Can business lead to holiness? Vatican handbook promotes virtue in the executive suite



Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — In an effort to help businesses stay strong and healthy, and avoid the occupational hazards of greed, overwork and exploitation, the Vatican’s justice and peace council has released a handbook for business educators and entrepreneurs.

“Vocation of the Business Leader: A Reflection” is a 30-page primer from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace that spells out the risks of unethical economic strategies and the principles needed for running a sound, moral business.

It seeks to heal the so-called “divided life” of Catholic employers, who may practice their Christian values at home and church, but not in the company they manage or run.

“Dividing the demands of one’s faith from one’s work in business is a fundamental error which contributes to much of the damage done by businesses in our world today, including overwork to the detriment of family or spiritual life, an unhealthy attachment to power to the detriment of one’s own good, and the abuse of economic power in order to make even greater economic gains,” the booklet says.

The ethical principles of the church’s social teaching are presented not as hindrances to the smooth functioning of a market economy but as tools for its repair.

“Without guiding principles and virtuous leadership, businesses can be places in which expediency overcomes justice, power corrupts wisdom, technical instruments are detached from human dignity, and self-interest marginalizes the common good,” it says.

The reflection was issued with zero fanfare in Rome: just a simple communique in French noting it was available online through the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

The real unveiling came in Lyon, France, where about 2,000 people gathered for a world congress of Christian business leaders March 30 to April 1.

The council’s president, Cardinal Peter Turkson, presented the guidebook at the congress, saying the church wanted to help business people excel in their field and their faith.

Far from portraying business as a bogeyman, the text acknowledges that “businesses produce many of the important conditions which contribute to the common good of the larger society” and support the well-being of individuals.

But when the common good and human dignity are neglected in an exclusive pursuit of profits and dividends, the authors warn, an otherwise noble vocation has been hijacked.

The handbook offers a renewed vision of what successful businesses are meant to be and do.

The booklet provides “business leaders, and future ones attending business schools, with both principles and tools for discovering the good and deliberately pursuing it,” helping them “grow in the virtue of charity as befits their vocation and their degree of influence” in society, said Cardinal Turkson.

Kishore Jayabalan, director of Acton Institute’s Rome office, and a former official at the justice and peace council, praised the council’s decision not to dictate policy, but to take a more pastoral approach.

“It’s trying to encourage and inspire business people” and prompt them to “think about how to incorporate their faith more into what they do,” Jayabalan told Catholic News Service.

It shows that “it is possible to be a good Christian and a good businessman; they’re saying there’s no fundamental incompatibility,” he said.

The primer was the brainchild of three business educators: Robert Kennedy and Michael Naughton of the University of St. Thomas and Andre Habisch of the Catholic University of Eichstatt-Ingolstadt, Germany.

They were among the 40 Catholic business leaders and professors who attended a February 2011 seminar at the Vatican looking at Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” (“Charity in Truth”) and how its framework for a new business ethic could be applied practically.

Papal pronouncements on social justice principles are not rare. But that rich teaching is scattered over the past 12 decades in myriad encyclicals starting with Pope Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum,” (on capital and labor), which insisted that development must include social progress as well as economic growth.

What was needed, the three professors concluded, was a simple, concise primer that compiled key principles and aimed specifically at helping business schools form ethical leaders and at guiding business practices worldwide — from mom-and-pop store owners to corporate executives.

The initial idea was to craft something short that would avoid the lofty language typical of Vatican documents, and which would be as practical as possible.

While the pastoral reflection is a welcome approach, the booklet lacks concrete examples or anecdotes showing how business people can readily apply the teaching and “live out their vocation in a world full of temptations and difficulties,” Jayabalan said.

A precise question-and-answer format akin to that of the Baltimore Catechism would have been more engaging, he said.

The justice and peace council says it is pointing the way and letting individuals craft the changes needed, one business at a time.

In his talk Cardinal Turkson told Christian business leaders the old paradigm of profit at all costs was over: “You are our hope. You are our hope for a more human economy” that sees it’s more profitable “to foster the development of each man and of the whole man.”

Editor’s note: The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace booklet can be found in English at: