The Center of Concern Turns 45: Q&A with Lester A. Myers

Lester A. Myers, Ph.D., J.D., CPA, CFF, CGMA, is president of the Center of Concern, which, since its founding in 1971 at the office of U.N. Secretary General U Thant by Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe, S.J., and National Conference of Catholic Bishops General Secretary Joseph Bernardin, with seed capital and ongoing support from women religious, has operated in Washington, D.C., to research, educate and advocate from Catholic social tradition to create a world where economic, political and cultural systems promote sustainable flourishing of the global community.

Dr. Myers has a background in accounting, strategy, law, business ethics, Catholic social thought and Ignatian tradition. He has taught these topics in various programs at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University. He also led the Exempt Organizations Tax Practice at KPMG LLP in Washington and served as a director in the firm’s Advisory Practice, focusing on forensic accounting for financial, healthcare, retail, and other sectors. He is a Caux Round Table Fellow, a board member of Global Financial Integrity and Coopération Internationale pour le Développement et la Solidarité (CIDSE), and an advisory board member of the Georgetown University Corporate Counsel Institute.

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He has studied and/or taught at four Jesuit universities over the past 35 years, including Xavier University, from which he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in business, and Georgetown, from which he earned doctorates in philosophy and law. His work includes multiple entries in theEncyclopedia of Business Ethics and Societyand the Encyclopedia of White-collar and Corporate Crime and he speaks and writes frequently on topics of social justice and organizational integrity and responsibility around the world.

On Oct. 20, I interviewed Dr. Myers by e-mail about his work and the Center's 45th anniversary in 2016.

On May 4, Center of Concern will celebrate the 45th anniversary of its co-founding by Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe, S.J., and U.S. bishops’ conference General Secretary Joseph Bernardin. How does the Center work with the Jesuits and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops?

Pedro Arrupe, S.J., and Joseph Bernardin have been my heroes for a long time, both because of my gratitude to and affection for the Jesuits and because Cardinal Bernardin was my archbishop while I was growing up in Cincinnati. I feel a personal connection to both, but I also continue to reflect on the examples of their pastoral, thought, and executive leadership as I think about contemporary issues of global social justice. While making decisions for the Center, I also reflect often on the fact that their hands touched this organization, and I ask myself what they would do and seek ways to honor their memories.

Although the Center, just as Jesuit universities, is under governance of an independent board, and its mission is to advance social justice through research, education, and advocacy, we work hard to nourish Ignatian charisms in our mission, strategy, and programs. We continue to benefit from participation by Jesuit board members, and team members and colleagues who have studied and/or worked with the Jesuits. We also participate in programs with other Jesuit organizations regularly, for example, by hosting alternative spring break and other programs for Jesuit institutions.

I want to mention as well that it was only through the generosity and trust of women religious in providing the necessary seed capital for its launch in 1971, and in their continuing role as “angel investors,” that the Center has been able to make so many contributions. The sisters responded abundantly at the beginning and, over these 45 years, they have figured prominently as board members, team members, and benefactors, continuing to provide about 25 percent of the Center’s funding. In sharing about the living legacy of the Center with the public, I have made a point of highlighting the enormous leadership contributions of religious (and lay) women.

We also have been blessed to have wonderful leadership in our own Archdiocese of Washington with Cardinal Wuerl, and Cardinal McCarrick before him. Both have been strong voices for social justice on integral ecology and other issues, and they have been warmly supportive of our efforts. Under the inspiring leadership of our first Jesuit pope, we have benefited from much vitality in the church, including with colleagues at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and allies and institutions outside the church. The media coverage of Pope Francis, including during his celebration of mass at the basilica right up the street from our building, has provided a positive message for what Catholic social tradition is for and the multiplier effects of this for the Center’s efforts have been wonderful.

As you look at your own tenure so far as president of the Center, what have been some personal highlights?

Personal highlights in my almost three years at the Center have included rediscovering from the inside an organization that I have appreciated for over 30 years, including hearing the early stories from my predecessors, beginning with founding chief executive William F. Ryan, S.J., and his business development collaboration with women religious and the Center’s first chair, World Bank Chief Economist Irving Friedman (who came up with the organization’s unusual name).

I grew up with the Pastoral Circle of experience, analysis, reflection and action that former Center team members Joe Holland and Peter Henriot, S.J., developed. As president, I have worked with our team to reimagine this proprietary methodology using modern multimedia techniques and sharing it with the next generation through videos, educational programs and the Signs of the Times Social Justice Calendar.

Another way we have connected with the next generation is by moving the Center toward a model of social enterprise for social justice. This parallels changes underway with Pope Francis’ leadership and it draws on the best of entrepreneurial culture as we promote it in our Jesuit professional schools to create value while effecting positive social transformation scalably. This approach to principled use of leadership skills generates enthusiasm across generations, but especially among younger leaders. Two examples of this approach at the Center are the strategic revitalization of its award-winning Education for Justice (EFJ) online subscription service under the leadership of Editor Sr. Dianna M. Ortiz, O.S.U., and the development of our Advisory Services Practice.

For these things to be possible, we have recruited a terrific board of chief executives, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs and scholars, some with multiple such profiles. We have recruited talented and committed team members as well, several of whom have served as chief executives elsewhere. They have broad interests and abilities, and, although we have titles and core responsibilities, we collaborate largely without silos.

The work ethic and culture here focus on something greater than themselves and this shows in the high quality of the Center’s work product. I see this as a vivid example of the Magis, and I take inspiration from the fact that this Ignatian charism flourishes in a community of work that reflects religious and cultural diversity.

What have been some particular challenges of your tenure as president?

The first main challenge after I arrived was for the Center to reconnect with its base, to reach out and do a lot of listening about their needs. Part of this crowd sourcing had to do with learning about the scale and scope for various constituencies in terms of age, gender, professional background, geography and relationship with the church or other religious or humanistic traditions.

The second challenge was to revisit the vision, mission and strategy for the organization to see how well they aligned with what we were learning about its diverse stakeholders. Through a collaborative process, we made some revisions to gain clarity about the core services through which people looked to us to deliver value, and which were viable for us. We chose research, education and advocacy as core services that were authentic to the mandate of the Center at its founding, that reflected its distinguished record of convening conversations and that remained valuable forms of contributing to the 21st-century conversation.

The third challenge was to capture as much qualitative and quantitative data about how we operated and whom we affected with our work. These financial, technological, anecdotal and other data points were important for setting baselines, assessing the Center’s capabilities and evaluating its existing ways of doing business, both administratively and programmatically. We invested in new relationships and technologies for gathering, analyzing and interpreting data.

The fourth challenge has been to transform the culture to a model of social enterprise, so that there would be a direct alignment between what we were learning about our stakeholders, our capabilities for delivering value through our work to meet their expectations, and how we would adjust our ways of doing things. We received validation for our approach from foundations, major donors and clients, as well as thought leaders in the civil society sector, and this helped abundantly.

The Jesuit order and U.S. Catholic hierarchy launched the Center of Concern at a meeting with the United Nations secretary general in 1971. In what way does the Center continue to be an international voice for Catholic social tradition?

In reflecting on the Center’s mission, we expressly chose to embrace Catholic social tradition as its continuing framework for adding value. This was not just a legacy decision, but a principled statement of confidence in this approach as a millennium-ready framework for engaging in conversations about public policy in local, national and global centers of influence. Bishop Bernardin and Superior General Arrupe chose the United Nations as the venue to launch this enterprise, and they chose Washington, D.C., as its base of operations. From the beginning, they saw a global initiative to take the voice of Catholic social tradition to places where it otherwise might not be as prominent, including multilateral institutions, parliaments, chambers of commerce, professional associations and centers of discourse reflecting other religiously grounded intellectual traditions.

A key voice for this has been the thought leadership of Aldo Caliari, an Argentinean lawyer and economist who leads the Center’s Rethinking Bretton Woods Project. He has been a champion for human rights amid the complicated, data-driven and political milieu of these multilateral institutions. He does his empirical and policy homework and, with grace and passion, presents about public and private institutions, the rich and the poor, and the Global North and South, before senior policy leaders, members of Congress and young people around the world.

Catholic social tradition is broader than Catholic social thought, in that it seeks to reflect as well the broader way of life in which one lives those principles. This also reflects the open source nature of the “software” of this tradition, in which people of goodwill truly can pass encyclicals around in a circle for discussion and reaction through principled argumentation in respectful conversation. We collaborate with others to promote principles of Catholic social tradition and to advocate for policies that are consistent with them.

To paraphrase Erich Przywara, S.J., the Center is a place where Catholic social tradition meets the world and the world meets Catholic social tradition. The way it does this is not by providing direct services, for example, food for the homeless or micro-loans. However, the Center does directly address and engage with those centers of influence that do affect these social policies and practices. In addition to its affiliations with public and private institutions, the Center has held consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council since 1974.

The Center uses the catchphrase, “sharing your voice for global social justice.” How do you understand this phrase?

The Center uses this catchphrase in two senses. First, in a descriptive sense, it is a way of telling those who care about global social justice, “we’re on the same wavelength as you,” at a minimum, because we consider these essential questions for our time. We care about them and the interests of the people behind them. We can’t ignore issues of massive dislocation of refugees, water scarcity, illicit financial flows, the education of girls and the empowerment of women.

Second, in a prescriptive sense, this phrase reflects our role, viz., to represent our constituencies, especially the least well off and others who might not get a hearing in centers of influence. Our job is to fashion factual and ethical narratives that will inform conversations in these centers and help form consciences about matters of global social justice. We are there to share what our constituents think, and what we think, in such conversations.

Both these senses of the catchphrase, the descriptive and the prescriptive, affect how we position our value proposition throughout the life cycle of our work. When it comes to work product, we are there as persons for others. When it comes to business development to support this work, our invitation is for people to invest through the Center to create a better world for future generations.

In what ways do you apply Catholic social teaching to current issues in the world?

The Center works on a portfolio of core competencies that integrates with its core services of research, education and advocacy. These core competencies include social justice education; the education of girls and the empowerment of women; integral ecology; global financial regulation and human rights; and strategic governance, principled leadership, and philanthropy.

Center team members look to the pastoral, thought and executive leadership within Catholic social tradition, including the documents of Catholic social thought and the people who communicate these venerable principles through the authenticity of their lives, for example, women religious, Pope Francis, Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero. We recognize and respect that there are different levels of authoritativeness in this tradition and we try to reflect this reality in the analysis and engagement we render.

In practice, this means that we show up and make a difference:

•   at the United Nations to help craft a treaty to protect workers against human rights violations by corporations;

•   with the sisters of UNANIMA at the United Nations to help curtail human trafficking;

•   at a workshop for senior corporate citizenship and sustainability executives of Fortune 500 to discuss emerging practices and issues, including Pope Francis’ vision for integral ecology.

•   at a Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace-CIDSE conference of global civil society and religious leaders at the Vatican on integral ecology;

•   at a Caux Round Table conference of business, government, civil society, and scholarly leaders in Bangkok to draft a statement to the United Nations about contributions of market institutions to realizing the Sustainable Development Goals;

•   at Global Financial Integrity gatherings at the Brookings Institution and National Press Club with foreign and finance ministers, scholars, civil society leaders, businesspeople, and scholars about curtailing illicit financial flows and promoting ethical markets;

•   before faith communities and universities to kindle discussions about Catholic social tradition and public policy; and

•   before the global media to share the Center’s thought leadership and to advance social justice and the common good.

What’s your biggest social justice concern at this moment?

I like Pope Francis’ concept of integral ecology as a nexus of key issues, including climate change, energy production, distribution of water and other resources, income inequality, conflict avoidance and resolution, good governance and fighting corruption and the education of girls and the empowerment of women. His insight about the seamless web of relationships and interdependence of interests and issues is simple, profound and of enduring significance.

What do you want people to take away from your work?

In all the work we create at the Center, we start with the user experience and work backward. This includes our publications, presentations, policy priorities and invitations to participate in campaigns for effecting positive social transformation, for example, in resources in Education for Justice.

There are four things we would like people to take away from our work:

First, we want people to take away a sense that we have contributed something meaningful and valuable when it comes to thinking and acting about issues of social justice, something that will make a difference and advance the common good, for example, a greater sense of solidarity and identification with others, including people who facially are different or geographically distant; or new ways of thinking about urgent human issues that are productive, illuminating, and compassionate.

Second, we want people to take away a sense of beauty that heals and inspires, for example, in our multimedia resources and the Signs of the Times Social Justice Calendar.

Third, we want people to take away a sense of gratitude for their gifts, and from this, empowerment and inspiration that they can and should make a difference through individual and collective action.

Fourth, we want people to discover a sense of joy and hope that will sustain them, even in the face of the “gritty reality” of this world of which former Superior General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., spoke.

These are the things we see in Pope Francis and that we recognize from our friendships with the Jesuits. These are the things we seek to kindle in our community of work at the Center, and these are the things we hope to share with those whom we touch through our work.

The Holy Father visited our country a few months ago. If you could say one thing to Pope Francis right now, what would it be?

Holy Father, we are so grateful for your words and actions that invite open dialogue, collaboration, and mercy when it comes to integral ecology and related urgent matters in the church and the world, and we want to help realize your vision and build a new humanity.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William Rydberg
1 year 11 months ago
Does anybody know when the "Independent Board" concept was formulated in the United States of America? Did it have its origin in the famous "Land o Lakes"? Also, was an evaluation period contemplated. Was it all in, no going back? How much did Federal Funding influence the decision? Was a walk back ever contemplated by the Jesuit Order should large-scale non-compliance occur with Papal teachings such as Ex Corde Ecclesiae?
Sean Salai, S.J.
1 year 11 months ago

Thanks for reading. Let's continue to pray for the Church and for one another.

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