Volume > Issue > Business Ethics According to Pope John Paul II

Business Ethics According to Pope John Paul II


By Jim Wishloff | September 2009
Jim Wishloff, an assistant professor and award-winning teacher at the University of Lethbridge in Edmonton, Alberta, has published in the Journal of Business Ethics, the Journal of Business Ethics Education, Teaching Business Ethics, and the Review of Business. He is a member of the Board of Governors of Newman Theological College, also in Edmonton.

Christian discipleship is a radical undertaking. It is not just a matter of being a trustee or manager of God’s resources by making good moral choices. The rich young man had done this and it wasn’t enough (Mt. 19:18-20). Jesus wants His followers to do more by risking more. He wants His disciples to seek intimacy and restore relationships with one another and the whole of creation. The basic Christian endeavor is to recreate community by establishing relationships that are life-giving, transformative, and healing — risking all and trusting God in doing it. Life is lived in thanksgiving without fear because of God’s providence. No matter what one’s profession, whether lawyer, teacher, physician, or so on, the Christian calling is, teaches the late Pope John Paul II, a “vocation to divine love” (Veritatis Splendor, #112). This is no less so for the businessman. Our Lord’s twofold commandment to love (Mt. 22:26-40) is to be fulfilled in enterprise as well. We are to will the good of others in our organizational life just as we do in our personal life. All our actions in enterprise must be “in conformity with the dignity and integral vocation of the human person” (Veritatis Splendor, #67).

To derive the answer to this question it is necessary to recapitulate the understanding of how deeply our social nature is situated in our being. Human life is always life-in-community. A full human life requires material necessities and moral, social, intellectual, and spiritual progress that cannot be achieved in isolation. Social life is necessary for our perfection. Thus, associations of greater to lesser intimacy are demanded metaphysically.

The first form of communion between persons, instituted by God by design, is the partnership of man and woman. God is the Author of marriage, which is the indissoluble union of a man and a woman ordered to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children. The human family is the central element of the divine plan from the time of creation. It is the original cell of social life, existing prior to and above all other levels of social organization, and is deserving of recognition as such. The family constitutes nothing less than the foundation of society.

Beyond the family is the local or civic community. This encompasses all the associations or groups intermediary between the family and the state. The political community overarches all, ideally providing a stability that allows for harmonious living between citizens of the polis.

The good of the human person as a citizen or a member of a community is the common good of the human society in which he lives, where the common good is understood to be the social order that facilitates every person to attain, as closely as possible, his perfection. The common good is not in opposition to any individual person’s good, for it is precisely in the social order that the individual develops. Virtue is not achieved in isolation, but through participation in the ordered social whole. Far from there being an inherent incompatibility between the individual and the society, they can be seen to be complementary — i.e., they exist for one another. The individual person develops in society or by contributing to society, and society exists for the development of the person. Self-sacrifice for the common good is not the denial of self but is self-fulfillment.

A sophisticated elaboration upon this reality of our being is found throughout the writings of Pope John Paul II. Following in the tradition of the metaphysical poet John Donne, John Paul stressed the importance of the virtue of solidarity, which he defined as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, #39). This expansiveness of our obligation to others can be understood if the profound depth at which human fellowship exists in the Christian worldview is grasped. The human race forms a unity because of its common origin (created by God), its common nature (each person is an embodied spirit), its common dwelling place (life on earth), its common mission (salvation of souls), its supernatural end (God Himself), and the common means for attaining this end (Christ’s redemption was for all people). The ultimate and unshakable basis for human solidarity is the Fatherhood of God made incarnate in the Body of Christ. For Pope John Paul II, no one could sit on the sidelines and say about local or world events, “That’s not my problem.”

If our global interdependence was emphasized, so was the family. Pope John Paul II concludes his extended meditation on the role of the Christian family in the modern world, Familiaris Consortio, with the claim that “the future of humanity passes by way of the family” (#86). Clearly, then, love is to be expressed in our families but also to all families. That is, we have an obligation to create the conditions under which the family can more easily fulfill its mission.

While the family is the primordial community, it is not the only one. All intermediary associations, including the business firm, are also communities of persons. As such, they cannot rest entirely on contractual exchange. Because the relationships are personal, love must form the firm.

Scripture and Catholic social thought have always insisted on a preferential option for the poor. John Paul uses the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus to draw this principle out. Each person has a right to what he needs to live a full human life — i.e., a right “to be seated at the table of the common banquet” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, #33). It is our duty, our obligation in friendship, to ensure that no one is left lying outside the door like Lazarus, where “the dogs come and lick his sores.” Development that leaves countless millions scrambling for the crumbs of the global economy isn’t worthy of the name. We must have an active love for the poor.

Finally, our love is to extend to the natural world. The Pope acknowledges our dominion over the inanimate world and over plants and animals, but deplores our exercising it destructively. He explains that at the root of our irresponsible exploitation of the earth is a refusal to accept the inherent limitations of our creatureliness:

Man who discovers his capacity to transform and in a certain sense create the world through his own work, forgets that this is always based on God’s prior and original gift of the things that are. Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray. Instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him. (Centesimus Annus, #37)

We have an obligation to be good stewards of God-given creation, caring for it, maintaining it in its integrity, and perfecting it by opening it up to God through our own sanctification.

The subject and end of every social institution is man. This is true for economic enterprise as well. Institutions exist to elevate man because of his grandeur. In the Catholic worldview, man is a high and holy mystery, made in God’s own image. As such, he is infinitely more worthy than any material goods that might be produced or the organizational entities created to generate their production. Catholicism’s belief that man is endowed with a spiritual and immortal soul is the safeguard against totalitarianism, including the totalitarian tendencies of expansive commercial enterprise. Long after organizations and nations have died, the soul of each human being will exist.

So, while profitability is a necessary condition of the firm, it is not a sufficient one. The justification for enterprise is the correspondence of its economic activity with God’s plan for man. The practice of management must be an act of love.

Of primary importance is what is being produced or supplied. What the institution of business is uniquely situated to do is to provide the material goods and immaterial services that people need to live full human lives. Enterprises must make a contribution to human flourishing, must serve the properly human telos by what they bring into being. The admonition of Leon Bloy, a French Catholic writer of the early 1900s, that “there is only one tragedy, not to be one of the saints,” needs to be recalled if this is to happen. Pope John Paul II’s respect for the virtues of industriousness and courage in business (Cen­tesimus Annus, #32) must be seen in light of his reminder that each one of us is called to holiness (Letter to Families, #65).

Material goods are meant to be a means to our sanctification. What we have should help us realize our destiny, which is spiritual not material. Though we are in the world, we are not of it, having been created for eternal happiness with God. Economic production ought to serve this end. Spiritual and moral goods should not be sacrificed to material interests. The want-structure encouraged by enterprise should serve good moral formation. Just because something can be made and sold doesn’t necessarily mean it should be. Society doesn’t need an institution that makes it hard for people to be virtuous. In sum, the goods and services provided by commerce should really be goods and services, not bads and disservices, when human well-being in its totality is considered.

The proper objective of marketing is to identify the people who would benefit from these goods and services, and to provide them with the information they need to make prudent decisions. If the truth about a firm’s product cannot be communicated honestly and openly, then it is almost certain that the firm is treading on thin ice ethically. But our promotional efforts need to do even more today. They need to encourage people to simplify their lives both to reduce the environmental impact of consumption and to help people find a place for leisure and a place for prayer.

Goods and services are produced by men using material means. Labor takes precedence over capital in the process because of human dignity. That is, labor can never be looked on as another commodity to be bought and sold at the service of capital expansion. To do so is a basic moral perversion. It is to give dead capital priority over sacred human personhood.

Men ought to be given meaningful work that utilizes and develops their higher faculties. Responsibility for managing the enterprise would then be broadly diffused. Employees would rightly be seen as associates or partners in the venture. Proper attention would be paid to “safeguarding the moral conditions for an authentic human ecology” (Centesimus Annus, #67). This is to say that work practices in place — in regard to things like hours of work required, the physical demands put on the worker, the safety conditions — should be humane. Love can never countenance work environments that are harmful to the physical health and moral integrity of the people working in them.

Men are owed a living wage for their work. It is only in families that the human race perpetuates itself, so families must, at a minimum, have their material needs met. Parental needs ought to be accommodated to the greatest extent possible. Management should work flexibly with each individual and family, fostering personal and professional relationships that make possible a good life for employees and their families, thereby contributing to the building up of the basic social structures of our existence.

Business as an institution is a noble calling. As human beings, we must continually use our rationality to win our way in the natural world we find ourselves dependent upon. We must make provisions for ourselves, and we are called by God to use our talents, to be enterprising, to accomplish this. This provisioning problem can never be “solved” if we lose sight of the truth of our being, of who we are, and of our place in the order of reality. The aim of business cannot be to accumulate more since we were not made for this world. We were made “in love and for love” (Familiaris Consortio, #36). This is what Pope John Paul II was trying to pull us back to: “Only the freedom which submits to the Truth leads the human person to his true good” (Veritatis Splendor, #84).


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