Business Is Business, Within Limits

The nature of the relationship between labor and management has changed markedly over the course of this century.

At the end of the 1800s, as the base of the economy shifted from agriculture to industry, laborers moved in droves from the farms to the factories. There they found that wage labor meant menial work for little pay in often terrible, sometimes unsanitary and not infrequently dangerous conditions. The rift between workers and employers, already characterized by class struggle, only seemed to widen.

Concerned about this development, Pope Leo XIII spoke out in defense of the poor and working classes. In 1891 he wrote an encyclical, Rerum Novarum (On the New Things), addressing the rise of industrialization in reference to the economic systems of capitalism and socialism. The encyclical outlined what the Church, the government and the workers themselves could do to ensure respect for human dignity in all working situations.

Now, a century later, many of those recommendations have taken hold. In fact, there has been a virtual transformation of culture with regard to work and respect for the dignity of human labor. Of course, there are still situations where workers are under-paid and poorly treated, but these cases are much rarer now than they were 100 years ago.

For example, when the media revealed that Kathie Lee Gifford's clothing line was being produced under deplorable working conditions in developing countries — evidently this came as news to her — the nation was outraged and Gifford took her business elsewhere. In the 19th century, the same conditions would have scarcely raised an eyebrow.

Also frequently forgotten is that, a century ago, if you were a Catholic in the United States, you were almost certainly a laborer. Today, thanks in large part to the success of Catholic schools and the stability of strong families and parishes, Catholics are well-represented throughout all levels of labor and management — including at the very top of many companies and organizations. This is one of the “new things” in our day.

Of course, there are those Catholic business leaders for whom the faith is, if not a marginal factor in their lives, at least something to keep hidden while on the job. But there are also many who fully live their Catholicism on and off the job.

Following these two massive cultural changes, the social teaching of the Church now addresses itself more explicitly to owners and managers.

In contrast with Pope Leo's 1891 appeal to the Church, governments and workers, Pope John Paul II's 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus (On the Hundredth Anniversary) more directly addressed owners and employers. In fact, whenever our present Holy Father proclaims the social teaching of the Church, he makes sure to engage management in a discussion of a developing theology of business.

On Sept. 12 of this year, the Pope spoke to members of the Centesimus Annus Foundation on the topic of ethics and international finance. Addressing an audience of business leaders, he said, “Globalization will have very positive effects if it is grounded in a strong sense of the absolute character and dignity of all human persons and the principle that the earth's goods are for all.” He then asked them to consider: “What are the value judgments that should direct your choices?”

Are Catholic business executives listening to the questions raised by the Pope? Consider Ken Trupke, vice president of administration at Kalfact Plastics Co. Located in Michigan and employing about 100 people, Kalfact uses injection molding to produce small parts for automobiles. Ken has to make decisions about wages, the work environment, pricing, production and just about all it takes to run a company of that size. Ken is an active Catholic, and he and his wife have strong pro-life convictions. I asked him, “Do you ever bring those concerns about morality and human dignity into your work?”

“Every day,” he told me. “In every decision I make, I try to remember to think about human dignity. I ask myself, ‘Does this decision treat everyone involved with dignity as a human being?’”

Ken points out that the company president places a strong emphasis on running the company using several basic guidelines. First, treat everyone — not only customers, but also suppliers and employees — with dignity and respect. From this follows a commitment to safety and quality.

“I see the basic philosophy of the company as strongly compatible with what I believe,” says Ken. “I'm not trying to preach to our employees or our customers, but I do study the Catechism and the teachings of the Church.

I am trying to work in a way that promotes human dignity. When I face a hard decision, I ask myself, ‘What would Jesus do? What would the Pope want me to do?’”

At the end of the last century, the Church developed a theology of labor. During the pontificate of John Paul II, we have seen the development of a theology of business. And at the same time, more managers and executives are Catholics. As we move into a new millennium, let us hope and pray for a fourth development: that more business leaders might learn and live this developing theology of business.

Gregory R. Beabout teaches philosphy at St. Louis University.