Witness of Actions: Taking Aspiration into Practice

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“Today more than ever,” Blessed John Paul II wrote, “the Church is aware that her social message will gain credibility more immediately from the witness of actions than as a result of its internal logic and consistency”.1 These witnesses of action, the great majority of whom are among the lay faithful, are not “solely passive beneficiaries but are the protagonists of the Church’s social doctrine at the vital moment of its implementation. They are also valuable collaborators of the pastors in its formulation, thanks to the experience they have acquired in the field and to their own specific skills”.2

Christian business leaders are men and women of action who have demonstrated an authentic entrepreneurial spirit, one that recognises the God-given responsibility to accept generously and faithfully the vocation of business. These leaders are motivated by much more than financial success, enlightened self-interest, or an abstract social contract as often prescribed by economic literature and management textbooks. Faith enables Christian business leaders to see a much larger world, a world in which God is at work, and where their individual interests and desires are not the sole driving force.

Business leaders are supported and guided by the Church as well as by Christian business organisations to live out the Gospel in the world.3 Without these practitioners and the organisations that support them, the Catholic social tradition would become merely inanimate words rather than a lived reality. As St. James tells us, faith without works is dead (Jas 2:17).

Unfortunately, there are people of faith within the world of business whose actions have failed to witness to and be inspired by their faith and moral convictions. We have witnessed many scandals involving leaders who have misused their positions of authority and leadership. They have succumbed to sins of pride, greed, lust, and other deadly vices. It is not only these major cases which are so painful to witness; what is also tragic is that there are Christians who, while not committing illegal or scandalous activities, have accommodated themselves to the world, living as if God does not exist. They not only live in the world, but they have become of the world. When Christian business leaders fail to live the Gospel in their organisations, their lives “conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion”.4

Faith has social implications; it is not merely a private reality. The Church’s social doctrine is “an essential part of the Christian message, since this doctrine points out the direct consequences of that message in the life of society and situates daily work and struggles for justice in the context of bearing witness to Christ the saviour”.5 The social principles of the Church call upon business leaders to act, and because of the current challenging environment, how they act is more important than ever.

Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate provides a vision for action. He explains that charity—“love received and given”—is at the heart of the social teachings of the Church.6 Charity “is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity”.7 So when we speak of business leaders acting, this implies both “receiving” and “giving”.

Receiving: The first act of the Christian business leader, as of all Christians, is to receive; more specifically, to receive what God has done for him or her. This act of receptivity can be especially difficult, particularly for business leaders. As a group, business leaders tend to be more active than receptive, especially now in a globalised economy, and under the effects of sophisticated communications technologies and the financialisation of business. Yet without receptivity in their lives, business leaders can be tempted by a quasi-Nietzschean “superman” complex. The temptation for some is to regard themselves as determining and creating their own principles, not as receiving them.8 Business leaders may only see themselves as creative, innovative, active and constructive, but if they neglect the dimension of receiving, they distort their place within the world and overestimate their own achievements and work.

Pope Benedict XVI, prior to his papacy, wrote that the person “comes in the profoundest sense to himself not through what he does but through what he accepts”,9 not through what he achieves but through what he receives. Indeed, human accomplishment taken alone leads only to partial fulfilment; one must also know the power and grace of receptivity. This refusal to receive is found in our origins, in the story of the fall of Adam and Eve, when God commanded them not to eat “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:17). The moral law is given by God, and we can only receive it.10 The social principles of the Church explained above are the Church’s reflection on this moral law for business. When business leaders receive their vocation, they are also open to receiving principles that foster the integral development of those affected by the business.

When the gifts of the spiritual life are embraced and integrated into the active life, they provide the grace needed to overcome the divided life and to humanise us, especially in our work. The first act to which the Church calls the Christian business leader is to receive the sacraments, to accept the Scriptures, to honour the Sabbath, to pray, to participate in silence and in other disciplines of the spiritual life. These are not optional actions for a Christian, not mere private acts separated and disconnected from business.

The Sabbath, for example, is not simply a break from work. Perhaps paradoxically, it is only in our detachment from work that we see its deepest meaning. Pope Benedict XVI explains this connection by stating that “the biblical teaching on work finds its coronation in the commandment to rest”.11 To rest in God places our work in a new context—the context of the continuous unfolding of God’s abundant gift of creation. Sacramental worship is not an escape from the world of business—it gives us the space to see more deeply into the reality of the world and to contemplate God’s work. God’s revelation, which can only be received and not achieved, discloses that His Spirit pervades materiality, that grace perfects nature, and that worship makes work holy. This is why the Eucharist is the most profound expression of the Sabbath. It is where we see most deeply and most profoundly “the work of human hands” in cooperation with the salvific work of God: in human work, elevated by divine work, the bread and the wine are transformed into the Real Presence, a presence that has the power to redeem the world.12

The divine dimension in our daily lives can be hidden and repressed, especially in a globalised, highly technological and financially driven economy, and in situations in which the Church fails to preach and live its social message. This is why Blessed John Paul II asks business leaders and employees to develop a spirituality of work, enabling them to see their role in God’s creative and redemptive purpose and giving them the strength and virtue to live out His call.13 Without a deep well of prayer and reflection, it is hard to see, for example, how business leaders can resist the negative dimensions of information technology that drive speed and efficiency at the expense of thoughtful reflection, patience, justice and practical wisdom. Information technologies encourage us towards instantaneous decisions; thus they can create their own logic that undermines the application of the social principles of the Church, unless they are used in an ordered way by contemplative practitioners.

Giving: The second act to which the Church calls the business leader is giving in a way that responds to what has been received. This giving is never merely the legal minimum; it must be an authentic entry into communion with others to make the world a better place. The self-gift of the person inquires not “how far it must go, but how far it may go”.14 Giving moves business leaders to profound questions about their vocation: How does receptivity to God’s love animate the relationships of the various stakeholders of a business? What kind of business policies and practices will foster the integral development of people?

We have observed business leaders who give of themselves through the goods and services they create and provide, as they organise good and productive work, and as they create sustainable wealth and distribute it justly. The social principles of the Church help orient the institution of business toward a set of behaviours that foster the integral development of people. This entails addressing the demands of the organisation with practices and policies that promote personal responsibility, innovation, fair pricing, just compensation, humane job design, responsible environmental practices, and socially responsible (or ethical) investment. It also requires a prudent application of social principles to hiring, firing, ownership, board governance, employee training, leadership formation, supplier relations and a host of other issues.

In addition to these internal opportunities, business leaders (alongside governments and non-governmental organisations) influence larger issues such as international regulations, anti-corruption practices, transparency, taxation policies, and environmental and labour standards. They should use this influence, individually and collectively, to promote human dignity and the common good and not merely the particular interest of any one stakeholder.

It is not the place of the Church to prescribe in detail the actions of business leaders. Prescription is the work of practitioners and is largely carried out by lay people. The Church’s magisterium does not have technical solutions to offer or models to present; yet, the Church teaches that “there can be no genuine solution of the ‘social question’ apart from the Gospel”.15 The Pope and the bishops, the official teachers within the Church, preach its social doctrine to business leaders not to impose a burden upon them, but to reveal to them the spiritual importance of their actions and the social significance of business as an institution. As Pope Benedict XVI says in Caritas in Veritate: “Man’s earthly activity, when inspired and sustained by charity, contributes to the building of the universal city of God, which is the goal of the history of the human family”.16 When the Gospel informs the “new things” that the business leader faces in our increasingly global, technological, and financialbased economy, it sees them not simply in their technical or market dimensions, but in their influence on the integral development of the person.

This is why an important part of the vocation of Christian business leaders is the practice of virtues, especially the virtues of wisdom and justice. Wise business leaders act virtuously in their practical affairs, cultivating wisdom in concrete practices and policies, not just in abstract mission statements. This is what makes it practical wisdom: institutionalising effective and just practices that foster right relationships with stakeholders, and putting the social principles of the Church into practice in creative ways that humanise the organisation.

When business leaders face particular problems that need specific solutions, their actions are informed by “a prudential evaluation of each situation”.17 This prudential judgment is not only a market-based or technical assessment. Prudence has often been reduced to the clever actions of leaders that advance their own private interests. This is not the virtue of prudence but a vice separated from the requirements of justice. True prudence informs the mind of the business leader by asking the right questions and discerning the best courses of action for building good and just companies that can contribute to the common good.

Developing a prudential mind entails recognising the available resources of the organisation and understanding its unique circumstances. Practical wisdom requires that the ought of ethical social principles be translated into the realistic and possible of a concrete situation (given available means and resources). Practically wise teaching regarding a living wage, for example, always implies a wage that is sustainable for an enterprise. If, however, a living wage is not immediately sustainable for a business, virtuous businesspeople do not stop there and simply defer to market forces. They rethink how they are doing business and how they can change their situation creatively so as to be in right relationships with their employees. This could mean changes at the level of work organisation or job design; it could mean moving into different product markets, or rethinking pay differentials. If it is really not possible for a company to reach a just wage after having made such efforts, it then becomes the role of indirect employers such as the state, unions and other actors to supplement the company’s efforts.18

As important as indirect employers are within the economy, they must never absorb the responsibility of the direct employer. Companies must not delegate their responsibility completely, for example, to the law or to a contract. As a direct employer, the virtues of practical wisdom and justice help the business leader to see the increasing importance of businesses’ social responsibility in a globalised economy. At this time in our history, as Pope Benedict XVI explains, there is “a growing conviction that business management cannot concern itself only with the interests of the proprietors, but must also assume responsibility for all the other stakeholders who contribute to the life of the business: the workers, the clients, the suppliers of various elements of production, the community of reference”.19 This growing conviction has produced a significant amount of theory and practice in business ethics and corporate social responsibility. In many countries we see that subsidiary processes of “self-regulation” are taking place in the context of business associations and branch federations on a regional, national, or international level. Many regulations for protecting customers, employees or the environment are effectively grounded in the business sector itself, even if they may need to be reinforced by government regulation. The practical wisdom of entrepreneurs already plays an important role here, not least to show that the Catholic social tradition has much to learn from these fields of thought and action—and much to offer them.

When business ethics and corporate social responsibility are invoked to do what is contradictory to the Church’s social doctrine, they have disconnected us from a proper recognition that we are made “in the image of God” (Gen 1:27), and they lead us to fail to appreciate “the inviolable dignity of the human person and the transcendent value of natural moral norms. When business ethics prescinds from these two pillars, it inevitably risks losing its distinctive nature and it falls prey to forms of exploitation”.20 When not grounded in the deep soil of human culture, the otherwise helpful role for business ethics and corporate social responsibility will instead be prone to being instrumentalised, and thus will ultimately fail to promote integral human development within business.

Giving and receiving express the complementarity of the active and contemplative life. These two fundamental dimensions of our lives call not principally for balancing, but for a profound integration born of the realization that we need God and that God has done great things for us. In return God asks us to be His hands and feet, to continue His creation and make it better for others. For the business leader, this entails creating goods that are truly good and services that truly serve; organising work where employees develop their gifts and talents; and creating sustainable wealth so that it can be distributed justly. (See the Appendix for “An Examination of Conscience for the Business Leader”, which reflects on these three objectives in day-to-day life.)