Business is a vocation; that’s why the Church won’t leave it alone.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 11, 2016

Cardinal Turkson’s recent address to the University of the Andes in Chile made an extraordinarily important point about Pope Francis’ attitude toward “business”. The head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace insisted that “the Holy Father is not anti-business.” What he decries is “an obsession with profit and the deification of the market.”

When it comes to stepping on the toes of our economic preconceptions, in fact, this is exactly what Catholic social teaching is all about. It is not a matter of promoting “socialism” (which the Church has always condemned) but of denying that market forces render business decisions morally irrelevant.

To make prudent business decisions, of course, one must have a basic understanding of economics. For example, it is important to understand that—all other things being equal—if you raise prices, you lower demand. If you increase costs, you lower profits. If you pay employees more, you reduce the number of employees you can pay. If you cannot compete with another source of the same product or service, you go out of that business. And so on.

All of this is pretty basic. The problem arises when a businessman believes (or pretends to believe) that such abstractly mechanical operations of the market inescapably impose a single set of business decisions. Indeed, the attempt to absolutize any individual economic principle in practice will always be counter-productive. Logically, for example, it is best to reduce labor costs to zero. But absolutizing this principle will eliminate business altogether. It is both the best and the worst scenario. Seeking the absolute maximum of profit has exactly the same result. And so does selling for the absolute lowest price.

To the contrary, effective business decisions always involve finding ways to balance a very large number of variables to make the business as a whole successful. In any business that is well-matched to its community (that is, in any viable business), there will be multiple ways to achieve this balance. The chosen balance will depend in part on how the word “successful” is defined.

It is inescapably human to include a moral dimension in the definition of success, and it is a Christian obligation to make that moral dimension positive. This is as true of business activity as it is of any other human endeavor. A moment’s reflection will reveal that providing a service to the community and income for oneself—the two most obvious aspects of business—are morally-charged activities. In fact, one of the key points made by Benedict XVI in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate is that the full range of moral evaluation for business extends to all those involved in and affected by it:

[B]usiness management cannot concern itself only with the interests of the proprietors, but must also assume responsibility for all the other stakeholders who contribute to the life of the business: the workers, the clients, the suppliers of various elements of production, the community of reference. [40]

In practice, those who are most successful are always those who most effectively balance all of the business variables. A partial list includes tangible variables such as the products or services offered, the available consumer options, the delivery mechanisms, prices and costs; and also less tangible variables such as product quality, perceived value, timeliness, and the long term impact of the business on the community.

To dispel the myth that successful business activity can follow but one path, it is sufficient to introduce the question of advertising. Effective advertising has often created an adequate market for a mediocre product, while ineffective advertising has frequently left even very good products high and dry. But there are all kinds of keys to success, if only they can be implemented within a shrewd reading of market conditions. Some businesses succeed because their products are serviceable and cheap; others because they are beautiful and expensive; others because of superb customer service. Still others owe a great deal to location, or to the speed and efficiency with which they can deliver their goods or services.

The point is that there are so many variables in any business plan—and so many ways in which different aspects of any business can be combined to produce either success or failure—that it is foolish to believe that success can be attributed only to one concrete pattern which will be specifically, predictably and infallibly imposed by the extraordinarily broad laws of economics. On the contrary, within this broad framework, it is precisely one of the great challenges and joys of business to create and adjust a model for the achievement of the full vision—including the moral vision—of the business leader.

Therefore, I will repeat here what I said just over two years ago. If you study Catholic social teaching, you will find that the Church never condemns business in itself. What raises the ire of popes and councils is the use of economic theory, whether well-founded in market dynamics or not, to obscure or deny the need for creativity, moral judgment and moral action.

Within all systems, the dignity of the human person is the dignity of a moral actor. The human genius consists in grasping the operative parameters in order to intelligently pursue the good. In this sense, business is a microcosm of life as a whole, and a powerful agent for both the common good and many particular goods. The role of Catholic social teaching is not to diminish business but to invest it with a vocational sense of responsibility. The Church wishes everyone to know—even, perhaps, to be put on notice—that those who are called to business are called by God.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jan. 12, 2016 3:47 PM ET USA

    Or, as the writer for The Laissez Faire Letter recently put it, the first rule of business is DON'T KILL YOUR CUSTOMERS.