A (Second) Response to 'Noble Vocations'

As a defense of teaching about business in Catholic universities, “Noble Vocations,” by Joseph J. Dunn (3/24), is intelligent and clear. The title of the article, a quote from Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” is a good one. It underlines an opinion of the pope that everyone needs to attend to: careers in business are “noble vocations” (No. 203).

At the same time, the title of Mr. Dunn’s article ought not to obscure several central convictions in the exhortation that did not find space in his passionate essay, because with a sprinkling of other anodyne clauses of the pope, “Noble Vocations” could leave a faulty impression of Francis’ “evangelical discernment” on the economy (No. 50).

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This context is relevant for two reasons. First, Mr. Dunn expresses the hope, in the closing sentence of “Noble Vocations,” to show how “to enlist the services of one more noble vocation into building the world that Francis wants.” So the world that Francis wants is not explicitly the topic here, but somehow ends up framing the noble vocations. Second, calling attention to the pope’s fuller teaching is relevant because behind the defense of the business schools is an implied defense of the U.S. economy itself, since any defense of the schools that does not address what is taught in them will be shallow. The article urges, for instance, that all students be taught “the larger role of business in society.”

State of the Economy

What is the role of business in society? Mr. Dunn is clear: It is to gather wealth, take risks, create jobs, make profits, and continue producing—and to do this ethically. He also explicitly points out that all of us—“consumers, investors, voters and donors”—are required to help in building what Pope Francis calls “a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor” (No. 204). This is unarguably the role of business. And capitalism in a democracy is, as far as we can see, the best way to enact it.

Does U.S. society, then, instantiate the world that Francis wants? Mr. Dunn recognizes that it does not. The author sees “excesses and abuses in business and in our capitalist society,” and he points out that “Pope Francis has named many of them.” Mr. Dunn does not focus on them, which is understandable because that might seem to weaken his defense of teaching business in Catholic universities.

His defense of business schools and the economy, however, would have been more persuasive had he at least noted the flood of these excesses and abuses reported daily in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Bloomberg Businessweek and The Economist. The list is appallingly long: insider trading; securities fraud; the flood of outside money pouring into local elections; illegal toxic pollution of places and peoples; high-frequency computerized trading based on extremely dubious agreements; failure to fix known deadly safety defects in cars; pernicious influence of lobbyists in the halls of government—not to mention racism and sexism in management and blatant tax-evasion. It is true that naming these realities would have dented the positive and optimistic tone of the article, but it would have also produced a sounder defense. For universities must remain places where the serious issues of the day are addressed and seriously worked on—for the sake of our business as well as for moral reasons. To talk about business education without some canvassing of the truly grave problems we face seems at least incomplete.

Mr. Dunn sees these issues. But if he—an articulate and serious thinker about the business community—does not believe them worth at least a paragraph or two, then we have here another indication that the business community can be oblivious of the wreckage left behind by current business and fiscal policies, not just among the poor, but perhaps even more urgently among the middle class. In the minds of serious historians, this wreckage has occasioned widespread human misery and threatens our democratic social fabric.

The omission of these “excesses and abuses” is understandable but not acceptable. Throughout the essay, there is no pointed reference to Pope Francis’ genuinely harsh and sustained criticisms of the global economy of which we Americans are a central part. The pope has not blasted “unbridled capitalism,” as some uninformed reporting has claimed. In fact, the pope does not even use the word “capitalism,” and his only use of the term “unbridled” is not about trading and profit-taking but “consumerism” (No. 60). Since consuming is the fuel of our capitalist system, surely students will be led to reflect on it?

Here is a concrete instance of the omission: Mr. Dunn approves the pope’s sensible opinion that social programs must reach “an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality” (No. 204). These words are taken out of context, of course; any citation must be. But in this case, its context significantly shapes the pope’s meaning.

According to the lead sentences of the paragraph, the pope is criticizing not faulty social programs but the economic system. He writes, “We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income.” Were the economy geared to “a better distribution of income,” the “integral promotion of the poor” would follow. Achieving this demands changes not only in the business community, but also in the political cohort trapped in poverty, the poor and in themselves.

So the pope is a socialist, right? Well, no. He closes the paragraph: “I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.” The last term is loaded. Earlier, Pope Francis had explained: “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape” (No. 53). More than one commentator has noted the fading of the “American dream.”

Bold Declarations

I insist again that this omission is relatively understandable. But America cannot let it stand because, as I see it, this omission disses a Christian reading of today’s situation. I mean this not as an accusation but an observation: just about everything this article says can also be said of the Wharton School of Business and similar schools.

For reflective Catholics, however, leaving out the substance of the pope’s thought is like forgetting to mention income on your tax return. In his exhortation, the Holy Father promulgates his “evangelical discernment” about society and the economy in sharp sections with startling titles: “No to an economy of exclusion”; “No to the new idolatry of money”; “No to a financial system which rules rather than serves”; and “No to the inequality which spawns violence.”

In these long sections—and in many places throughout “The Joy of the Gospel,” the Holy Father makes some muscular declarations. He declares that worshipping the golden calf “has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose” (No. 55). What “human purpose” beyond profit-taking and philanthropy must be promoted in our business schools? The pope sees a “thirst for power and possessions” that knows no limits, and a “deified market” that has become “the only rule” (No. 56). What politically feasible approaches can be taught in our schools to adjusting “the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation” (No. 202)? Can informed, caring business minds indicate to the professoriate what regulation is needed—and then lobby to get it enacted?

In his droll and earthy way, the pope wrote: “I am aware that nowadays documents do not arouse the same interest as in the past and that they are quickly forgotten” (No. 25). From its title on, Mr. Dunn warns us that we ought to read “The Joy of the Gospel,” all of us. And the professors in our business schools, if they are loyal to the explicit goals and purposes of Catholic institutions of higher learning, will certainly want to be aware of what the Catholic Church understands as the “noble vocation” of business.

Forty years ago, Jesuits in the United States undertook a national effort to evaluate and recommit ourselves to higher education. One of the concerns at that time was that our business schools, which we considered integral to our whole effort, should teach “ethical thinking.” This pontiff has considerably raised the ante, pointing out the necessity of conversion of heart. Hence, an open-minded reading will demand what has become a main Christian asceticism in post-modernity: serious study, personal reflection and interior prayer to win freedom from our fiercely urgent secular mindset, from “spiritual worldliness,” and to put on the mind of Christ Jesus.
 

Joseph Tetlow, S.J., a writer and retreat leader based in St. Louis, Mo., served for eight years in Rome as head of the Secretariat for Ignatian Spirituality.

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Joseph J Dunn
4 years 3 months ago
Author's response: My thanks to Father Tetlow for his detailed "(Second) Response to 'Noble Vocations'." I want to respond particularly to Father Tetlow's statement that he finds "understandable but not acceptable" my statement in the article, "There are excesses and abuses in business and in our capitalist society, and Pope Francis has named many of them. There is also nobility, as he reminds us. We need to understand the differences." Father's objection is that I do not focus on those excesses and abuses or note the flood of these excesses reported daily in respected secular newspapers. Father Tetlow argues that America "cannot let it stand because, as I see it, this omission disses a Christian reading of today's situation." So, let me be clear that any faults of inclusion or omission in "Noble Vocations" are mine alone. America was generous in its allocation of space. Father Tetlow might take some comfort in my statements at two points in the article that Catholic universities equip their students with the principles of social justice, some reading of encyclicals and episcopal letters, and a sense of solidarity with the poor, all of which I am confident will continue. I take for granted that America's readers are also familiar with this depository of teaching, and with the failures of business and the economy. The excesses and abuses are, as Father notes, reported daily. Only after acknowledging this work by the universities do I raise my central question: "How much more efficiently might we move toward a just society if every graduate…had an understanding of business--not just the business student but the nurse or social worker and the future lawyer, historian, art critic or priest?" and my hope that our universities will "provide a new generation of graduates…equipped with the authentic teaching of the encyclicals and episcopal letters, a spirit of solidarity, and an understanding of business and its role in society…to enlist the services of one more noble vocation into building the world that Francis wants." I am grateful to Father Tetlow for his critique and for contributing to this important conversation. Peace, Joe Dunn

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