The Pope on Business Ethics

A few people have asked me what I thought about the Pope’s recent Encyclical touching on business ethics, “Caritas in Veritate” (Charity in Truth).

Well, in truth, I haven’t read it. And I probably won’t get around to it. I’m relying on second-hand news sources, such as this piece from the Globe and Mail: Pope denounces profits at all costs. Based on those reports, the Pope’s essay seems a mixed bag. “Profit is useful if it serves as a means toward an end” — that’s a good bit. The globalized economy has “lifted billions of people out of misery” — also a good bit. “The economy needs…an ethics which is people centred” — not sure what he thinks the alternative is, but OK. “[P]eople from developed countries… have benefited more from the liberalization that has occurred in the mobility of capital and labour…” — I’m pretty sure that’s empirically false, if we’re talking relative benefit, but at very least it’s unsupported in the Encyclical itself (would it kill him to cite data?)

But really, my main reason not to bother with the Pope’s new essay — with all due respect to my friends among the several hundred million Catholics in the world — is that he’s writing from a particularly isolated sub-branch of one moral tradition, and the Pope’s particular train of thought is one that doesn’t seem interested in engaging with the broader conversation over the appropriate role of business in the world. Want proof? Check out the footnotes at the end of “Caritas in Veritate”. 159 footnotes, and not a single one refers to any modern scholar in business ethics or any cognate discipline. Not even to any of the many fine Catholic scholars in that field. The only footnote that isn’t to either the Pope himself, or to some past Pope, is a trivial footnote to the ancient, Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Why would I, or anyone else not especially fascinated by Catholic teachings, bother to pay attention?

11 comments so far

  1. Diego on

    Im not a catholic but I´ve read Caritas in Veritate. It´s an interesting work and I think it makes a good reflection about where we are (as mankind).
    On the other hand I think your reason to not reading it is flawed, its a falace (ad hominem). Just because the author doesn´t quote doesn´t mean that what he is trying to say has no merits. Therefore your main reason is quite innvalid.
    LEt me share the reasons of why I read it, maybe you´ll find them convincing:
    1. The pope, weather we like it or not, is the moral leader of millions.
    2. He is a respectable image through out the world.
    3. His work as a theologist (as Ratzinger) was always really good.
    4. His voice is heard everywhere!!!!
    5. The churchs social doctrines have constantly been one of the first to dennounce abuse (although not always)all over the world.

    Aside from that is not very long and I think is well thought and intended.
    And remember -very important- not going to the original (and only to commentators) kind of limits our hability to argue.

    See ya!

  2. DarryleHuffman on

    In my classes I have taken thus far in Ethics I have learned that people derive thier Ethics from some source. It can be religion, parents or some other way which tells us how we should respond to an action. Those who agree with Pope Benedictine would agree with what he says and work to change. They would not see the facts that are not emperical. If they do they would brush them and take it as whole and accept what they believe.
    Thier is a differentiation between Ethics and Moral. What may be ethical may not be moral and likewaise what may be moral may not be ethical.
    Abortion is considered an ethical option but some consider morally wrong. In regards to pay it may be morally write to pay high salary or bonus but now the common perception is that it may be ethically wrong.
    I am also wondering if Liberation Theology is not influncing Benedictine somewhat. He has opposed Liberation Theology but not the total concept of the tennants of Liberation Theology.

  3. Chris MacDonald on


    This may be a little off-topic, but I’m not quite sure what distinction you have in mind between ethics & morals. Different people do use the words differently (especially in non-technical discussions). But my understanding of those terms wouldn’t support the claims you’re making about abortion & high salaries.

    As for Liberation Theology: I have no idea!


  4. DarryleHuffman on

    My concept of Morals and Ethics is this. Ethics can be legislated through laws. Morals to me are the persons pecptions about some action

    I go to a Catholic college and we had some study about it. It is popular in Latin America and has closely resembled Marxism. It was so close to Marxism the Catholic Church denounced it. If you get chance watch the movie Romero. It shows what Liberation Theology is. In an overveiw the blame for the causes for the mistreatment of the poor comes from Capitalism. Thats to me is the meaning of the people centered remark.

  5. Mrs. A on

    This may sound like a silly question but it is genuine. I was confused by the statements made in earlier comments and would like to be set straight. I always understood ethics and morals to be pretty much the same thing. Rather morals were more like statements or lessons and ethics a review or study of morals. Is this correct? Wrong? Misguided?

  6. Little Green Men on

    Well, I see most of the things done by the Vatican city or the Pope himself as pretty odd. It is amazing to me that millions of people are following this religion. Almost every time when I read some catholic text I ask myself “how can somebody be so wrong?” I don’t know, maybe I am wrong. My religion is very smple: believe in yourself and respect others.

    For me, for example, it is immoral and unethical to discourage people from using condoms.

  7. Chris MacDonald on

    Mrs. A:

    you’re right….the terminology varies a bit, but the distinction Darryle implies is non-standard.
    The way I usually explain the difference is that morals are our beliefs about right and wrong, whereas t
    ethics is the attempt to improve and clarify our thinking about morality.
    For casual purposes we can use the terms roughly interchangeably… Eg, moral obligations are the same thing as ethical obligations.


  8. DarryleHuffman on

    Chris I want to thank you for correcting me. One of the ways we learn is to expose ourselves to criticism from those who know more than we do about subject. Agian I want to say thanks for the lesson learned.

  9. Jennifer Roback Morse on

    Chris, given that you say this about yourself, “If you believe either
    a) that corporations have a god-given right to accumulate as much capital as possible without regard for who gets hurt along the way, or
    b) that all corporations, and all people who work for them, are inherently evil, you will probably be irritated by this blog,” I think you would be interested in what Benedict has to say. He is neither bashing capitalism, nor promoting it. He is saying that the market cannot “float on its own bottom,” so to speak. that is, the proper functioning of the market requires values and reflection that the market itself can’t provide. We need a vantage point from outside the market in order to evaluate it, and certainly, in order to temper it in light of ethical considerations. I wrote a commentary on it here:
    Honestly, I think you have done the man a disservice by commenting on his work without reading it, and basing your arguments only on second hand reports.
    your friend,
    Dr Morse

  10. Chris MacDonald on


    Thanks for your comment.

    But your description of his contribution isn’t very compelling…doesn’t sound like he’s saying anything plenty of other people haven’t already said.

    But if he’s not bothering to read anyone else, why should anyone else bother to read him? As far as I can tell from his bibliography, he’s badly under-informed about ethical issues related to the market.


  11. Sang-gye on

    oh, and by the way, I read Dr. Morse’s commentary. She points out that the Pope suggests that structures like family are necessary for an individual to maintain his/her moral integrity. How about discussing the story of Earl Jone’s family (see:

    In Germany under the Nazi reign, “Sippenhaft” was a feared and (therefore) effective method of the totalitarian state: when the suspect (communist, homosexual, dissenting Christian, etc.) could not be found, the police would come for the family members. Any decision would have to be made in the light of your actions possibly back-firing on your loved ones and – as a family member – you might, in order to save yourself – be tempted to rat your brother, sister, mother, father out to the authorities.

    Well, I am sort of glad that families today get away with an apology. How the heck were they to know what was going on, right? I sure wouldn’t have known if my dad stole pens from the office drawer. Although … forgetful as he was he might have.


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