Andrew Abela: Economy Is Not a Moral-Free Zone

Business Ethicist Comments on New Encyclical

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By Genevieve Pollock

WASHINGTON, D.C., JULY 7, 2009 ( Benedict XVI’s new encyclical is not pretending to solve the worldwide financial crisis, but it points the way for building a solid economy through Christian virtue, says a business ethicist.

Andrew Abela is a marketing professor and chair of Catholic University of America’s department of business and economics. He is currently working on a “catechism” for business leaders, applying principles of Catholic social teaching to questions of business ethics.

In this interview with ZENIT, Abela comments on Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate,” which was released to the public today.

ZENIT: Could you give a “businessman’s” summary of this encyclical? What are the main points for business leaders today?

Abela: A main point is that the economy is not a moral-free zone: both honesty and generosity are absolutely required if the market is to work and to serve the common good.  

Another point is that there is room for solidarity and generosity within the market, and that these in fact will make the market more effective by strengthening trust.  

Lastly, the encyclical points out that the most important aspect of development is spiritual development, and that openness to life “is at the center of true development” (No. 28).

ZENIT: Does the Holy Father give any concrete means for digging ourselves out of the economic crisis?

Abela: Yes. It seems to me that the Holy Father is saying that trust is essential for our economy to work, and we have lost this trust because we have viewed the market as a place for narrow exchange only, where there is no need for generosity or fraternity, but only the adherence to contract.

Unfortunately, in many cases even that adherence to contract couldn’t be counted on, and therefore trust was lost.
In order to recover from the economic crisis, in addition to the proper role of government in orienting the market to the common good, the Pope is saying that it would help if we realized that generosity and fraternity are not foreign to market relationships, and in fact they are necessary to build the trust that the market requires if it is to operate well.  

The Pope refers to the Economy of Communion project as an example of this happening. This project is a group of over 700 companies worldwide who are working within the marketplace for higher goals than solely profit. It sprung out of the Focolare movement as a direct response to the previous social encyclical, “Centesimus Annus.”

ZENIT: If Catholic business leaders were to emphasize just one point from the encyclical in their work, which would you suggest?

Abela: It would be that “every economic decision has a moral consequence” (No. 37) — that there is no such thing as a morally neutral act in business. Every activity is either serving or harming society.  

ZENIT: What contributions has the Holy Father made to the field of business ethics in this encyclical?

Abela: The Holy Father warns that the word “ethics” can be abused unless it is based on human dignity and universal moral norms.  

The idea of charity in truth is a major contribution to business ethics, because without truth, “charity degenerates into sentimentality” (No. 3).

ZENIT: Has the Holy Father condemned capitalism?

Abela: No. In fact the word “capitalism” does not appear even once in the encyclical, probably because the word is subject to so many different interpretations.

Instead he speaks of the market economy, which is a more open term and avoids the ambiguity of differing opinions about what capitalism really is. A market economy is based on a free market and is not harmful in itself, but it can be made so as a result of ideology.

The Pope states that it “is not the instrument that must be called to account, but individuals, their moral conscience and their personal and social responsibility” (No. 36).

ZENIT: How can the main tenets of Catholic social teaching be reconciled with the economic structure of capitalism? Can they be?

Abela: Again, Benedict prefers to speak about the market than about capitalism. It is entirely consistent with Catholic social teaching, so long as it is “structured and governed in an ethical manner” (No. 36).

ZENIT: What does the Pope mean when he talks about integral development?

Abela: Integral development means the development of the whole person, particularly the spiritual dimension and the openness to life that should flow from it. Again, he states that “openness to life is at the center of true development” (No. 28).

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On ZENIT’s Web page:

“Caritas in Veritate”:

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