October 2003

Rethinking the Purpose of Business: Interdisciplinary Essays from the Catholic Social Tradition.  Edited by S.A. Cortright and Michael J. Naughton. University of Notre Dame Press. 360 pages. $35.

“Do not be conformed to this world,” wrote St. Paul (Rom. 12:2). The age-old task of the Church is to fulfill this command in the lives of her members. Today, whether it be contraception, divorce courts, immodest dress, or lack of discernment in books, TV, movies, and music, most Catholics seem to exhibit little difference in their behavior from the lives of those who do not have the benefit of the Church of Christ as their guide.

Unfortunately, there is another aspect of Catholic thought which even many otherwise orthodox Catholics make little or no effort to live up to. This is the area of business and economics. Some even resent attempts by the Church to teach in this area, and seek to restrict Christian economic morality within the narrow boundaries of personal rectitude. But the entire tradition of the Church shows that Catholic morality extends its concerns with justice and charity well beyond what many American Catholics are comfortable with. Whether it is St. John Chrysostom’s vehement denunciations of the rich or St. Thomas Aquinas’s statement that interest on loans is unjust without some justifying title or Pius XI’s bald statement that free competition cannot be the guiding principle of the economy, the Catholic tradition has not been shy about involving itself in the business affairs of the world. And rightly so, if one looks at St. Paul’s equally damning statements in his epistles about the dangers of the appetite for riches. Our Fathers in Faith thought the same, and thus for centuries Catholics were distinguished by their aversion to sins against purity and sins against justice. But today, while orthodox Catholics rightly shun the former, they seem less concerned about the latter. Indeed, it often seems as if conformity to the world had somehow become acceptable in the area of business. But since the traditional teaching of the Church is still, and always will be, valid, any efforts to make the Church’s teaching on economic matters better known are to be praised.

Rethinking the Purpose of Business is one of a series on Catholic social thought being published by the University of Notre Dame Press. This volume begins with the proposition that the modern business corporation, to be ethically responsible, needs to go beyond both marketplace competition and governmental regulation. In order to conform to this ethical imperative, the book suggests a “move from shareholder thinking to stakeholder thinking.” Thus the first section of this volume is a critique of the shareholder theory of the firm, while the second part is an explication of the stakeholder theory. The shareholder theory, as put by Milton Friedman, is this: “there is one and only one social responsibility of business — to use its resources and engage in activity designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition, without deception or fraud…. The very foundation of our free society [is] to make as much money for…stockholders as possible.” Such a theory would have shocked the Catholic conscience in previous ages, as much as open advocacy of adultery or divorce. The stakeholder model, on the other hand, “takes into account the interests of those groups who can have some effect on the firm or may be affected by the firm’s actions,” for example, workers, communities in which corporations have facilities, suppliers, customers, and so forth. This volume contains essays commenting from various viewpoints on these two competing visions of the corporation.

This is a worthwhile book and its contents ought to cause a more intense discussion of Catholic social doctrine among Catholics and others.

- Thomas Storck



Back to the Drawing Board: The Future of the Pro-Life Movement.  Edited by Teresa Wagner. St. Augustine’s Press. 328 pages. $20.

This is a substantial collection of short essays, all but one published for the first time. The table of contents reads like a who’s who of the American prolife movement — James Dobson, Bernard Nathanson, Phyllis Schlafly, Richard John Neuhaus, Paul Weyrich, Chris Smith, Jack Willke, Nat Hentoff — plus 28 others, including an Orthodox rabbi and an Islamic doctor from England. Despite varied topics including law, politics, medical science, religion, culture, and the future, the essays are on the same theme: “The Pro-life movement has not stopped abortion. Why not, and what should we do about it?” The authors, some of whom have been in the battle for upwards of 30 years, are honest about what’s been done well and what hasn’t.

There is no overarching argument to the book, and one writer may contradict the next. One obvious split is between the incrementalists (“if we could only get partial birth abortion outlawed”) and the absolutists (“murder is murder”). Though written in a popular style, the essays are more scholarly than pragmatic. This is not a how-to manual.

The best essay, by screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi, recognizes that the fundamental problem is cultural. Prolifers are losing, she says, not because they need better arguments, but because, no matter how good their arguments, prochoicers can’t hear them. She likens prolifers to Hindus pointing at your cheeseburger and yelling, “Murderer!” You may have some idea why a Hindu might think that, but it’s not going to keep you from lunch. “They already know we think it’s a baby.”

If we want to speak so people can hear, Nicolosi argues, we should look at what they are thinking and saying. Accordingly, she spends time on unflattering portraits of prolifers in films and sitcoms such as If These Walls Could Talk, Friends, and Will and Grace. American culture says that attractive, decent, noble, and kind people are prochoice; addled or stupid religious bigots who shoot doctors are prolife. Nicolosi argues that the real work prolifers need to do is creative — movies, shows, stories, music. After all, another argument on Why Life Begins At Conception can’t compete with violins playing and Cher weeping as she helps that nice Anne Heche get her life on track through the miracle of legalized abortion. Until people live in a world in which prolife means strong and good, we can’t win.

About two-thirds of the book is about law and politics. Though there is much to admire in the individual pieces, this area of the book’s focus is disappointing. Who but a lawyer could think America has abortion because of Roe v. Wade? The opposite is true. We got Roe v. Wade because America wanted abortion. It’s really time to stop complaining about the Supreme Court. They made abortion legal in the same way Bill Gates made Windows. Which is to say, sort of. But there were helpers aplenty. The Court didn’t appoint itself. It was appointed by Americans who had been democratically elected by other Americans. The cases were filed by Americans who were trained by Americans in American law schools. American doctors hired American workers to staff clinics that provide abortions. American newspapers, and think tanks in D.C., were and are stuffed with Americans promoting abortion, to say nothing of universities, law schools, and Hollywood. It is true that part of America’s abortion story includes arrogant, fearful, and pompous Supreme Court justices, rapacious feminists, and the betrayal of certain legal principles. But the evidence is far and away that, had there been no Roe v. Wade, America would still have found a way to legalize abortion nationwide.

Strangely lacking is an essay on abortion economics. In a society in which so many believe in “economic man,” or that the key to understanding events is to “follow the money,” there is little discussion of money. How much do those clinics make? How many tax, union, foundation, and church dollars go to Planned Parenthood? Are abortionists compassionate caregivers or knee-deep in dough? Fr. Neuhaus rightly points out that no one is making money by being prolife.

There are a few self-congratulatory or self-promoting passages, a few that revel in hatred of the prochoice side, and a few that remind you that a noble cause will not make you a good writer. But those are cavils. This collection creates a forum to talk about why and how we came to this pass, and what we have to do to get out of it.

- J. Mulrooney





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