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Legatus Magazine

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Bill Bowman | author
Jul 01, 2014
Filed under Ethics

What is Pope Francis saying to business leaders?

BILL BOWMAN writes that Pope Francis made some business leaders uncomfortable with Evangelii Gaudium last fall. The Pope wants us to focus on people, on their dignity, on their need for a “leg up,” on their rights to make decisions on their own. Bowman says the best way to do that is to incorporate the four pillars of Catholic social doctrine . . .

Bill Bowman

Bill Bowman

Pope Francis has made many business leaders uncomfortable since the publication of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium last November. It was followed in mid-May by his comments to the heads of United Nations agencies gathered in Rome.

His language was certainly designed to get our attention: “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories;” “the excluded are still waiting;” “legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the state.”

The reaction from the right was immediate. “That’s Marxism. That’s socialism. That’s not charity.” Other critics were more polite and reasoned. And the left denounced capitalism and joyously proclaimed that the Pope had endorsed income redistribution.

In trying to align these statements with those of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, commentators have pointed out that an exhortation does not carry the same weight as an encyclical, that Catholics are free to disagree on secular issues such as preferred economic structures, that laypeople are supposed to take the lead in political efforts to build a better society, and that his Argentinean experience has somehow colored his views.

But we can’t be too quick to dismiss a Pope’s point of view. Saint John XXIII made this point in Mater et Magistra in 1961: “The Church has the right and obligation not only to guard ethical and religious principles, but also to declare its authoritative judgment in the matter of putting these principles into practice” (#239).

Very few of us can influence macroeconomic policy, so I think the Pope’s point is not to have us debate but to have us act. He has moved out of the apostolic palace. When will we move out of ours?

We have 125 years of Catholic social doctrine that provide a map for us. There are four well-developed principles that can be incorporated in our businesses: 1) The dignity of the human person, which is the foundation of all social doctrine. 2) Solidarity, where “all are responsible for all.” 3) Subsidiarity, requiring that decisions be made at the lowest level where the capability exists. 4) Universal destination of goods.

The dignity of the human person. Do we see our employees’ growth in dignity as our primary responsibility? Do we really believe that this is the purpose of our business? How might we measure this?

Promoting solidarity. “All are responsible for all” means that we have to be looking outside the immediate confines of our business to see if we really feel responsibility for others. Is there a way to include our customers and suppliers in a common effort to improve others’ situation?

Promoting subsidiarity. Are we a top-down organization where too many decisions have to “go up the chain” and be approved by senior management? If these decisions can be made at lower levels, subsidiarity demands that we trust others (where it’s been earned) with the decision-making process. Living subsidiarity should reduce our costs. We’ll need fewer layers of management if we empower employees to make decisions on their own.

Universal destination of goods. Everything we were taught in business says that the goods are destined for the owners. Sure, we pay our employees fairly and treat our suppliers with respect. That’s just good business. But the profits belong to the owners. However, the “owner” of the goods is God. We are merely stewards.

Pope Francis takes an example from scripture to show us how we should act. Jesus encounters the rich tax collector Zacchaeus. After his warm encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus announces: “I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody, I will pay back four times the amount.” Francis holds Zacchaeus as a model for us: “Does this spirit of solidarity and sharing guide all our thoughts and actions?”

The Pope wants us to focus on people, on their dignity, on their need for a “leg up,” on their rights to make decisions on their own. The best way we can respond to Pope Francis is to incorporate the four pillars of Catholic social doctrine. Then we will be doing our part, and if repeated by millions of others, we will help the poor and the marginalized improve their lives.

BILL BOWMAN is CEO of and a consultant with over 25 years’ experience as president and CEO of various companies.


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