Perhaps Pope Benedict chose the name as he knew he’d have to break some eggs in order to make an economic omelet that would satisfy the political tastes of the world. And there is surely considerable theology and philosophy for socialists, capitalists and even Third Wayers to chew on in “Charity in Truth.” As an investment advisor who has written five books on the Judeo-Christian ethic of managing money, I found this morsel tasty, if aged: “Financiers must rediscover the genuinely ethical foundation of their activity.”
Yet disciples of Ayn Rand’s laissez faire capitalism to right-wing Internet conspiracy theorists are sure to beat Benedict’s ingredient of a “world political authority” to manage the global economy to froth. They don’t tend to be loyal diners at the Vatican café anyway. Right-wingers are sure to translate those three words into Benedict being the anti-Christ establishing one world government. Even Nobel-economist Milton Friedman wrote this after the Vatican’s last economic menu was published, which was far more limited in what it served up: “The church tends to believe that it should exercise control not only over the spiritual realm but also over the material realm and that’s where all the difficulties arise.” And sure enough, Benedict laid one egg squarely on Friedman’s plate with this sentiment: “Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty.”
Friedman, of course, famously taught the only social responsibility of a business is to make money. That sentiment fueled the theory of “maximizing shareholder value.” That theory essentially subordinated customers, employees, citizenship and the environment to simple stock prices, though it did enrich many CEO’s during the great bull market. Largely due to Friedman’s Chicago School of Economics, the theory dominated our business schools, corporate executive suites and board rooms for decades. But even Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric and a former high priest of the theory, recently termed it the “dumbest” business idea ever. Apparently, there is far less conflict between sound Judeo-Christian morality and sound business practices than some have taught during recent decades. For no other reason, business professors and leaders should chew on the encyclical.
From my perspective as the founder of The Financial Seminary however, the most important ingredient is not political, economic, or investment and management theory. Unfortunately, it is so subtle most are likely to miss the dynamic seasoning altogether. It is the Church’s responsibility for the current global economic crisis. Near the very beginning, Benedict confesses: “I am aware of the ways in which charity has been and continues to be misconstrued and emptied of meaning, with the consequent risk of being misinterpreted, detached from ethical living.” In other words, ask a hundred church-goers what charity means and ninety-nine, or more, will likely tell you it means giving money to the church and/or poor. And when charity, or the loving stewardship of our time, talent and treasure, is solely about money rather than ethical living, it is inevitable that business will be too. So our world may be suffering a credit crisis largely as “judgment begins in the house of the Lord” and that house has only expected one thing from businesspeople lately: money. So businesspeople only value that too. We should know better.
It hasn’t been that long since Pope John Paul II confessed: “The leading sectors of society have been neglected and many people have thus been estranged from the church. If evangelization of society’s leaders is neglected, it should come as no surprise that many who are part of it will be guided by criteria alien to the Gospel and at times openly hostile to it.” Morality also abhors a vacuum. That is why the Library of Congress says Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which turned the Bible upside-down for Wall Street and corporate CEO’s, is the second most influential book in America, just after the Bible. That is surely a metaphor for a church-going but ethically challenged America.
Understanding the root of all evil affects even the Church, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops once cautioned: “Concentrating on one specific obligation of stewardship, even one as important as church support, could make it harder—even impossible—for people to grasp the vision. It could imply that when the bishops get serious about stewardship, what they really mean is simply giving money.” I’m not sure we’d know how to talk about more than money if we even wanted to.
Noted Catholic theologian Michael Novak has written: “There exists no serious disciplined body of theological reflection on the history and foundations of economics. In few areas has Christian theology, in particular, been so little advanced. Corporate executives and workers, white-collar workers and teachers, doctors and lawyers—all have need of spiritual guidance. How can this be given until we have a theology as realistic as the work they do?” While “Charity in Truth” might encourage far more bishops, and a few more priests, to concentrate on more than fundraising, I’m not sure those in the pews will find it all that “realistic” in helping them with their everyday challenges at work.
That theological/realistic divide troubles far more than Catholicism, prompting the so-called “Sunday/Monday divide,” a term coined by Professor Laura Nash of Harvard, in the thinking of most Christian businesspeople. After studying mainline pastors, Professor Robert Wuthnow of Princeton concluded: “When we asked pastors to talk to us about stewardship, we encouraged them to tell us how they understood it in the broadest possible terms. Repeatedly, however, we found the church their only frame of reference. They immediately talked about serving the church, doing church work and giving money to the church.” Are businesspeople more morally challenged if they care only about their corporations and profits?
As with corporate leaders, the thinking of church leaders usually begins with our educational institutions. And evangelical stewardship leader Dr. Wesley Wilmer of Biola University has written: “The topic of finances is the one pastors most avoid. Fear of sermons on money is the chief excuse for not attending church and not bringing guests. And today’s seminaries, by their own admission, are extremely reluctant to take the lead in helping pastors and church leaders learn how to become better stewards.”
So if I might top off today’s eggs Benedict with a healthy serving of realism: If seminaries again teach holistic stewardship, future clergy may help business leaders remember there’s more to life than money; and we all, including future generations, might finally enjoy the more abundant life the Gospel promises.