There is a simple truth about business: individuals, not “the organization” or “the law,” make the moral decisions behind each and every action a business takes. In a piece just released by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, this vital point is highlighted: the unequivocal responsibility of the individual within the business context is at the center of every major business crisis and success we’ve experienced from the Wall Street mortgage meltdowns and the lingering echoes of Enron to inspiring entrepreneurs starting companies that cure cancer and bring essential services to poor families.
From this new reflection on the vocation of the business leader we learn that it is our individual aim that matters, not only the “system,” the environment, the perceived cultural or institutional constraints on our actions. No sum of laws and regulations prevent malignant intentions from achieving their goal. Personal responsibility, then, must be a part of any solution to corruption, power-mongering, and cheating in any aspect of human action, business included.
Wise business leaders, the document points out, create both profit and well being; “just wages for employees, just prices for customers and suppliers, just taxes for the community, and just returns for owners.”
It is true that sometimes we encounter an obsessive focus on financial profit to the exclusion of any other aspect in business; but this is a symptom, not a cause. The cause is the practice of separating our business from our faith and moral life. “Dividing the demands of one’s faith from one’s work in business is a fundamental error which contributes much to the damage done by business 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.”
Most business professionals know this and are searching for answers and ways out of that division of their lives. Thus the business community represents a fertile field for the practice of the Gospels and this is, I think, the aim of the Justice and Peace document.
It is, alas, common in our age to separate faith from business and promote a dualism between secular and holy.
The Church represents a counterpoint to that worldview: At the root of Christianity stands the fact that our path to spiritual fulfillment passes through our physical life and actions. Jewish and Christian faith is not only spiritual but also physical. Judaism emphasizes this by focusing on an actual city in this world: Jerusalem and a single historical people, the Jewish people. Christianity emphasizes the incarnate nature of the divine. On the last day, we will be raised in both body and spirit.
The document is a loud and clear call to a strong inner life for business leaders. It is also a call to develop among them a “spirituality of work.” It is even more important to provide a religious “formation” for business leaders and for students in our universities. We have long done the latter. We have barely begun the former.
Justice and Peace picks up Michael Novak’s call for the inculturation of our faith in the inventive, free market economy.
This document is the first draft of a remarkable vision: “The vocation of the businessperson is a genuine human and Christian calling. Its importance in the life of the Church and in the world economy can hardly be overstated.” The business vocation is “God's calling to be collaborators in creation.” Businesses and the free market "make an irreplaceable contribution to the material and even the spiritual well-being of humankind.” “Where businesses succeed, people's lives can be significantly improved; but where they fail, great harm can result.”
There are internal and external obstacles to living out this vocation well: Externally, the document points out, many are impeded by an absence of the rule of law, corruption, destructive competition, excessive state intervention or, in other places a culture hostile to entrepreneurship.
Internally to the firm, there are other obstacles: regarding the workforce as a mere “resource,” and the company as mere impersonal, irresponsible organization. Other obstacles are the rejection of the proper role of government regulation, allowing inferior products and services to go forward, and the heedless waste of natural and human resources.
Does business help you become holy? For everybody, holiness is found in doing ordinary daily tasks with an awareness of their importance to our God, and with Gratitude to him. If we try to perform everyday things in a way that will please and honor him, we follow his law and fulfill his even higher expectations.
Andreas Widmer is President of the Carpenter’s Fund and the author of The Pope & The CEO: John Paul's Leadership Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard. You can find him online at www.thepopeandtheceo.com and on Twitter @andreaswidmer.
Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Vocation of the Business Leader
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