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The Ethics of Business

In the ongoing debate over our bad economy and how to fix it, does the Catholic Church have anything of value to contribute?

Professor Robert G. Kennedy says that the Church has an ethical perspective that is much needed today. Seeking to combine the wisdom of the Church with the world of business, Kennedy teaches in the Department of Catholic Studies and the Department of Ethics and Business Law, at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

He and his wife, Barbara have 12 children, ages 34 to 10.

Fathers for Good contacted Kennedy about the Church’s teaching on economics and business.

Robert and Barbara Kennedy are surrounded by the love of their 12 children.

Fathers for Good: Does Church teaching favor one economic system?

Kennedy: With regard to economic and political matters, the Church is committed to the protection of human dignity. The notion of the common good of a society is a sort of shorthand for “the sum total of those conditions of social living whereby men are enabled more fully and more readily to achieve their own perfection” (Pope John XXIII, Mater et magistra, 1961). Or, to put it another way, the common good in a society is achieved when each and every person in the society is able to live the fullest life possible.

With this in mind, the Church looks at various ways of organizing the economic activities of a society. It has always been sternly opposed to socialist forms of economic organization that deny the right of private ownership of property. At the same time, it rejects an economic system that would privilege the wealthy, the strong and the ruthless, permitting them to prey upon the vulnerable.

What the Church would prefer to see (cf. Pope John Paul II, Centesimus annus, 42) is a scheme of economic organization that would respect the intelligence and freedom of human persons by organizing markets but wisely regulate the markets so that they function well and cannot be distorted by the powerful for their own ends. The ideal market would make it possible for everyone to participate in the economy and through that participation to contribute what they can to the satisfaction of genuine human needs.

Where socialism may deny the right to own property privately, capitalism is a legal system that promotes the formation of corporations. Capitalism requires a market system but not all market systems are capitalist. While the Church finds socialism (at least in its sterner versions) to be simply incompatible with Catholic convictions, it can accept capitalism. However, this acceptance requires that laws and policies be set in place that ensure justice, protect the vulnerable and discourage the excesses to which capitalism often tends.

FFG: The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that private property is necessary for the common good, yet property should be used as though it were held in common. Is this practical in a competitive capitalist system?

Kennedy: The Church has long been a vigorous defender of the right of persons to own property privately, which is to say for their own use and benefit. At the same time, and this is reflected in the Catechism, the Church insists that the right of ownership is not absolute. While the right of private ownership is important, it is balanced by the conviction that God intended the goods of the earth to benefit the whole of the human community. Individuals and families, for example, may acquire and own what they need to live a decent human life. Indeed, in any community, some individuals who are more clever, hard-working or lucky, may acquire much more than their neighbors without injustice.

However, the right of those who own to prevent others from using and benefiting from their property may be severely limited when they have more than they reasonably need and others in the community are in great need. Thomas Aquinas, for example, takes up the question whether a starving man may justly steal bread from someone who has more than he can eat. Thomas’ response is that the starving man may take the bread and not be guilty of stealing, because the man with excess bread cannot claim legitimate ownership in the face of great need.

So, the attitude toward ownership that the Church has promoted from ancient times is nuanced. We are material beings and therefore we need material resources to support our lives. Respect for private property is the best way, in practice, to ensure a good and stable distribution. However, Christians should also regard their property with detachment, as a tool for their well-being and for God’s purposes, but never as an end in itself. They should always be ready to “lose” some of their property if the situation and Christian charity require it.

None of this is incompatible with business or the marketplace, unless one thinks (wrongly) that the purpose of business is to acquire and keep as much money as possible. Most of us make our livings in the marketplace by serving the needs of people in our communities through the responsible use and exchange of property and services. It is only when things become distorted so that the needs of people become the means and property becomes the end that the trouble begins.

FFG: Tell us about your own work in academia, and how you hope to form or inform your students about the challenges and responsibilities ahead.

Kennedy: One of the goals I have worked toward in my academic career is helping people to understand that business and the marketplace make indispensable contributions to the common good and the well-being of individuals. I want students (and businesspeople) to understand that a career in business can and should be an honorable one and a genuine Christian vocation.

I particularly want them to understand that, as managers, they organize and shape the work of others, which has a profound impact on real people. They have a solemn responsibility to care for employees in the workplace and to serve their customers well. Businesspeople who live out their vocations well create and sustain good work for their employees, serve the genuine needs of their neighbors, and create wealth for themselves and their communities.

To paraphrase Bolt’s Thomas More (from “A Man for All Seasons”), “That’s not a bad project!”



Due to the high volume of comments and the many questions raised by readers, Professor Kennedy has provided this response:

I appreciate the thoughtful comments that have been posted. Permit me to offer a few comments in response.

Deeply embedded in the Catholic social tradition is the idea that the goods of the earth are intended to serve the welfare of all humanity. Pope John Paul II used to say that a social mortgage was attached to all private property. This does not mean that individuals should not acquire wealth through their hard work and ability (which is a gift) but it does mean that God may call on them to use their wealth to help others.

In fact, Aquinas insisted (ST, 2a2ae, q 66) that the natural purpose of excess wealth was to relieve the distress of the poor. The implication was not that it is the role or responsibility of government to determine excess wealth and to appropriate it. Instead, it is the duty of the wealthy to be moderate in their needs and to be prepared to use their abundance to serve those in need. If they fail to do this, Aquinas maintains, a person in great need may take what he requires for life and this taking is neither sinful nor theft.

The Marxist view is that private ownership is evil and the root cause of society ills. The Catholic view is that private property is a natural right, and respect for ownership is the best practical way to ensure that the goods of the earth are distributed properly. However, when some people are in distress, the wealthy become God's hands, so to speak, in serving the needs of the poor.