A Response to 'Noble Vocations'

Joseph J. Dunn ("Noble Vocations: A Defense of Business Education in Catholic Schools”) tempts a response. I was one of those Catholics who expressed anxiety about the much-discussed Koch Brothers gift to Catholic University of America. When Mr. Dunn and the leaders of Catholic University cite the achievements of American capitalism, I want to challenge their interpretation of contemporary history. When they cite Catholic social teaching people like me rush to defend our understanding—we think it a proper understanding—of Catholic social responsibility. In America Mr. Dunn took some shots at professors like me, sipping our lattes while typing on Apple computers. For our part we might sometimes unintentionally insult the intelligence and at least by implication question the integrity of our brothers and sisters who earn their livings at the heart of the American corporate economy.

On such matters, over many years, we Catholics have had a lot of arguments, not much dialogue. I recall a day years ago when some social activists friends almost excommunicated me when they saw I was reading a pro-capitalist book by my friend Michael Novak. In a sense they won out: Novak and I drifted to opposed camps and failed to help our church find creative ways to evangelize, together, as Pope Francis says we should.

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So I could argue with Mr. Dunn about our differing understandings of how American business actually works—he makes some amazingly naïve statements about that—and exchange widely varying selections from Pope Francis. But these familiar arguments would not get us very far. Maybe Mr. Dunn and I can do better, even find some common ground. For example I am impressed that, echoing last year’s excellent Vatican statement on “Business as a Vocation,” Mr. Dunn expresses his confidence that American business offers many rich opportunities for the practice of Christian discipleship. Certainly all of us who have taught in Catholic colleges, encouraged our students to make their way in the world, and enjoyed the support and friendship of alumni and parents who are business men and women, would share his optimism. Whatever reservations we may have about the American political economy, we continue to believe, at least in practice, that our people can share responsibility for our common economic and civic life. Pope Francis hopes that together we can multiply people who actually work for the common good, and he might easily add to his hoped-for list of nurses and teachers and politicians “with soul,” business men and women equally committed to turning Christian love into action.

In addition I suspect that both Mr. Dunn and I are not entirely happy with Catholic business school education. Mr. Dunn thinks, and I agree, that all undergraduates should have a basic knowledge of business. After all, we should know by now that all institutions, including the university and the church, incorporate business practices, some good, some not so good. Trustees are supposed to insure that university business practices are both good and effective; the Catholic business leaders in the Leadership Roundtable on Church Management are trying to help bishops do the same with the church. In both cases business competence is promoted without much discussion of politics, even though everyone concerned knows very well that public policies shape their capacity to carry out their mission. And church and university, like businesses and unions, spend a lot of money to organize in order to influence those policies.

Indeed I think that if Mr. Dunn would agree with me that business and politics, broadly understood, are inseparable, we could come up with some programs that would realize his dreams and those of Pope Francis, though I am not sure the Koch brothers would provide funding. In our business school we would actually try, as Mr. Dunn suggests, to understand how business actually has worked, and now works, in the United States. If we did that, if we really studied the American political economy openly and honestly, we might find that Catholic social teaching is a helpful resource for evaluating what we learn and helping us turn business, and all work, into vocation.

After all “business” is a matter of politics and culture, quite as much, probably more, than a matter of economics. For example, ideas about corporations matter, not just scholars’ ideas but everybody’s, from Supreme Court justices to people in the streets. Culture matters. So does politics. In Catholic higher education advocates of “faith and justice” and social ethics for years have made requests for more critical study of business and the professions. Often the response of business and professional staff was that talking about personal ethics was fine: everyone has a conscience and institutions should have codes of conduct. But social ethics is another question altogether: that would involve philosophical assessment of systems and structures and would raise questions about “politics,” which of course has no place in academic research and teaching.

Or does it? Opportunities for research and teaching and almost everything else turn on the allocation of resources. And that in turn depends on ideas and power, culture and politics. That is no secret. Indeed business persons and professionals, including professors, pay dues to professional and trade associations, chambers of commerce, special interest groups of all sorts that lobby governments, seek social influence and educate the public. They set standards and ask governments to enforce them. They advise on policy and are not shy about pursuing their own interests. Everywhere they—we—ask for money and argue that our work serves public purposes. A few, not many, among us worry that these interest groups do not serve the common good, so they organize alternative associations to carry out their share of public responsibility: think of Physicians for Social Responsibility or the Union of Concerned Scientists. But business schools and their graduates, Catholic or not, are not much involved with such groups.

If business people and professionals would admit the importance of—and their shared responsibility for—culture and politics, Catholic business schools would have the basis for serious intellectual inquiry and education that might actually enable people to think about human dignity, solidarity and individual and corporate responsibility, ideas that are the heart of Catholic social teaching, and of the Gospel. But the key to getting Catholic defenders and critics of American business beyond the argument stage is honesty about what we are dealing with: not politically innocent and culturally immaculate business (or science or law or medicine) but knowledge and careers and institutions embedded in the realities of modern history. I think this is what Pope Francis means when he says realities are prior to ideas.  

That kind of intellectual and moral seriousness might scare off some donors; it might not be all that welcome by the church either. If business as a vocation was actually incorporated into our Catholic business schools, then people might ask whether the church actually supports those vocations. Churches have family life programs to support the vocation of marriage. They have educational programs to pass on the faith and charity programs to assist people in need. Some faith communities, mostly evangelical Christian, seem to care about what people as individuals do at work. But they have little to say about institutions, like corporations and professions, even less about those business and professional networks that shape our common life. Religious congregations say they are communities of conscience, but how often do they look hard, together, at their place in the large worlds of business, as Mr. Dunn thinks they should?

His hopes for Catholic business schools, and mine, would require changes, uncomfortable changes, in pastoral as well as educational priorities. Some of the new ecclesial movements, including Focolare and San Egidio, which I admire, Communion and Liberation, which is close to Pope Francis, and Opus Dei, so powerful inside the church, have some ideas about how to do that.

Another really interesting thing Mr. Dunn and I might do to help the church and the business community is to do some Christian dreaming. We might put the “Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine” on the shelf for a few minutes and think about what the heart of our faith might mean for our business and professional lives. At World Youth Day Pope Francis told a crowd of adoring Argentine young people that if they were looking for a program they should read the beatitudes and Matthew 25. “You don’t have to read anything else,” he said. If we did take those texts as our starting point, we would perhaps find that both Mr. Dunn’s relative satisfaction with our political economy and my own ideas about how it should be changed are wide of the mark. The current Jesuit General once told Jesuit academics to think as they would if they were St. Ignatius, just starting out. Pope Benedict in his social encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” said that we might find that the Gospel commands love of neighbor and that leads us to “gratuitousness.” What if we stopped making everything a commodity and instead developed a practical theology of gift? We might not accept salaries for our work, or continue to turn human needs into sources of revenue, or make profits from the things we create.

Those passages in Pope Benedict’s encyclical drew on the work of scholars and pastoral leaders close to the Focolare movement working to develop an “economy of communion.” There are hundreds of businesses across the globe whose participants actually try to practice love in the marketplace. In all of their work they put others first: co-workers are a community; customers and suppliers become friends; competition is modified, sometimes replaced, by cooperation; profits are shared with the poor; most of all people matter.

Like nonviolence, gratuitousness seems utopian, but one recalls Auden: we must love one another or die. And violence doesn’t work all that well anyway. Similarly, despite Mr. Dunn’s hopeful assessment, are we really sure that global financial profit-seeking system is building up the human family? Does it work? Pope Francis says that for Christians time is more important than space, and that means thinking about what it is we really want to do with our lives. In the Christian view of history the Kingdom we dream about will indeed come, and we must try to make it present, as Jesus did. In a Catholic university we hope this means that peacemaking is studied as seriously as war, that justice is actually considered in social studies, that love, somehow, matters, everywhere. Intellectual life, human life, is about reason and imagination, about thinking hard about what we can and should do, and dreaming without apology, about what might be, a dream given substance and power by faith. Can we imagine a business school where people talk about that?

Each of us is a mission in the world, Pope Francis says. Together we might be able to stir some hope that love and mercy and justice can somehow, sometime, become the informing principles of the world we make together, in part through business. There’s a needed conversation for Catholic higher education—and for the church. That conversation, in which all of us can join, may be the starting point for reunifying our community in the common work of evangelization.   

David O'Brien is professor emeritus College of the Holy Cross and visiting professor at large at the University of Dayton.

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