The Book of Genesis tells us that our first parents were commanded by God to "fill the earth and subdue it" and that they were placed in the garden of this world "to cultivate and care for it" (Gen 1:28 and 2:15). All of man's creative activity is thus seen as part of our human dignity and vocation to be co-creators with God, and this means that every form of human labor and enterprise has great dignity and noble purpose.
Thinking about the economic dimension of the universal vocation to holiness is one goal of Catholic social teaching. This body of teaching has come to us as the result of a centuries of philosophical and theological reflection by some of the Church's finest minds on the dignity of work, the relationship between capital and labor, the responsibility to care for the poor, the universal destination of goods, and the principles that should guide practical decision making on all of these fronts. It gives us the first principles upon which to build a vibrant catholic business culture.
Venture Fidelis has worked to distill this body of teaching into a series of Principles of Catholic Business. We then work to provide business leaders with various means of accessing this distilled knowledge, in order that business owners can integrate it into their professional work and personal lives. Special attention is given to examining the concept of social justice as a personal virtue to be acquired by individuals rather than as a political ideology to be enforced by governments.
1. The Dignity of the Human Person and the Sanctity of Life
Catholic businesses need to operate in a manner that treats each human that encounters that business justly, as created in the image of God, and whose ultimate purpose can live its true vocation only in the perfection of heavenly beatitude. (CCC 1700) We judge businesses, social groups, or governments based on their treatment of human persons: "the human person . . . is and ought to be the principle, the subject and the end of all social institutions.” (Gaudium et Spes 25 § 1.)
2. The Dignity of Work
Catholic Teaching describes three reasons human work bears an inherent dignity, not simply as a means, but as a created good. First, by exercising their talents, both individually and in community, human beings participate in God’s continual and sustaining act of creation. Just as Adam participated in creation both rationally by naming the animals and materially by cultivating the garden. (Gen 1:28 and 2:15-19) Second, by work we provide for material needs. This is not just a necessity but a duty since parents and other family providers have a duty to support others as a portion of their earthly vocation. As such, work has a special dignity as the material means by which they are able to meet this God given duty. Third, by exercising this duty, humans develop habits and virtues. In other words, work has a dignity because it becomes the means by which humans develop virtuous habits. These three goods of work, it’s creative, duty-based, and virtue-building aspects all mean that it needs to be treated as more than a means to an end. It is a good that all human beings need to participate in as a fundamental aspect of human flourishing.
3. Support for the Family
Catholic teaching is social in nature; as such it often speaks of the family (rather than the individual or the state) as the key cell, or core building block of society: “Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society” (CCC 2207). The family, therefore, as an “institution is prior to any recognition by public authority, which has an obligation to recognize it” (CCC 2202). When speaking of just wages, or working conditions, businesses have a duty to distinguish between jobs for family providers (parents, etc) and dependents, and a just wage for a career job differs from that of a high school summer job. In Catholic Social Teaching (CST), rights and duties work together. Therefore, the parent with a duty to feed a child has the right to do so. Often, this duty of employers to parents needs to take the form, not of simple wage increases but of consideration due to parents' schedules, etc.
Since the family constitutes the basis of society, the core social duties within society belong to the family. For example, parents have duty to feed, clothe, and educate their children. This means that the core rights of society radiate out from these core duties. As such, parents have a right to parent, discipline, educate, and provide for their children in order to fulfill this duty. The principle of subsidiarity reflects this dynamic within society. Subsidiarity is not a moral obligation, like the obligation to love, rather it is an organizing principle for the way Catholicism understands the political order. It states that societal matters ought to be handled by the smallest, most local, or least centralized competent authority, starting with the family as the building block of society. Only when the family cannot deal with an issue does it move down the ladder of authority, to the neighborhood, local government, etc., and devolving into a national or international issue as a last resort. Subsidiarity, as a body of church teaching, has many implications for business. subsidiarity, recognizes the importance of small businesses and self-governance as practices that strengthen the capacity of society for dealing with issues on a more local level. Small business ownership, or entrepreneurship, ideally develop both an increased neighborhood awareness and responsibility that strengthen societies ability to deal with issues on more local level.
5. Common Use and Private Property
“In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits” (CCC 2402). This universal destination of goods, meaning that the goods of creation are destined for the flourishing of the human race as a whole does not stand in opposition to the concept of private property, but rather private ownership is the normal means by which this principle of common use is realized. In those fields of human activity where individuals or groups can facilitate that human flourishing through the private possession and use of things, then it is just for them to do so. “The appropriation of private property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge” (CCC 2402). Private property contributes to one’s personal self-betterment by encouraging people to work, to learn self-reliance, to be entrepreneurial, and to create wealth for themselves and others. It provides incentives for one to contribute to the society around them, as well as the means by which one can practice charity. Furthermore, private property historically has provided the surest means for the protecting one's individual conscience.
6. Greed and Materialism are Sins
Greed is not synonymous with profit. A successful entrepreneur can be motivated by things other than base avarice, which is the unreasonable desire for what we do not have and the determination to obtain it without regard to others. But just because work, private property, and even profit are goods essential to human flourishing does not mean that greed and materialism are not evils to be avoided. Ultimately, every Christian has a duty to help the poorest, neediest and most broken among us, but this cannot devolve into mere materialism. It is important for business leaders to be able to distinguish between the fact that profits are a good (as market signals for example), but a worldview based in materialism or greed that sees prosperity as equivalent to human flourishing rather than just an element fails to account for the importance of God in the lives of all persons. A Pope Benedict XVI reminds us: “At the heart of all temptations, as we see here, is the act of pushing God aside…. refusing to acknowledge the reality of anything beyond the political and material, while setting God aside as an illusion – that is the temptation that threatens us in many varied forms. (Jesus of Nazareth, p.28).” As Pope Benedict goes on to explain in this passage, true charity means not just giving people handouts, and not simply creating jobs either, but addressing them as persons in the image of God, as both physical and spiritual in their needs, and longings. The problem with many secular approaches to charity is that they are based upon a materialist and reductionist view of man, and as such seek to reduce the gospel to that of a purely social gospel.
Only once these first principles are established does charity have the necessary context within the church. Charity, solidarity, neighborhood, and friendship are all duties; both for individuals and for the church. Human beings need to give of themselves, both of their time and of their resources, but they need to do so in a way that harmonizes with the earlier principles. Simply giving money to meet physical needs, for example, may be given in such a way to diminish the family structure, or might treat the receiver as merely materialistic, or lacking in dignity. When, by contrast, business is exercised, or charity given, in concert with these fundamental principles, charitable giving provides an important, even essential, part of human flourishing.
7. Charitable Giving is an Essential Good
Moving through these principles in order, we begin to see how they build on each other. The human person has a dignity rooted in that fact that they are created in the image of God. As such, there is a dignity to human labor. Within society, the family is the first protector of this dignity. Subsidiarity is the principle of social ordering that best protects the family and the human person. This fundamental structure allows society to consider the needs of people as complex and dignified creatures of a loving creator, not as mere animals. Once this complex and beautiful vision of the human person is established within society, it becomes clear that human beings need to give of themselves and the fruits of their labor, charitably, in a manner that best helps human beings.