How to reconcile ethical principles with the exigencies of running a business has long been a cause for debate. A new book looks at this from the perspective of the social teaching of the Catholic Church.
Edited by Andrew V. Abela and Joseph E. Capizzi, the book, “A Catechism for Business: Tough Ethical Questions and Insights from Catholic Teaching,” (Catholic University of America Press), proposes 114 questions regarding business ethics.
The editors explained in the introduction that they have not set out to provide a definitive answer to each question, given that ethical matters are often very complex. What they have done is to propose a series of quotes from various Church documents on each of the questions to enable readers to reflect on the issues raised.
They commented that sometimes the quotations appear to be in tension with one another. “Apparent tensions and even contradictions are a challenge to our understanding, and a call to engage more deeply and fully in the teachings of the Church,” they said.
They also pointed out that the documents developed over more than a century and were written to respond to a variety of social and economic issues prevalent at the time, even though the underlying principles remain the same.
The editors also insisted on the need to pray and meditate on the documents and to seek further information. There is a need, they explained, to internalize the teaching and to avoid the mistake of thinking that being Catholics in the business world involves simply the mechanical application of some key points.
Point of departure
“The selection of teachings contained here are points of departure, not destinations,” Abela and Capizzi insisted.
In a section on the teaching authority of the social doctrine of the Church the editors commented that it is not some kind of imposition on business life. All Catholic moral teaching is social, they noted, and is meant to help us to be better followers of Christ.
The Church, they continued, does not affirm some special authority regarding how a business should be managed. Above all the Church’s teaching is meant to promote the human person and the wider community.
“Put simply, employers and employees alike will do better when they treat each other as persons, created in the image and likeness of God,” they added.
The questions themselves cover a broad range of topics. On the subject of the right to private property both the right to such property is made evident, but at the same time a quote from the Catechism of the Church points out that the goods of the earth are destined for the use of all.
Then, the question arises as to how we are to use our private property. The logic of property and that of the equal distribution of goods do not contradict each other if their relationship is well ordered, explained a quote from Benedict XVI.
On matters related to the organization of business the texts quoted in the book point out various elements, such as the role of work in serving the common good, the vocation of business leaders in a role of stewardship, and the building up of the Kingdom of God.
It isn’t consistent to profess our beliefs in Church on Sunday and then during the week to engage in business practices contrary to those beliefs, one of the texts noted.
“This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age,” the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes said.
Dignity of the human person
One question examined what are we to do in terms of applying Catholic principles in a workplace shared with non-Catholics. The Church’s social doctrine is based above all on the nature and dignity of the human person, one of the texts commented.
Therefore, it is not a question of imposing on non-believers a vision based on faith, one of the texts authored by Pope St John Paul II, explained, saying, “but of interpreting and defending the values rooted in the very nature of the human person.”
Apart from these more general questions the book raises a number of very pertinent issues.
What happens when law or company policy obliges people to do something evil? The end doesn’t justify the means, the quotes pointed out.
At the same time the choices people have to make can be very difficult and even require sacrifices in terms of a career.
The payment of taxes, what is a just wage, what limits exist in terms of the products a business can provide, the ethics of advertising, and the provision of healthcare benefits to cohabiting companions or same-sex partners are just a few of the many other issues addressed.
As the editors explained their anthology of texts is a point of departure, but a very valuable one which provides a great deal of material for reflection.