So, You Think Ethics Can’t Sell?
Renewed faith of international business leader has huge impact
BY Jim Cosgrove
February 14-20, 1999 Issue | Posted 2/14/99 at 1:00 PM
Burnell: Your book,
Dherse: I gave him a copy! I received a wonderful letter which said, “You are tackling the very difficult economic consequences of moral behavior. You highlight this in the book —about when you are absolutely selfish in business and do not think of the consequences.” The alternative is [forgetting] your own interest.
You mean like the instance in Scripture when Jesus says, “Give to those who have no hope of repaying you”?
Exactly. If you are selfish there are consequences. You become increasingly blind and incapable of thinking of the effects of your action on others. [For example] if you join an enterprise where other members of the team are selfish, you will find life unacceptable there if you want to [achieve] something worthwhile. You will either be forced to [forego] your values or be excluded. That is the total injustice of how someone who cares for others can get caught up in a structure of sin. We don't call it this in the book but we show it by saying, “Anyone can find examples of corruption from the top of the market to the suburbs. What is the role of business? What is really in the best interest of the business?”
Were you always this concerned?
Not at all. It has happened step by step. I would never have expected to see myself in this position and with this sort of audience.
With the latest book, I was interviewed on every major TV [without] a single bad reaction. The Catholic media was naturally very supportive. But we started our publicity with the national secular media.
What helps you keep your bearings?
I'm a member of Cor Unum — I was asked to make a presentation in November on “Charity in the Year of God the Father.” I said of course humanitarian work is essential but charity, if you read Matthew 25, it is not just about being beneficent outside of business hours. Charity means every decision all of the time has got to have this consideration of the people who are going to somehow be affected by it.
We have to ask ourselves who [is] going to be affected? We have to accept that ethical solidarity is not optional. Whether we accept it as fact or not, every time someone does something underhanded there is a macroeconomic coat to selfishness. We seem to think crime can pay without looking at the scale of what we are doing to other people and the planet. The cost is [greater] than [we] think.
What prompted this change in your life?
At 50, I [felt] like a rat in a race. I had no spiritual life, was a lukewarm, even cold Catholic. I believed in God because I was of the assumption that saying he didn't exist would be even more indefensible. It wasn't much of a faith. I thought I was so small and that God was only interested in the major issues; provided I stayed small enough, he wouldn't bother me.
But one day I cried out to him to save me, and things started to move, slowly at first.
My wife and I had never prayed together. We met someone who was so full of life and to both of us he was living his life around a backbone and the backbone was Christ. My life was more like lobster behind the shell [without a backbone].
We both began to attend monthly meetings with other Christians. But it was at Paray-le-Monial that we each had a major spiritual experience — between Good Friday and Easter Sunday 1985, both of us in a slightly different manner.
We flew back to Washington together, praying and praising the Lord — in 25 years of marriage, we had never prayed together but since that experience, we pray together every day.
The iceberg was melting and we became involved with The Emmanuel Community, which has been approved by the Vatican, and has 200 priests and 100 seminarians.
What does the community do?
The community believes that to be baptised is to receive a radical call from God.
How do you compare your life now to before?
I didn't kill anyone but it wasn't the life you get from the spiritual life. I didn't realize my misery! And, one day I understand that maybe I am on the wrong track. From the outset there were many things that needed to be changed in my life.
You now lead a very active life and at an age when many men are taking it easy.
Frankly speaking I'm getting younger and younger. I was an old man when I was 35. But I'm much less interested in the past or in the future. What really interests me is what the Lord wants of me now.
You could still be running a large enterprise. What do your ex-colleagues think of you?
I believe I am considered with these words, “What has happened to him?” I do try to keep my feet on the ground. I'm the chairman of a successful mutual fund, director of three companies, and also a member of an advisory committee for the Mitsubishi Corporation.
Are you ever tempted to call a halt to it all and head for the golf course?
I would love a [round] of golf but I find I keep getting so many things to do even though I'm cutting back on my commitments. It's amazing!
Does your experience give you access to places where the Gospel might not be heard?
Absolutely. What is very interesting is looking at God's view and how in a very peculiar way his plan was preparing me. He has given me an entry into many areas which the Church doesn't [normally] reach except maybe through a number of businessmen who might give donations to charity. A number of opportunities have arisen and I'm now being invited to become a member of a small think tank that includes high level politicians. So, it is unexpected and essentially prayer time.
How would you sum up the role of faith in your life?
It is the backbone. I am as big and as small as my faith. Jesus is the backbone and everything has got to be referred to him. I hope I can live the radical call of my baptism. I don't know if I should say this but I remember praying at the grave of the founder of our community. I remember his voice as I was praying “Jean-Loup, are you attracted by the radicality of the Gospel?” I said I was and then I heard, “Is your answer as radical as your call?” I think this is a question we have got to ask ourselves all of the time.
At one point you produced an ethics document for industrialists that was well-received. What happened after that?
I was asked to become part of a group founded by a Benedictine monk.
He was involved in raising £5 million [about $7.5 million] to rebuild a monastery. The monks wanted to return to somewhere less noisy and attracted the support of more than 200 companies. However, the companies said; “You have been good at extracting money from us: what is there in return? We have a lot of problems; could you produce a center on a non-confessional basis to study our problems and train some of our people?”
I was asked to be part of the core group. I was also asked to do something for the MBA and did sessions for business people asking fundamental questions: “Why am I working like a madman? What do I want out of things? Is what I do of any importance?”
You have got to look at the interface between human action and decisions. This is what we have been doing for a few years without losing either the young people or those at a high level. …
I have [co-] produced a book — Ethics or Chaos? It's 380 pages, very practical, and we have sold more than 17,000 since November — one of the best sellers in France.
We are now looking to have it published in English. It's not that easy to read but there is an enormous demand for it. It's anthropological, fundamental, and very experimental. The fundamental issue is, “When I make a decision am I merely considering others to be instruments for my own purposes?” That is a fundamental question not merely for the Christian because everyone is a child of God.
— Paul Burnell
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