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catechism for bussinessThere are many books on my shelves that haunt me with a sense of guilt every time they catch my eye. They are my sins of omission, those worthy tomes that deserve my attention and which I should have read but which I have thus far neglected. “Read it?” I respond when one of these books comes up in conversation. “Read it? I own it!” The smile with which the quip is delivered hides the clawing and cloying sense of guilt with which my negligence affronts my conscience. One such book is A Catechism for Business: Tough Ethical Questions & Insights from Catholic Teaching, recently published by Catholic University of America Press. This book warranted my attention merely for its subject matter, but I was particularly interested in reading it because one of its two editors is Andrew V. Abela, Dean of the School of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America and a scholar whom I have admired for many years.

Several years ago, Dr. Abela wrote an article entitled “Shire Economics” for the St. Austin Review, the cultural journal which I have the honour of editing, in which he elucidated, with masterful insight, the economic vision with which J.R.R. Tolkien informs The Lord of the Rings. This essay remains, in my humble opinion, one of the finest ever published in the thirteen years since the St. Austin Review was launched. I knew that any “catechism” of business with which Dr. Abela was involved would not only command my respect but should also demand my attention. It was, therefore, added to my many sins of omission as I continued to ignore it.

My conscience was pricked still further when I accepted for publication in the St. Austin Review an excellent review of A Catechism for Business by Joshua Schulz, a philosopher at DeSales University, which mingled its praise for the book with some significant criticisms. His major overarching criticism was that the book presented Catholic Social Teaching from the perspective of applied ethics and not from its true foundation in theological anthropology, a modus operandi which he considered ultimately illicit. In addition, Dr. Schulz believed that the book needed either an appendix or an extended introduction in order to articulate the central principles of Catholic Social Teaching, clarifying not only what the Church teaches but why she teaches it, and he also suggested that the book would benefit from a glossary of terms, including terms such as freedom, the specific meaning of which, when employed by the Church, is at radical variance with the way the word is used by relativists.

Prompted or possibly provoked by Dr. Schulz’s criticisms of a book that I presumed would be excellent, I was finally compelled to pluck it from the shelf and open its pages. The first thing that strikes one is the litany of endorsements published in the opening pages and on the back cover by a veritable illustrissimi of business leaders, too numerous to mention but including several super high-flyers who will be known to most readers. It is clear, therefore, that A Catechism for Business has garnered and gained the support of leading figures in the market at which it is aimed. This is significant. We should note, for instance, that the title of the book is not A Catechism of Business but A Catechism for Business. It is not intended as a study of business from the perspective of Catholic Social Teaching but a practical guide for business, enabling those who work in the world of business to guide their actions and practices in accordance with bona fide Christian moral imperatives. This cannot really be stressed enough; indeed the book’s editors, Mr. Abela and Mr. Capizzi, are at considerable pains to lay such stress on the volume’s purpose, as is indicated by the fact that the word “for” is actually stressed in italics in the book’s title. It is therefore perilous to overlook the importance of the preposition with regard to understanding the purpose of the book. It is not a book of anything but a book for something. It is intended as a practical handbook and guide for use by business leaders and those training to be business leaders and is not meant, at least not primarily, to be a textbook for those studying philosophy or theology. Those wishing to study the Church’s teaching at a deeper level of engagement philosophically and theologically would do better to grapple with the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church or indeed to engage directly with the papal encyclicals and Church documents from which A Catechism for Business quotes selectively and only in snippet-sized pieces.

Having said the foregoing in defense of the book, it must be conceded that the selection of passages from the Church’s documents can sometimes raise eyebrows or even ire. Take, for example, the passages selected to answer the question, “does capitalism fit with Catholic teaching?” Only two quotes from the Church’s teaching are given, both from St. John Paul II’s encyclical, Centesimus annus. Although both quotations are excellent (of course!), they lack, when quoted in isolation and out of context, the distinguos and nuances that St. John Paul employs elsewhere in the same encyclical. It is also odd that Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo anno is quoted to answer the preceding question, “does socialism fit with Catholic teaching?,” but is not quoted to answer the question about capitalism, especially as this particular encyclical discusses capitalism, for the most part negatively, at considerable length.

For what it is worth, I would have been very happy if “capitalism,” as a word, had not been mentioned at all. I wrote a whole book on politics and economics, Small is Still Beautiful: Economics as if Families Mattered (ISI Books), in which I studiously avoided using the c-word. It seems to me that the c-word is so emotionally charged, signifying all that is good for some people and all that is bad for others, that it serves as a barrier to objective discourse on matters appertaining to economics or politics. If we wish to discuss these matters in a manner which makes sense to people beyond our own ideological boxes we need to select a neutral vocabulary that communicates meaning without provoking emotional reaction. This is, however, a discussion for another time.

The fact is that this book is aimed at people, many of whom would self-identify as “capitalists” (whatever that might mean to them according to their own personal definition of it), who will seek answers to what the Church thinks of the c-word. In consequence, the editors of this Catechism could hardly avoid using the awkward word and asking the awkward question. They cannot, therefore, be faulted for doing so. More to the point, the answer they give, in the words of St. John Paul II, is a good answer, even if one might have hoped for more from other popes who have addressed the same question with at least equal eloquence and learning.

Although I sympathize and even largely agree with Joshua Schulz’s reservations about A Catechism for Business, I find myself agreeing more fulsomely with his praise for it as having a “limited, real, and valuable use as a reference tool.” It is as a tool of catechesis that it is to be valued. It is for this reason that I find myself concurring with one of the few endorsements of the book which is not by a high-flyer in business but by a mere journalist. “Businessmen and theologians are like distant cousins,” writes John L. Allen Jr., associate editor of the Boston Globe, in his blurb on the book’s back cover, “and often they’re just not on speaking terms. If anything can bring them into conversation, it’s this superb catechism, which achieves the minor miracle of being both erudite and readable.”

Thanks be to God for the “minor miracle.” Let the conversation begin!

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2 replies to this post
  1. I’ll have to read this! I have read “Following Christ in a Consumer Society”, which has become a standard textbook for business ethics classes in many Catholic colleges, including my own alma mater. Often times books such as this leave me frustrated, because I see an emphasis of business (i’ll stay away from the term capitalism as well) being the primary cause of greed and economic inequality. It is as if everyone concedes this as a basic truism. I would love to see an ethical examination about what governments are permitted to do with tax revenue, how they can negotiate sovereign debt and how they can prevent corruption and greed. Certainly the price controls in Venezuela that have lead to empty markets and breadlines are an ethical issue–as is the wanton mismanagement of public finance that lead to the Greek Crisis. It seems that all politicians need to do to remain above ethical examination is to say their actions are for the common good and to protect that unidentifiable archetype: the consumer. Consumers who may be saddled with massive student loan debts from federally backed banks, who never thought these programs would lend to them as such a high interest! And to fix the problems, politicians can just shrug and say “well we can tax more”.

  2. THere is no doubt that the C-word is highly charged, part of that is because it is an ambiguous label. Like Socialism, Capitalism is not a monolith. And with that in mind, it is difficult for me to imagine how anyone could answer the question of whether either one was consistent with Catholic social teaching since we need to further identify what we are working with.

    To show that Capitalism is not a monolith, one only needs to compare Capitalism under the Bretton-Woods system with today’s neoliberal Capitalism. While the former recognized government controls and national sovereignty over the economy, the latter recognizes far fewer controls and the free flow of capital. The free-flow of capital allows foreign investors to be able to exert so much influence on any gov’t’s economic policies that the voice of the people within a nation can become insignificant to their elected officials.

    We should also note that Martin Luther King Jr.’s criticisms of Capitalism came during the Bretton Woods system where businesses were far more accountable to the people through their respective governments than during today’s neoliberal system. And even then, King complained that Capitalism’s fault is that it forgets that life is ‘social’–that is there is a necessary collectivism that goes against the grain of yesterday’s capitalism under the Bretton-Woods system and even more so with today’s neoliberal capitalism. King also could not separate the problems of racism and economic injustice. Such would imply that we need to change today’s form of capitalism in order to address our problems with racism according to King.

    In terms of Joshua Schulz’s work, we need to distinguish between the different ways by which we understand Capitalism. For we can learn capitalism as one who would learn how to operate a machine. That is we can learn when to push the right buttons so that the machine operates smoothly. We could also understand Capitalism from a outside overview viewpoint and thus understand whether and how Capitalism either contributes to and/or hurts all of its stakeholders.

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