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A Catechism for Business

Tough Ethical Questions Faced by Catholic Leaders, Part 1


| Posted 6/21/10 at 2:00 PM

Courtesy Catholic University of America

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Legatus Magazine. © Legatus. Reprinted with permission.

Three years ago, at the Legatus Pro-Life Pilgrimage in Washington, D.C., I gave a presentation on tough ethical questions faced by Legatus members and what Church teaching has to say about them.  At the end of the session, Jim Longon from the Philadelphia chapter suggested that we build on this to create a “Catechism for Business.” We took him up on his idea, and with his support and that of Catholic University of America, over the past three years, my research assistants and I have combed through all the relevant documents of Vatican II, encyclicals and speeches by popes from Leo XIII to Benedict XVI, documents of various pontifical councils, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church to find answers to over 100 tough ethical questions that concern Catholic business leaders. We will be publishing these findings in a book, but in the meantime, Legatus Magazine has invited us to share some of them with the membership though this column. 

We will begin this series with some fundamental questions about what kinds of products and services we should — or should not — be producing and selling. In many cases, the advice offered by Catholic social teaching is quite general in nature, which is understandable, given the wide range of possible circumstances that could arise within the contemporary economy.  The quotations selected for questions one, two and five, below, are examples of this. In other cases, the advice is more specific, as in the material chosen for questions three and four. In every case, this Catechism is presented not with the intention of providing a necessarily conclusive solution to each question.  What it does offer is guidance from the wisdom of Church teaching for dealing with these tough questions.

1. Are there any moral limitations on what we can produce and sell, or should we just let the free market decide? If something is legal and there is a demand for it, are we free to produce and sell it?
According to Pope John Paul II, the fact that there is market demand for something is not sufficient justification for producing it. The producer does have a responsibility to ensure that the goods he is offering for sale are actually good for his customers, although that responsibility is shared with others, including consumers themselves, the media and regulators: 

“Of itself, an economic system does not possess criteria for correctly distinguishing new and higher forms of satisfying human needs from artificial new needs which hinder the formation of a mature personality. Thus a great deal of educational and cultural work is urgently needed, including the education of consumers in the responsible use of their power of choice, the formation of a strong sense of responsibility among producers and among people in the mass media in particular, as well as the necessary intervention by public authorities” (Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, Paragraph 36).

“Here we find a new limit on the market: There are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms. There are important human needs which escape its logic. There are goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold”  (Centesimus Annus, 40).

2. What criteria should we use to decide what kinds of products and services are morally acceptable?
The goal of production is the service of the whole human person:

“The fundamental finality of … production is not the mere increase of products nor profit or control but rather the service of man, and indeed of the whole man with regard for the full range of his material needs and the demands of his intellectual, moral, spiritual and religious life” (Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, 64).

“In singling out new needs and new means to meet them, one must be guided by a comprehensive picture of man which respects all the dimensions of his being and which subordinates his material and instinctive dimensions to his interior and spiritual ones” (Centesimus Annus, 36).

3. Is it morally acceptable to be involved in the production or marketing of toys, video games or movies that have violent or sexual content?  
Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II both condemn exaltation of violence and trivialization of sexuality in any form:

“Any trend to produce programs and products — including animated films and video games — which in the name of entertainment exalt violence and portray anti-social behavior or the trivialization of human sexuality is a perversion, all the more repulsive when these programs are directed at children and adolescents. How could one explain this ‘entertainment’ to the countless innocent young people who actually suffer violence, exploitation and abuse?” (Pope Benedict XVI, Message for World Communications Day 2007, 3).

“Do not corrupt society, and in particular youth, by the approving and insistent depiction of evil, of violence, of moral abjection, carrying out a work of ideological manipulation, sowing discord!” (John Paul II, Message for World Communications Day 1984, 4).

“Nor can we fail, in the name of the respect due to the human person, to condemn the widespread hedonistic and commercial culture which encourages the systematic exploitation of sexuality” (Letter of Pope John Paul II to Women, 5).

4. Is it morally acceptable to be involved in the gambling industry? 
Gambling is not immoral, unless the size of the wager is such that it could prevent the gambler from providing for the necessities of life: 

“Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others. The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2413).

5. Is it morally acceptable to be involved in the production or marketing of harmless but wasteful or trivial products if people seem to be willing to buy them? 

“In a world tempted by consumerist and materialist outlooks, Christian executives are called to affirm the priority of ‘being’ over ‘having’” (John Paul II, Message to the Participants in the Conference on “The Business Executive: Social Responsibility and Globalization,” 2004).

“It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards ‘having’ rather than ‘being,’ and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself. It is therefore necessary to create lifestyles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments” (Centesimus Annus, 36).

“If harmful or utterly useless goods are touted to the public … those responsible for such advertising harm society and forfeit their good name and credibility” (Communio et Progressio, 60).

Andrew Abela is the chairman of the Department of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America and an associate professor of marketing. Abela is the recipient of the Acton Institute’s 2009 Novak Award for research into the relationship between religion and economic liberty and a charter member of the Arlington, Virginia, chapter of Legatus. He can be reached at