Tag Archives: Paul J. Voss

Recognizing the epiphany of midlife crisis

According to the Latin text Labentibus annis (c.1280), St. Omobono of Cremona, a very successful merchant, experienced an existential crisis after the death of his beloved father. Shortly after the burial, Omobono began to reflect on the brevity of his life and the fleeting attraction of his work. While pondering the ephemeral nature of life, “his formerly calloused preoccupation with increasing his wealth began to cool, and he began no longer to follow his associates, not do his job, with his usual craftsmanship.” In this document, we have one of the earliest depictions of a “midlife crisis.”

The term “midlife crisis” was first used in 1965 and made popular in the 1970s. When considered rationally, the phenomenon is not really a crisis at all. Rather than a sudden moment of intense panic and desperation, the common malaise more accurately exists as a predictable dip in satisfaction and joy brought about by the recognition of mortality and the realization that a career—even a successful one—often resembles a series of endless projects with no final resolution or larger meaning. As such, people often talk about getting stuck in a rut or hitting a wall. Research suggests that this afflicts about 75 percent of people and generally occurs after working for about 30 years.

Most successful people tend to work very, very hard. This work ethic generally produces positive results and economic well-being. But an excessive attachment to work can also contribute to stress, tension, and detachment from family, friends, and faith. The famous philosopher Josef Pieper offered five “awakenings” that can provide a counter-weight to the demands of work and relief from burdens.

Philosophy: reason unaided by revelation. Philosophy entails the search for truth, meaning, and beauty. Philosophy activates reason and the life of the mind. Find ways to read and think more deeply about the essential aspects of life.

Beauty: Beauty does not command; it can only summon. Strive to inculcate the beautiful into your life through art, music, and nature. One must actively cultivate beauty or it may remain invisible.

Love: The emptying of oneself for the sake of another. Do yourself a favor and read (or reread) the classic examination The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis. In this short book, Lewis defines and explores friendship, affection, romantic love, and charity in simple but compelling ways.

Prayer: Genuine prayer, the real you in conversation with the real God, cannot be phony or artificial. It requires the combination of intellect and will. In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the usurping King Claudius tries to pray, seeking divine pardon for the murder of his brother. Yet Claudius realizes that neither his soul nor his heart actually desire forgiveness, and he abandons the attempt: “My words fly to heaven, my thoughts stay below / Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” Death: Nothing has the power to prioritize life as quickly as death. Those who suffer from a “midlife crisis” are likely to be of an age when death of friends and family members becomes far too common. The moments of sadness also afford opportunities for reflection and redemption.

Omobono Tucenghi experienced his awakening after the death of his father. He retired from the active world of business and dedicated his remaining years to works of mercy and a life of prayer. His commitment to service and philanthropy earned him a reputation for holiness and sanctity. In 1199, Pope Innocent III canonized Omobono for his heroic vesture toward his faith, family, and community. This incredible story began with the passing of a father, leading to a midlife crisis, and saved by an awakening.

PAUL J. VOSS, PH.D. is an associate professor at Georgia State University and the president of Ethikos, a management consulting firm.

Omobono of Cremona: A business saint for our time

Pope St. John Paul II issued an Apostolic blessing in 1997 addressed to Giulio Nicolini, bishop of Cremona, Italy. In this letter, he briefly recounts the history of St. Omobono of Cremona, emphasizing that Omobono was “the first and only layman of the faithful, not to belong either to the nobility or to a royal or princely family, to be canonized during the Middle Ages.”

Paul J. Voss, Ph.D.

Paul J. Voss, Ph.D.

John Paul’s letter — written in recognition of the “Year of St. Omobono,” celebrated in Cremona between Nov. 13, 1997 and Jan. 12, 1999 — is among the first modern Church documents to reference this important merchant saint. Here John Paul correctly recognizes the “striking parallels” between 12th century Cremona and our modern world:

“Although distant in time, Omobono does in fact figure as a saint for the Church and society of our time … because of the exemplary way this faithful layman worked and lived the Gospel perfection. The striking parallels with the demand of the present time give [this] celebration a profound sense of ‘contemporaneity.’”

Indeed, the profound and complex issues faced by Omobono 800 years ago do mirror our modern world in compelling ways.

Although largely unknown in the English-speaking world, Omobono Tucenghi’s life provides a model of heroic virtue for anyone trying to appreciate the proper role of human work in our daily lives. My colleague Donald Prudlo has recently completed the first-ever English translations of the documents on Omobono’s life, and we have nearly completed the first academic biography of the patron saint of businesspeople and entrepreneurs. This biography will add depth and context to current discussions about the relationship between the free economy and the Catholic faith.

The Bull of Canonization issued by Pope Innocent III in 1199, for example, established a “theology of sainthood.” In this document, Innocent stresses that a reputation for earthly holiness is necessary but not sufficient for sainthood. The earthly reputation must be verified by divine marks of favor in the form of miracles. The vast and sustained expressions of grief after Omobono’s death clearly demonstrated an authentic reputation for holiness, and the subsequent miracles were a sign of divine endorsement. In fact, Omobono’s piety allowed him to avoid “the company of worldly men, among whom he was distinguished like a lily among thorns.”

We see this tension between the life of holiness and the realities of business life in another document as well. In Cum Orbita Solis, issued in 1200, we learn how Omobono’s devotion saved him “from the perverse and depraved practices of the market.” The document recognizes the difficulty of finding the proper work-life balance, for business concerns tend to be all-consuming and require enormous investments of time. The text acknowledges that “it is difficult for one who practices business to divest himself of religious indifference.” For this reason, the Church needs models for those “who trade in money” or work as merchants, demonstrating that no station in life is unworthy of sanctification. Thus, one can find dignity and redemption in all types of work.

Another document, Labentibus Annis, likely issued in 1275, provides even more detail from the life of the merchant saint. Here again we see something strikingly modern in his attitude and behavior. Omobono was a successful, well-respected and established merchant. He owned a home and land, living what we might call today an “upper middle-class” life. He worked diligently and faithfully in his occupation and earned a reputation for honesty and integrity. Yet, as he aged, “his formerly calloused preoccupation with increasing his wealth began to cool, and he no longer began to follow his associates, nor do his job with his usual craftsmanship.”

The merchant from Cremona suffered what we might call a mid-life crisis, had an epiphany, and realized that making money simply for the sake of making more money no longer motivated him. He thus sought a deeper meaning and significance from his life as he directed more of his time, talent and treasure to the service of others. He began a second business, making wine from his little vineyard (and thus began his entrepreneurial activities) and used that money to alleviate poverty and suffering — causing some strife and tension within his family. His wife and children did not support Omobono is his charitable efforts, often leading to arguments and resentment. In spite of the difficulties, Omobono dedicated his life to service and charity.

This brief overview provides a foundation upon which we will build a more robust and detailed analysis. This short introduction, however, clearly demonstrates why John Paul called Omobono a “saint for our time.”

PAUL J. VOSS, PH.D., is president of Ethikos, a professional organization offering ethics training, and an associate professor of literature at Georgia State University.

(Re)introducing St. Homobonus of Cremona

As Fr. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, points out in his June 18 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical Laudato Si does indeed pose a “major challenge” for free market advocates.

Paul J. Voss, Ph.D.

Paul J. Voss, Ph.D.

Pope Francis apparently doesn’t view the free market as a primary tool for reducing poverty or increasing access to health care and other vital services. He likewise doesn’t see private enterprise as a promising school for virtue — as an opportunity to foster and develop prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice.

The Pope challenges academics, economists, politicians, clergy, communities, and others to act in order to change the dominant economic and environmental policies. He candidly admits that he (and by extension, the Church) doesn’t have ready answers for the myriad, specific problems besetting the global economy, and he offers few precise policy recommendations. He does, however, encourage “honest debate” and robust discussion regarding these crucial issues. Supporters of the free market ought to welcome this debate for we have much to offer.

In that spirit, I offer a few humble suggestions. I suggest that we start the discussion in 1197 AD with the death of Homobonus of Cremona. Innocent III canonized him in 1199. Saint Homobonus is the patron saint of business and thus serves as a model of “heroic virtue” for Catholics interested in leading lives of sanctification while working in the world. The Church provides those models to assist the faithful as they navigate the complexities of modern life.

Around 1100, with the rise of medieval towns in Italy, a new form of life emerged that emphasized trade and negotiation between and among people. It soon became apparent that this pre-capitalistic trade required special virtues in order to function properly, and the Church responded by articulating the type of ethics needed in such transactions. This ethic was first seen in the various guilds and brotherhoods voluntarily established by merchants themselves. The Church saw the need for a model of virtue and in response canonized the lay-merchant Homobonus. In this act, it became apparent that no state of life was foreign to the quest for holiness and sanctity: Business could indeed become a vocation.

The spontaneous veneration that formed organically after Homobonus’ death was a clear sign of genuine holiness. However, he is almost universally unrecognized by most Catholics. A simple explanation exists for this benign neglect: Most of the documents regarding his life, work, holiness, and canonization have never appeared in English in a collected and accessible form. Yet if we desire to have a genuinely open and honest debate, we must include these documents and consider the virtues of properly ordered private enterprise.

This important “life of the saint” exists today in rare manuscripts extant only in single copies, scattered among a small handful of archives in Milan and Cremona. The magisterial Acta Sanctorum, already 300 years old, has yet to begin editing the November saints (Homobonus’ feast day is Nov. 13) and will not reach him for at least a decade, if ever. Once collected and translated, Homobonus’ full history will provide the terminus a quo necessary for having a sustained and informed discussion.

Consequently, my colleague Don Prudlo (a professor of medieval Christian history at Jacksonville State University) and I are preparing a trip to Italy to begin the project in earnest next January. When completed and disseminated, the history of St. Homobonus will allow scholars and non-scholars alike to read and learn from this axial figure.

In this way, scholars must work with economists, business leaders, pastors, laity, and others to consider the proper relationship between faith and business. If business is truly a noble vocation — a calling for many millions of men and women — these documents will provide an apt point of departure for reflection and discovery of the venerable and classical tradition of dignified, charitable, and heroic free market activities.

By doing so, we both respond to the Pope’s call for informed, intelligent debate regarding the merits of the free market and the intersection with Catholic teaching and tradition. Once collected, the evidence in favor of a free market working in conformity with the freedom of the individual will prove to be very compelling. As Homobonus demonstrated over 800 years ago, the free market, coupled with individual virtue, is a potent mix capable of producing both individual holiness and promoting the common good and collective well-being. Let the conversation begin!

PAUL J. VOSS, PH.D., is president of Ethikos, a professional organization offering ethics training, and an associate professor of literature at Georgia State University.

The free market & the Catholic faith

PAUL J. VOSS examines the Church’s relationship with the free market and business through four quotes from Church documents. He quotes from Pope Francis, Pope Benedict, Pope Leo XII and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Voss writes that the Church should have an official Catechism of Business. Legates, he said, must to rise to the challenge . . .

Paul J. Voss

Paul J. Voss

The Catholic Church has not historically engaged intellectually with matters of business and economics. There is not, for example, an official Catholic “theology of business.”

The Church reasons that such activities largely fall outside the realm of faith and morals and thus, the judgment of the Church is limited in scope and comprehensiveness. I respectfully disagree. Conducting business necessarily involves morals and ethics — as well as a measure of faith. I submit, for your consideration, four discrete quotes on the topic. I ask readers to attempt to construct a unified argument presented by the Church (if such a unity can be found). The first is from Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor).

“It is surely undeniable that, when a man engages in remunerative labor, the impelling reason and motive of his work is to obtain property, and thereafter to hold it as his very own.

“Thus, if he lives sparingly, saves money, and, for greater security, invests his savings in land, the land, in such case, is only his wages under another form; and so, consequently, a working man’s little estate thus purchased should be as completely at his full disposal as are those wages he receives for his labor. Socialists, therefore, by endeavoring to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large, strike at the interest of every wage earner, since they would deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all the hope and possibility of increasing his resources and of bettering his condition in life” (#5).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has little to say about specific matters of business and industry. However, this quote is insightful.

“The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modern times with ‘communism’ or ‘socialism.’ She has likewise refused to accept, in the practice of ‘capitalism,’ individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor.

“Regulating the economy solely by centralized planning perverts the basis of social bonds; regulating it solely by the law of the marketplace fails social justice, for ‘there are many human needs which cannot be satisfied by the market.’ Reasonable regulation of the marketplace and economic initiatives, in keeping with a just hierarchy of values and a view to the common good, is to be commended” CCC #2425.

The next quote comes from Pope Francis’ 2013 encyclical Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).

“In this context [the disposable culture], some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting” #54.

The final (slightly edited) quote is from Cardinal Timothy Dolan (Wall Street Journal, May 22, 2014). “Yet the answer to problems with the free market is not to reject economic liberty in favor of government control. The Church has consistently rejected coercive systems of socialism and collectivism, because they violate inherent human rights to economic freedom and private property. When properly regulated, a free market can certainly foster greater productivity and prosperity. But, as [Pope Francis] continually emphasizes, the essential element is genuine human virtue.

“Business can be a noble vocation, so long as those engaged in it also serve the common good, acting with a sense of generosity in addition to self-interest.”

Each quote presents compelling and thought-provoking ideas. Yet how can the individual Catholic find a coherent argument — not to mention practical guidance — for conducting business from these various quotes?

Both The Vocation of a Business Leader (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 2013) and A Catechism for Business (Catholic University of America, 2014) attempt to provide a framework, and they have added greatly to our understanding of just, ethical business practices. Yet more work remains. Certainly Legatus members will rise to the challenge of integrating theory and practice.

PAUL J. VOSS, PH.D., is president of Ethikos, a professional organization offering ethics training, and an associate professor of literature at Georgia State University.

Integrity on the playing field of life

Paul J. Voss writes that baseball players linked to performance-enhancing drugs have been denied entrance into the Baseball Hall of Fame. While politicians and celebrities who lack integrity often get a free pass with regard to ethics, sports are different Christians, too, are called to a higher standard. We cannot simply be Sunday-morning Catholics . . .

Paul J. Voss

Paul J. Voss

Each January, the Baseball Writers’ of America Association (BBWAA) announces the results of the annual Hall of Fame voting. The 2013 ballot included some rather impressive names, including Roger Clemens (a seven-time Cy Young award winner), Barry Bonds (the all-time home run king), and Sammy Sosa (the only person in MLB history to hit more than 60 home runs in three different seasons).

Despite their gaudy numbers and impressive career achievements, not a single member of this esteemed trio earned even 38% of the vote (a player needs to be named on 75% of the ballot for admission into the pantheon of all-time greats). The writers had tossed a shutout of historic proportions.

These players, of course, do not have spotless reputations. Strong evidence links each athlete to the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) and a growing consensus among sports writers seems to be emerging: Players who admitted to using PEDs, and even those strongly suspected of using PEDs, will not be admitted into the Hall of Fame anytime soon. In previous years, the writers tipped their hand, so to speak, by refusing to enshrine other Hall-worthy candidates (like Mark McGuire and Rafeal Palmeiro) who had been linked to PEDs. By opting not to admit the users (either admitted or suspected), the writers had ample justification at their disposal.

The BBWAA Election Rules state that “voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played” (#5). This rule obviously leaves some room for interpretation and, as a result, differences certainly emerge. However, the most dominant issue of this election was the use of PEDs and the bearing that drug use had on the words sportsmanship and integrity.

Sportsmanship suggests fairness, respect for an opponent, and graciousness in winning. It also mandates the proper adherence to the rules of the game and prudent disposition of energy. This aspect of sport often caught the attention of Blessed John Paul II, himself an athlete. In marking the 25th World Day of Tourism in 2004, he said: “The correct practice of sport must be accompanied by practicing the virtues of temperance and sacrifice; frequently it also requires a good team spirit, respectful attitudes, the appreciation of the qualities of others, honesty in the game and humility to recognize one’s own limitations.”

Professional athletes obviously strive for every competitive advantage and this desire, often fueled by excessive pride, can weaken any sense of sportsmanship or fair play. Lance Armstrong admitted as much in his recent interview with Oprah Winfrey. The BBWAA obviously felt that using PEDs violated the spirit of sportsmanship and fair play — even if “everyone was doing it.”

The word “integrity” comes from the Latin integritat, meaning “whole” or “complete.” In action and behavior, integrity implies (and even requires) a conspicuous attention to ethics and the quest for human excellence and flourishing. But if we even casually scan the landscape of American politics, business, entertainment and civic life, lack of integrity does not necessarily disqualify a person from high status, adoration or success. We can see myriad examples of complete disregard for integrity — behavior that often leads to worldly success and acclaim. How might we account for this disjunction between the Hall of Fame and everyday life?

The credibility of sport requires integrity from athletes, coaches, equipment manufacturers, referees and the rule book. Without a soundness from all stakeholders, the entire constellation of sporting activities collapses into farce. We value a level playing field, competent officiating, sensible rules and legal equipment in order to preserve the integrity of the game. We may have a cynical attitude toward politics, but our feelings toward sports remains genuine and honest. Thus, cheaters cannot and will not be tolerated.

What does this mean on a practical level for Catholics who desire to live a life of integrity? A life of integrity would reject the balkanization of faith. We cannot simply be Sunday-morning Catholics. In order to achieve integrity, we must integrate our faith into all aspects of our life. We cannot be faithful spouses only 50% of the time. Our role as mother or father is not simply a fashion that changes from one season to the next. In business, we need to treat stakeholders with honesty in every transaction. In the final analysis, the quality of our life — the assessment of our career — will include the amount of integrity we brought to the playing field of life.

PAUL J. VOSS, Ph.D., is president of Ethikos, a professional organization ’offering ethics training, and an associate professor of literature at Georgia State University.

Building a legacy to stand the test of time

Paul Voss contends that words matter. The word “legacy” has multiple meanings — and not all are positive. The word derives from the same word as “Legatus,” so those striving to be ambassadors for Christ should take note of Voss’ insights. On the professional level, more and more companies are focusing on legacy issues . . .

Paul J. Voss

Socrates once famously stated that “all knowledge begins with a definition of terms.” This insight captures an essential characteristic of philosophy and the branch of philosophy called ethics. Without proper discrimination between and among contested terms, intellectual confusion (a roadblock to truth and philosophical clarity) will always result.

Consider, for example, the word legacy. As you can tell from the inset definition, legacy carries a rather impressive pedigree — dating back to the 15th century. The current English word derives from the Latin word legatus, meaning an ambassador or emissary (as readers of this magazine clearly understand). In fact, Legatus challenges its members to become ambassadors for Christ by living public, professional and personal lives of virtue and fidelity. In doing so, Legates actually pay tribute to this rich etymological history.

The word legacy — used exclusively as a noun for nearly 500 years — expands the original meaning and now signifies a “gift” or “bequest” transmitted from one person (or one generation) to another. Used as a noun in this fashion, legacy carries a wholly positive meaning and represents an act of love, charity and care. Creating and preserving a legacy thus becomes the work of a lifetime, as it cannot be forged quickly and it certainly cannot be purchased. The great effort people put into “legacy building” testifies to its enormous importance.

On the professional level, more and more companies are focusing on legacy issues and how to create something of value that can survive through challenging economic times and rapid technological innovation. Businesses of all types see the wisdom in creating a product, service and culture that stands as a legacy for others to nurture and grow. In this sense, any attempt at building — a family, a business, or a community — seeks to establish, at some level, a legacy.

On the personal level, awareness of legacy issues obviously plays a crucial role in the formation of family and faith. Families often create legacies of love, fidelity, faith and service unconsciously, built upon the small acts of daily life, including morning rituals, meals, vacations, prayer, births, religious ceremonies and a host of other activities. The Catholic faith and its rich history and tradition provide ample opportunities for legacy building within families.

However, the word legacy also has a secondary meaning of a much more recent carnation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (the finest dictionary in the English-speaking world), since 1990, legacy can also be used as an adjective. When used in this sense, legacy loses all of the positive connotations it once held. When legacy modifies a noun, it contains a much more insidious meaning, referring to an old or outdated system of little or no value.

We see this sense of legacy in the world of technology — when we confront the “legacy software” or “legacy hardware systems” that no longer have any use or apparent application. When we stumble across this collection of “legacy data,” we erase, discard, ignore or hide it. As an adjective, legacies become expendable, harmful, embarrassing and even unsightly.

So, as we build our legacies, we need to stop and ask a couple of simple questions: Is the legacy you are striving to create a noun or an adjective? How will others view this attempt? Will they see it as a living, dynamic and vital enterprise — and hence a noun worthy of preservation, celebration and emulation? Or will they view the legacy as an adjective and part of an outdated system that no longer has a purchase on our intellects and imaginations. We can easily move these rhetorical questions from the world of business to the world of faith and family life.

Take marriage, for example. Nearly every study undertaken in the recent decades arrives at the same conclusion: Fewer and fewer people are getting married, and of those who do choose marriage, fewer and fewer see it as having a permanent value. The “legacy” component of marriage is rapidly changing from a noun to an adjective. In other words, more people see marriage as a contract between two people rather than a covenant made with God and each other. If those of us who take marriage seriously cannot make a viable case for the value of marriage — for the creation of a legacy — the younger generations will continue to see it as an outdated or unnecessary formality and the unfortunate shift from noun to adjective will continue to gain strength.

Paul J. Voss, PH.D., is president of Ethikos, a professional organization offering ethics training, and an associate professor of literature at Georgia State University.

The Catholic work ethic

Paul J. Voss argues that the Protestant work ethic is really less about theology and more about habits. Many Protestants believe that “idleness is the devil’s playground” and that work decreases the scope of such devilish entertainment. Voss ponders the corresponding “Catholic work-ethic” and how it differs from the Protestant ethic . . .

Paul J. Voss

Writing in the early 20th century, German sociologist Max Weber promulgated the idea that a so-called “Protestant work ethic” led to the development of a free-market, capitalistic economic subsystem, engendering the subsequent rise in the standard of living in Europe and North America.

Although dismissed by many scholars today, this formulation continues to be widely cited and accepted. One need only to look at American history to see names such as Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Morgan, Huntington and a host of others to recognize the profound and lasting imprint this “work ethic” had on our culture and history. America, according to this explanation, is a land of rugged individualism and self-made men (and women) who have pulled themselves up by their “boot straps.”

The so-called Protestant work ethic is really less about theology and more about habits and industry. Many Protestants believed that “idleness is the devil’s playground” and that work would decrease the size and scope of such devilish entertainment. Work became an end in itself, not simply a means to an end. By extension, material wealth emerged as a symbol of rectitude and even piety. We still see this belief in the supreme value of work operating in our culture — where “workaholics” spend 12, 14 and even 16 hours per day in professional endeavors, where “work-life balance” ranks near the top of most-desired but elusive goals, and where few Americans take their entire allotment of vacation.

So it appears that the Protestant work ethic is alive and well. But this begs an obvious question: Is there such a thing as a Catholic work ethic? Does the Catholic mind have a different conception of work? What does the Church have to say about the nature of work, industry, profit, leisure, rest and other pressing matters? What does the Church say about the tension between a free market/capitalistic economy versus a socialized/state-run economy?

To answer these questions, one should look to the Catechism or Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate. Additionally, I’d suggest two books. First, Michael Novak’s Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life (1996). Novak examines business as a vocation (from the Latin vocare and hence a calling). He sees business, properly understood, as “a morally serious calling” with aims higher and broader than simply the accumulation of wealth. His three virtues of business — creativity, building community, and practical realism — have nothing to do with the bottom line, per se. All Catholic business executives — especially those who take the adjective Catholic seriously — ought to read (or reread) this book.

Another valuable addition to the conversation comes from the insightful work of Dr. Josef Pieper. In his classic Leisure as the Basis of Culture (1952), Pieper articulates a vision of the Catholic work ethic. Pieper juxtaposes otium (the contemplative life) and negotium (the active life) and famously defends leisure and the contemplative life. Many people — and this includes Catholics — overvalue the sphere of work. Pieper believes that work must be seen as a means to an end (perhaps an important means, but a means nevertheless). The proper end of human work ought to be the attainment of leisure: We work in order to be free from work.

Leisure, of course, does not imply idleness or sloth; Pieper would never advocate laziness. For the philosopher, leisure means “intellectual work,” the type of thinking and reflecting proper to humans and the type of mental cognition that makes us most fully human. This type of leisure is required, ironically enough, to produce great art, theology, philosophy, poetry and various other forms of learning and beauty:

“Leisure, it must be clearly understood, is a mental and spiritual attitude — it is not simply the result of external factors. It is not the inevitable result of spare time, a holiday, a weekend or a vacation. It is, in the first place, an attitude of mind, a condition of the soul and as such utterly contrary to the ideal of ‘work’ as activity, as toil, as a social function.”

If this indeed represents a nascent version of the Catholic work ethic, perhaps it’s time for businessmen and women to build, refashion or update this foundation. We can do this by asking a few questions: How do we, as executives, cultivate the life of the mind and the condition of the soul necessary for this type of intellectual and spiritual work? How do we model it within our families? Do we create an environment at work where this type of activity is supported, encouraged and enhanced? Addressing these and many other related questions may indeed be the catalyst for a much larger discussion.

Paul J. Voss, Ph.D., is president of Ethikos, a professional organization offering ethics training and an associate professor of literature at Georgia State University.

Prudence and ethical hazard

Paul Voss contends that in the current economic meltdown, irrationality replaced the reason required of the free marketplace. In order for markets to work, both honesty and reason must operate fully. In retrospect, it’s easy to blame banks and predatory lending practices. But it should be noted that consumers didn’t have guns to their heads . . .

Paul J. Voss

By definition, ethical hazard — often called moral hazard — occurs when systems or processes actually provide incentives for individuals to engage in illegal, risky or unethical behavior. Ethical hazard often occurs when individuals bear little or no responsibility for their actions.

Ethical hazard continues to flourish in our world today, often with a profound economic dimension. For example, Michael Lewis, author of the best-selling The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, keenly chronicles how ethical hazard helped contribute to the devastating mortgage crisis and, ultimately, to our current great recession. Lewis, perhaps the most insightful (and certainly the most readable) commentator on the global economic crisis, examines how easy credit and free-flowing money provided perverse incentives in a bubble real estate market—encouraging hundreds of banks to loan money (they didn’t have) to millions of consumers to buy homes (they could not afford).

In a short period of time, irrationality replaced the reason required of the free marketplace. In order for markets to work, both honesty and reason must operate fully. However, the numbers simply would not scan when applied to risky (or sub-prime) loans, losing any semblance of rationality. According to Lewis, “the interest rate on the loans wasn’t high enough to justify the risk of lending to this slice of the American population. It was as if the ordinary rules of finance had been suspended in response to a social problem.” Collectively, bankers and home buyers lost the good of the intellect.

In retrospect, it’s easy to blame banks and the so-called “predatory lending practices” used by mortgage companies. But it should be noted consumers didn’t have guns to their heads. No bank coerced them into taking out the loans. Both sides of the transaction share culpability for acting without prudence. Now that our economy appears on the slow road to recovery, what can we learn from this financial debacle?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church actually says very little about business and the pressing issues facing the world economy. In fact, with all the attention given to questions about stimulus, tax rates, unions, free markets, health care reform, welfare, unemployment, and a host of other economic concerns, the Catechism only provides rather general, even if excellent, guidelines:

“The Church has rejected the totalitarianism and atheistic ideologies associated in modern times with ‘communism’ or ‘socialism.’ She has likewise refused to accept, in the practice of ‘capitalism,’ individualism and absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor. Regulating the economy solely by centralized planning perverts the basis of social bonds; regulating it solely by the law of the marketplace fails social justice, for there are many human needs which cannot be satisfied by the market. Reasonable regulation of the marketplace and economic initiatives, in keeping with a just hierarchy of values and a view to the common good, is to be commended” (CCC 2425).

The definition of “reasonable regulation” can vary widely from person to person, and we see this tension played out each day in Washington. The emphasis upon prudence, however, remains a hallmark of the teaching. So how should we enhance prudential judgments in our lives — both in the public and private spheres?

Oscar Wilde once quipped, “I can resist anything except temptation.” Unfortunately, the world is full of temptations. Thus, the Act of Contrition reminds us to avoid the near occasion of sin. The Lord’s Prayer famously pleads “lead us not into temptation.” It’s a warning away from the power of temptation and staying clear of the ethical hazard.

The lives of the saints provide us with ample examples of heroic virtue in business. Quick trivia question: Who is the Patron Saint of Business? If you guessed St. Homobonus (Latin for “good man”), congratulations. It puts you in rare company. We know very little about Homobonus and few feel a deep connection to his patronage. We have more information, however, on St. Margaret Clitherow, a martyr from the Elizabethan period and patroness of businesswomen. Margaret was crushed to death by rocks for allowing a Catholic priest to say Mass in her home. She left behind an accounts book from the family farm and thus came about her patronage. But even the communion of saints provides only a modest number of models to emulate.

Yet, at the end of the day, we must use the general framework of the faith and the virtue of prudence (the queen of all the virtues according to St. Thomas Aquinas) in conducting business activity. Prudential judgments play a signal role in the business enterprise — from cash flows, to inventory, to expansion, hiring, product offerings, and nearly every aspect of a company. But more than ever, we need to exercise the virtue of prudence, both to recognize and to resist the lures of ethical hazard.

Paul J. Voss, Ph.D., is president of Ethikos, a professional organization offering ethics training, and an associate professor of literature at Georgia State University.

Civilization, culture and the free market

Ethikos president Dr. Paul J. Voss writes that the free marketwhich conforms to and upholds the dignity of the person and has created more wealth for more people than any other economic system in history — is not completely free. He contends that the free market depends on telling the truth; it depends on ethical behavior of the participants . . .

Paul J. Voss

More than ever, businesses lately find themselves in cost-containment mode. During these challenging economic times, companies must focus with laser-like precision on revenue, inventory, margins, employment, interest rates and other financial metrics. Indeed, in this environment, businesses tend necessarily to fixate on the bottom line — almost to the exclusion of everything else.

Such attention, of course, might display prudence (the queen of all virtues according to St. Thomas Aquinas), and prudent companies stand a better chance of surviving (and even flourishing) than imprudent ones. However, when properly considered, business has a higher function and nobler calling than mere numerical metrics can attest. Ultimately, business is fundamentally a human activity, conducted by humans for a human purpose and to fulfill a human need. Companies that ignore this human dimension of business — the ethics of business — do so at their own peril.

Fully appreciating this point rests upon the distinction between civilization and culture. Although many people use these terms interchangeably, the words mean different things. Clarity on this issue remains crucial for a Catholic understanding of business.

Civilization refers to those attributes that make life (and work) possible, including abundant supplies of drinking water, medicine and food, not to mention public sanitation, transportation, education and social harmony. In North America, this impressive civilization allows for a life expectancy of nearly 85 years for females and 78 years for males. Our civilization continues to provide new technological advances in medicine, communication, transportation and other aspects that make long, healthy lives possible.

Culture, on the other hand, consists of those things that make life (and work) worthwhile — including those products of the human imagination such as art, music, literature, baseball, architecture and more. Culture is not merely life-sustaining, it is life-edifying. Culture is not simply the production and distribution of food (more proper to the sphere of civilization), but rather the pleasures of Mexican, Chinese or Italian cuisine. Culture, derived from the Latin word cultus (meaning, among other things, “to cultivate”) requires hard work and attention. We create culture by how we think and relate with each other within a community. If civilization refers to the “what” we do, culture refers to the “how” we do it.

How does this apply to business and ethical behavior? Consider again the word “civilization.” In business, civilization is the “what” you sell, produce or market. Civilization is the end product. In most cases, we have little or no control over the civilization. Technology advances rapidly and we adapt to the changing civilization. Civilization is a given and widespread. Other people likely sell, produce or market the same things (the same what) that your company does. In other words, everything is becoming a commodity as intellectual capital becomes dispersed over the supply base.

Consequently, since the what is readily available for consumers (i.e., we have numerous choices for the goods and services we purchase) the only meaningful way to differentiate your business in a marketplace is to have a higher quality how. In fact, as we move forward, the what you sell, produce or market will matter less and less than how you sell, produce or market that good or service.

What connection does this distinction have on individual ethics, integrity and faith? Here’s the link: The how you sell, produce or market a product has a clear and conspicuous ethical dimension. The how you do something is the human side of business and we need to get the human side of business right.

Pope Benedict XVI discusses the distinction between civilization and culture in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate. He acknowledges that, at first glance, it’s not clear what the Church might have to say about business per se and that “the Church does not have technical solutions to offer” to individuals or states in the form of policy. In this sense, the Pope refers to the civilization of business — those activities most properly suited for engineers, managers and scientists (and not theologians). But he then explores in-depth the  human dimension of the market and the impact our thinking and relating has on culture and the Catholic Church. In other words, he examines the how of human business.

In working with clients, I advocate a conspicuously free-market approach to business. The free market, which conforms to and upholds the dignity of the person, has created more wealth for more people than any other economic system in history — allowing more families the opportunity to secure an education, own a home, take vacations and realize a secure future. But the free market is not free: The free market depends on telling the truth; it depends on ethical behavior of the participants. Plato wrote that “in order for us to live together in society, we must tell the truth to each other about basic matters.” Likewise, the Gospel says that “he who is faithful in little things is also faithful in much” (Lk 16:10).

Without truth and truth-tellers, the free market will fail. Thus, people of faith must conspicuously cultivate lives of honesty — both within their homes and their companies. If we cannot turn to men and women of faith to tell the truth about basic things, then the future of the free market is indeed uncertain.

Paul J. Voss, Ph.D., is president of Ethikos, a professional organization offering ethics training, and an associate professor of literature at Georgia State University.