Doing Business the Catholic Way: Information Abounds, but You Won't Learn it in School

COLORADO SPRINGS, Co.— When it comes to bringing one's faith to work, many American Catholics are falling down on the job. Not because they don't take their faith seriously, but because many of them in the business world never learned how their Catholic faith figures specifically into their working life.

In spite of the recent popularity of many business ethics books such as Jesus CEO by Laurie Beth Jones, If Aristotle Ran General Motors by Tom Morris, and Defining Moments: When Managers Must Choose Between Right and Right by Joseph L. Bandaracco, Jr., the Catholic idea of sanctifying work is not being put across to a wide audience.

“These days, business ethics is a big thing,” according to Dr. Robert Kennedy, professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“Forty years ago, business ethics was almost entirely confined to the Catholic universities—Notre Dame, DePaul, Loyola, Boston College—and most of the textbooks were written by Catholic scholars with a Thomistic orientation,” Kennedy said. “There are scores of business ethics textbooks today, and not one seriously reflects the Catholic tradition.”

That Catholic tradition goes back a very long way. According to Kennedy, the explosive growth of trade and commerce in the 17th century in Spain and Italy prompted Catholic entrepreneurs to go to their confessors with a whole new set of ethical questions.

“We sometimes think that business only got complicated in the 20th century, but it was very complicated back then,” Kennedy explained.

Catholic scholars are doing some work in this area, and Pope John Paul II has written several important encyclicals on this topic. But not much of it is making its way into the classroom, and consequently, the boardroom. Even at Catholic universities, the more secular approaches to business ethics are most often the chosen textbooks for students.

“Even though many prominent authors are Catholic and teach at Catholic universities, they rarely use Catholic social teaching,” Kennedy explained. “They are not visibly influenced by Catholic thought, and natural law and virtue traditions play no role in it.”

The Catholic social teaching on this subject is extensive. In the modern era, it all began with Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum: On the Condition of Workers promulgated in 1891. This has become the seminal Church document on the rights of workers and the duties and responsibilities of employers. Every pope in this century, and countless groups of bishops, have built upon the foundation of Rerum Novarum to call employers and employees alike to base their “actions and omissions…on faith in God and on his law, which commands what is good and forbids evil.” (From John Paul II's On Social Concern, 1987.)

Every year, universities graduate hundreds of students from their schools of business, and send them into the working world. Most of the business ethics training these students receive probably is based on the very popular work of Harvard ethics professor John Rawls, who expanded on the ideas of several philosophers who came before him. Briefly stated, Rawls does encourage certain principles of justice in the workplace, which include consideration for the less fortunate. But Kennedy contends that this does not give students a broad Christian framework to help them make the myriad of business decisions they will face each day.

“Even graduates from Catholic universities have no resources on a mature level to approach these issues from a Catholic perspective,” Kennedy said.

So, Catholics in the working world who want their faith to have a greater impact on their business practices must pursue this knowledge on their own. Depending on where they live, some can join business and professional associations for Catholics which are scattered across the country, like Legatus, a Catholic organization for company presidents and CEOs, and the Antoninus Institute, which promotes Catholic business education. Also, Opus Dei organizations in many major American cities sponsor workshops for people in business outlining Catholic social teaching.

“My experience is that Catholic executives are scared to death to show their faith in the workplace,” said Jean-Francois Orsini, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Antoninus Institute.

In response to that experience, Orsini, a Third Order Dominican, wrote a management textbook from a totally Catholic perspective. In spite of his impressive business credentials and experience—he holds an MBA and PhD from the Wharton School of Business, and has more than ten years as a management consultant—he is still searching for a publisher. He describes the book as “technical, not inspirational, for people who are involved in management.”

“I thought if I just make the connection between philosophical training and technical business training [in the book], it would be a good thing,” Orsini explained. “But it has been an uphill battle.”

Orsini pointed to the popularity of Steven Covey's book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People as a step in the right direction.

“His [Covey's] contribution was to show you don't train people in anything until you train the whole person,” Orsini stated.

Although educational support may be lacking for incorporating Catholic faith with business practices, statistics point to a marked increase in the number of people who refuse to compromise their religious beliefs at work. A recent report in USA Today stated that the number of religious discrimination cases brought before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by people of all denominations has grown by 43% over the last six years.

Many of those cases involved workers who have been penalized—or even fired—for doing such things as refusing to work on a religious holiday or having a Bible or other religious symbol prominently displayed in their work space. First Amendment protections of freedom of religion are sometimes tricky to apply in one's place of employment. The Workplace Religious Freedom Act has been proposed in Congress, and if it is passed next year, it would spell out more clearly an employee's rights to religious expression on the job.

Another obstacle faced by some Catholics seeking greater integration of their spiritual and professional lives has been a lack of support from their own parish priests. Some Catholic theologians have interpreted the Catholic social teaching in this area as being hostile to business because it so clearly champions the rights of workers. That attitude has trickled down to the parish level in many dioceses across the country.

“There is an attitude that there is something morally tainted about making money,” said Dr. Gregory Gronbacher, director of Academic Research at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “We are very quick to point out the moral concerns—greed, consumerism, working conditions, etc.—but we also point out the positive things the market economy has made us able to do, such as offer humanitarian assistance, support families, and on and on.”

The Acton Institute's primary work is to reach out to members of the clergy in Christian Churches to inform them about the positive aspects of business activity, so that they can preach to and counsel the members of their congregations who spend every day in the business world, and often seek their guidance.

The Acton Institute, which Gronbacher described as “half-Catholic, half-Evangelical” offers conferences, lectures, and a host of published materials to the ordained and those about-to be-ordained. Their message to these clergy members of all Christian denominations is based in large part on Catholic social thought.

“We are incarnate beings who live in the material world,” Gronbacher said. “Business is a vocation.”

Molly Mulqueen is based in Colorado Springs, Colo.