Vatican calls on businesses to be ethical, create economic justice

VATICAN CITY – The Vatican and some Catholic thinkers are urging businesses to not only employ ethical policies within their companies, but to become dedicated to bringing economic justice to the wider world.

In fact, people should be wary of superficial ethical practices that “are adopted primarily as a marketing device, without any effect on relationships inside and outside the business itself” and without promoting justice and the common good, said Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state.

Cardinal Bertone was one of a number of speakers invited to the Executive Summit on Ethics for the Business World, sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the Legionaries of Christ’s Fidelis International Institute, which promotes ethics in business.

The June 16-17 conference brought high-profile leaders from the manufacturing, industrial, banking and financial sectors including representatives from General Electric and Goldman Sachs, as well as Catholic experts in Catholic social teaching.

“Everyone here was ‘cherry-picked.’ It wasn’t an open invitation to everybody,” said Father Luis Garza Medina, vicar general of the Legionaries of Christ, who helped in the planning of the event.

Organizers purposely chose people from different industries, countries and religions in order to hammer out ethical principles held in common, which often reflect the values inherent in Catholic social thought, namely the principles of the centrality of the human person, subsidiarity, solidarity and the pursuit of the common good, he told Catholic News Service June 17.

The real challenge, however, is taking those common principles and translating them into concrete action that will have a real impact on local and world economies, and people’s lives, he said.

The meeting’s goal was to show how “Charity in Truth,” Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical on social justice issues, could inspire leaders to find practical applications of these universal values.

In his talk June 16, Cardinal Bertone said the encyclical makes clear that there is no way businesses can remain ethically neutral: They are either serving the common good or they are not, such as “when they fail to produce quality products, ignore innovation, fail to create wealth and jobs, and pay no taxes.”

Business leaders need to go beyond just reaping a profit. “We need business leaders with a social conscience,” he said, “leaders who see their work as part of a new social contract with the public and civil society.”

The cardinal challenged business leaders to “be more daring” and go beyond their commendable socially responsible practices and acts of philanthropy.

He said businesses have to address challenges beyond their own balance sheets and should, for example, find creative and innovative ways to bring new jobs to young people and the marginalized as well as safeguard communities and natural resources such as water and fossil fuels.

Daniel K. Finn, professor of economics and theology at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., said that there was little to no talk among the business leaders at the meeting about social and distributive justice and the wider issue of “the morality of the economy.”

“I hear the term ‘ethics’ being used” and the importance of treating workers fairly, but there is little attention being paid to the larger structural injustices in today’s economies, he told CNS.

“I think this speaks to a general need that the Catholic Church has to explain to ordinary Catholics the connection between a life of personal ethical standards and a just economic system,” Finn said.

In his address, Finn said there are four elements that need to be fulfilled for making a more moral economy: first is the moral behavior of individuals and organizations, and second is the legal structure of markets, which cannot be allowed to be absolutely free and unregulated and must have legal limits to “prevent the worst abuses.”

Third, “the needs of all must be met,” through employment and direct social assistance to those in need, he said.

Lastly, “a vibrant civil society” is needed, where citizens come together in informal or formal groups like art associations or unions, to help improve different aspects of society, he said.

Addressing the bigger picture of the economy and society is not only harder to do, most people don’t get the kind of education or training that helps them think beyond personal moral standards and to include institutional reforms, he said.

An example of one conference attendee who was actively working to transform society, he said, was Kevin Mann, an Australian consultant in Hong Kong who creates training programs in Asia to help low-wage workers improve their lives.

With his company Compleo Consultants, Mann picks out talented, but low-paid workers such as hairdressers, chefs, welders, and nurses.

Then, in collaboration with local governments, the workers can earn post-secondary degrees based on their experience, skills and expertise, which helps them secure employment abroad and have their monthly salaries jump from $300 to $6,000, he told CNS.

Those who go through the training and assessment programs are asked to pay a fee that goes toward teaching simple, but high-demand trades, such as baking, to unskilled workers, he said.

Their baking school, too, tries to improve the community by delivering its extra goods to hungry children in the neighborhood, he added.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.