 60 Chicago business leaders who were proflied in a July cover story in Fortune magazine.
They just don't sit around sipping coffee, either. BEEJ has published booklets “Not Just A Just Wage” and “On The Firing Line,” for employers seeking Catholic guidance on business decisions.
BEEJ also hosts passionate debates on business ethics. John Vail, a BEEJ co-chairman, remembers when a Teamsters representative spoke about fair wages. BEEJ's members, mostly executives, were eager to give him an idea of the tough choices they face when deciding wages.
An refreshing and frank dialogue emerged, Vail said.
In the business environment, “a legal discussion occurs,” Vail said. “BEEJ takes it out of that forum … touching beyond legal issues, [to] ethical ones too. It's not only about what we need to do, but what should we do.”
Remaining ethical isn't a shortcut to bankruptcy, Father Miller stresses.
“There are a lot of ethical business opportunities around,” he said. “I argue that ethical business is good business, everywhere and anywhere.”
Tom Monaghan is living proof of that. He opened his first pizza store, DomiNick's in Ypsilanti, Mich., to pay for his college architecture courses.
Monaghan soon became trapped in the pizza business after falling into debt as a 24-year-old freshman.
“The thing that enabled me to live with that was, I could show you can be successful in business and be honest,” Monaghan said. “Most of the people I grew up with, didn't think that was possible.”
Looking back on 38 years of building Domino's into an American institution, and becoming a billion-aire in the process, Monaghan said he sees no conflict between business success and observing strict Catholicism.
“They're pretty much inseparable,” Monaghan said. “Money and profit are not dirty words. They're just tools to do good or evil.”
Often, though, Catholics feel alone when faced with ethical dilemmas in secularized corporate America, which is beholden to profit-driven investors.
“There's a tyranny of stockholders,” Father Miller said. “The tricky issue is corporate executives who belong to a large company. They really get put on the spot.”
For high-powered Catholic executives, Legatus has emerged as a sanctuary. Formed by Monaghan himself, Legatus has grown to include more than 1,300 members.
In fact, Monaghan said he was amazed to find a disproportionate amount of Catholic chief executive officers, which he attributes to the strong Catholic education system.
However, he found that many were disconnected from their faith.
“There's not enough strong Catholics where faith spills over to their work and social life, in my opinion,” Monaghan said. “Catholics seem to shy away from any evangelization.”
Legatus is an exclusive organization. To join, a Catholic executive must prove he is active and in good standing with the Church.
Professionally, an executive has to run a substantial company — $3 million in annual volume or $10 million in net assets — or lead a subsidiary with millions of dollars in annual volume.
Women executives are welcome, and all spouses become Legatus members too.
The stringent financial restrictions are needed to provide a comfortable environment in which executives can socialize to discuss problems, without solicitors or career advancers hounding them, said Tom McDonald, the group's central regional director.
Unlike BEEJ, Legatus is strictly for Catholics, and guest speakers address Catholicism, even if they are Protestant or Jewish.
The Catholic exclusivity allows members to cope with concerns and honor values they all have in common, McDonald said.
“Not all Christians believe in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, for example,” McDonald said. “You all have one belief, so everyone is starting from the same point of view. You don't want to be in an organization that's divided from the outset.”
In contrast, BEEJ isn't exclusively Catholic, though it was founded by Catholics. The group has Protestant members, and it has invited Hindu and Jewish speakers to offer their perspectives on business.
BEEJ didn't seek out non-Catholic members, Vail said. They slowly became attracted to the group, and that creates valuable dialogue.
For instance, non-Catholic speakers and members have enabled Vail to understand the needs of non-Catholic co-workers in his office.
Craig McCrohon, a Protestant, said he's learned to appreciate the Catholic Church and its writings as a result of his BEEJ membership.
“There is a rich body of work that would be of great interest to non-Catholics,” McCrohon said. He was particularly impressed with Catholic encyclicals on business and economics.
One BEEJ advertising executive needed advice on whether to sell his business to his employees or to a third party, which might have fired workers.
With help from other BEEJ members, the executive decided to sell to his workers, and he's been satisfied ever since, Vail said.
Monaghan has met Catholic executives who feared saying grace at meals at corporate functions. Once they did, however, they got compliments.
At Legatus meetings, “they share that experience with others, and hopefully others do it,” Monaghan said.
Before leaving the helm of Domino's in 1998 to devote himself full-time to a network of charitable activities, Monaghan sometimes faced situations in which honesty meant Domino's took a financial hit. He used those times to demonstrate to Domino's employees that telling the truth was essential in successful business.
“I wanted them to be the same way,” he said.
It isn't easy, though. McCrohon, a corporate attorney, said his experience with companies has shown that it takes a lot of directed effort to reconcile Christianity with economic success.
But consumers can take comfort in the fact that although business is driven by profit, maximizing profit is not every businessman's goal, McCrohon said.
“Businessmen have personal and social interests too,” he said. “The reality is that businessmen balance many considerations to permit people to excel, while answering to a greater set of ethical and moral standards.”
Adrian Zawada writes from Miami.