The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the Vatican department that studies Catholic social teaching, last week released its Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. The document will surely attract significant attention over the next few months.
No doubt, there will be many questions. One will be the degree of authority that Catholics should attach to different segments of the text. The Compendium reminds its readers (#9) that different levels of teaching authority are associated with different parts of Catholic social teaching. Curiously, however, it does not spell out what these are.
Then there is the issue of whether the Compendium actually confines itself, as it claims, “to putting forth the fundamental elements of the Church's social doctrine” (#8), or whether particular prudential judgments have made their way into the text.
These are open questions. But those anxious for the Catholic Church to illustrate that it takes business seriously will take heart from this Compendium.
Following developments in magisterial teaching pioneered by John Paul II's social encyclicals, the Compendium describes economic activity “as a grateful response to the vocation which God holds out for each person" (#326). This should help dispel the notion that “real “vocations are only found in politics, law, education, or the Church.
The Compendium, of course, stresses that economic life does not escape the demands of Christian morality. This point is, however, framed in an overwhelmingly positive way, in the sense that creative economic activity is viewed as potentially contributing, by its very nature, to human flourishing.
In this context, the Compendium stresses, “The Church's social doctrine considers the freedom of the person in economic matters a fundamental value and an inalienable right to be promoted and defended" (#336). This builds upon similar statements found in Pope Pius XII's teachings, as well as more recent statements in John Paul II's Centesimus Annus (1991) and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1988).
But the Compendium adds that, not only should this teaching remind us of “the negative consequences that would arise from weakening or denying the right of economic initiative," but that "free and responsible initiative in the economic sphere can also be defined as an act that reveals the humanity of men and women as creative and relational subjects. Such initiative, then, should be given ample leeway. The State has the moral obligation to enforce strict limitations only in cases of incompatibility between the pursuit of common good and the type of economic activity proposed or the way it is undertaken" (#336).
Here, two points are made about economic initiative. The first is a moral point: that acts of entrepreneurship reveal something distinctly human about us as persons: that we are, by nature, creative beings, whose creativity is directed not just to ourselves, but to others. The second point is that this has political implications. Anarchism is clearly incompatible with the Christian Gospel and the natural law. The moral significance of free economic creativity, however, places clear limits on state economic intervention. This is not an argument about the relative efficiency of market versus planned economies (a dispute resolved decades ago in favor of markets), but rather about how certain moral facts about the person translate into concrete political positions.
It is also refreshing to see the Compendium apply these themes directly to business owners and managers." Economic initiative," it states, "is an expression of human intelligence and of the necessity of responding to human needs in a creative and cooperative fashion “ (#343). On this basis, the Compendium describes entrepreneurship as not just an individual virtue, but also as a ”social virtue“ (#343), precisely because it involves "seeking together of the most appropriate solutions for responding in the best way to needs as they emerge" (#343). Indeed, the Compendium notes that "The roles of business owners and management have a central importance from the viewpoint of society, because they are at the heart of that network of technical, commercial, financial, and cultural bonds that characterizes the modern business reality “ (#344).
Business people are thus not an optional-extra in a free and virtuous society. They are, in fact, essential.
All of these statements about business should be put into the context of everything else that the Compendium says. It underlines, for instance, many of the responsibilities of business people (#344-345), though in a far more coherent way than the political correctness that passes as “business ethics” in most universities today.
Still,any fair reading of the Compendium will suggest that a proper attention and a positive evaluation of business has been firmly cemented into Catholic social teaching. For that, the whole Christian church should give thanks.