Those who keep wondering when religion is ever going to bring anything of relevance into their lives need wait no longer. On June 29, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI announced a social encyclical, “Caritas in Veritas” (charity in truth), responding to the latest global financial crisis. Avoiding the pitfalls of individual condemnation, the pope provided moral guidance for those in the financial fields and all people in their daily performance of their jobs.
“It is a document that everyone — from the most rabid free marketeer to those who most condemn capitalistic democracy — will find something heartening, something disappointing, and a lot challenging,” says David Miller, founder of Princeton University’s Faith and Work Initiative. To consider our economic health in light of the Pope’s encyclical, Miller and the initiative are presenting “Civilizing the Economy: A New Way of Understanding Business Enterprise?” This day-long seminar takes place on Friday, April 9, beginning 8:30 a.m. in Princeton University’s Computer Science Building. Admission is free. A box lunch costs $10. Visit http://faithandwork.princeton.edu
“We felt from the beginning that this was a very strong, insightful document,” says Miller. “It represented the kind of leadership that we have been very much needing from the church. We at the Faith and Work Initiative felt we wanted to give this document the respect and reflection it deserved.”
To provide full perspective in this reflection Miller has gathered a broad ranging panel of business leaders, theologians, economists, and faith leaders to consider and respond.
Miller joins this host of speakers, which includes Geoffrey Boisi, chair and CEO of Roundtable Investment Partners; Leo Becchetti, an economist from the University of Rome; C. William Pollard, former chair and CEO of Service Master; Max Stackhouse, a professor at the Princeton Theological Seminary; and Charles Wilber, emeritus professor of economics at Notre Dame.
Miller’s friends jibe him that he is a repentant investment banker, but he insists not, despite his rather abrupt shift in career focus. Though born in California, Miller labels himself as “a local kid” who spent K – 12 in the Pennington School system. His eastward migration resulted from his father leaving the navy to become a research scientist at the David Sarnoff Center.
Graduating from Bucknell University in 1979 with the unusual dual major of business and German, Miller found himself ideally situated for international commerce. He joined Midland Bank, becoming director of securities, and maintained that position when Midland was bought by the HBSC Group. Miller transferred to London for eight years, first as head of international mergers and acquisitions for State Street Bank, then later as a partner in a private equity firm.
Then, after 16 years in banking and corporate management, Miller felt a new calling. The Catholic Miller insists that he was neither stricken blind nor over come by his sins. The desire for change came gradually.
“It was not a crisis in my career or negating of the past,” he says. “Rather, it was a new, added direction in my life.” He returned to academe, taking a Master’s of Divinity and Ph.D. in ethics from Princeton Theological Seminary. After teaching at Yale’s business and theological schools, Miller and his wife, Karen, a former lawyer and law school professor, returned to Princeton and launched the Faith and Work Initiative. He is author of “God at Work” (Oxford University Press, 2007) and president of the Avodah Institute. (www.avodahinstitute.com), which helps business leaders integrate the claims of their faith to their work.
“The pope has provided us with neither a socialist nor capitalist manifesto,” says Miller. “Instead he offers a constructive blueprint for everyone in business.”
As periodic letters cycled around through all the world’s Catholic churches, Papal encyclicals carry the full weight of the church’s leadership, and stand as its official position. Full text of this encyclical letter and various commentaries may be found by browsing online “Caritas in Veritas.”
In the final words of his encyclical, the pope called on us all to “dedicate ourselves with generosity to the task of bringing about the development of the whole man and of all men.” Budgeting our lives into work mode, family mode, play mode, and so on holds consequences that are not only morally dangerous, but personally unsatisfying.
Individually the topics of the encyclical are numerous, each insightfully striking a potential, a need, and a response from all corners of the business community. The encyclical questions “the capacity of a purely technological society to set goals and make good use of the instruments at its disposal” noting that “progress of a merely economic and technological kind is insufficient.” While beneficial, true human progress is more than just bringing thousands of previously uneducated people online.
Addressing labor unions, the pope acknowledged their historically strong benefits in improving workers’ state, and now admonishes them to break old barriers and strive further for the total good of their members and humankind.
He praised the financial realm as having launched many “instruments directed towards improved wealth creation and development,” but called for a redesigning of “the misuses that have wrought havoc on the real economy” by funneling funds into the hands of a specific few.
If love is wise, he said, it can find ways of “working with provident and just expediency.”
Human migration, educational necessities, international tourism — every commercial aspect comes in for review. Each is given guidance, not condemnation. Commerce is expressed as “innately human,” and thus innately good. But whether it remains operationally ethical or oppressive remains up to us.
“Simply put, the pope has stated that there is such a thing as truth,” Miller says. “And you can’t build a moral, progressive business community on the shifting sands of relativism or situational ethics.” To make true human progress, the time is long overdue for leaders of all faiths and in all fields of business to reach across the artificial gap that has increasingly separated them.
Miller admits that the document is controversial, but at the same time he argues that this is truly the church’s role — to be a guide. Instead of concentrating only on its own problems of falling attendance, sexual abuses, and fundamentalists violence. The Curch, with this encyclical, reaches out to offer a spiritual skeleton for commercial reconstruction, Miller says.
For most of a century, business and faith have viewed each other with uneasy suspicion. Clergy and theologians have avoided the topic of commerce, or made irresponsible statements from their view on the outside. The Faith and Work Initiative is one of a growing number of groups seeking to close this gap, allowing society and individuals to heal as a whole.
Certainly, this encyclical has set the ball in business’s court. Business leaders may choose to shrug it off as one more ivory-towered fiat from the unknowing. Or corporate leaders may give the broad, perceptive words of the pope some real credence and use the encyclical as a guide for a new pathway.
But after all the ringing ideals, wise hopes, and best intentions are put forth, is it really possible to operate a sophisticated business or financial system on absolute morality? Is it possible to adopt those moral laws universal to all religions into the daily operations of a competitive company and have it survive?
Miller suggests a surprisingly cautious affirmative.
“I believe bringing the moral and human concerns of one’s faith into the workplace does pay off, but only in the long haul,” he says. The pressures of shareholders, boards, and owners to squeeze out increased growth each quarter breeds a certain desperation. “Operating according to principle can be costly,” says Miller. “There have been many times when I have had to leave money on the table simply because I did not want to have our company deal in a particular way. It’s seldom a favorite position.”
Popularity aside, long term integrity and managing with concern for individuals brings a greater satisfaction to any company leader.
For Miller, an ideal starting point is for business people to turn away from the monotheism of profit worship. “Profit is only a means to further creation,” he says. “Profit may be the lifeblood of business, but we cannot live on blood alone. It is merely one essence that helps us all flourish.”
Still others feel that faith holds a more positive hope for both satisfaction and bottom-line profit. Establishing one’s self as a leader who operates according to his faith’s code achieves a vastly stimulated morale, more trust, more innovation and loyalty, and in short a better use of the company’s prime asset — its people.
In the end, it will not be the pope’s rank as leader of the globe’s largest religion that determines the acceptance of the encyclical. We dwell in an age far too cynical of its leaders to accept fiats based on position alone. The encyclical’s effect will depend on how sharply its ideas strike a chord with today’s commerce and industry leaders.
The signs are good, however. Corporate leaders the world over have been searching for something more than the bottom line. Not all, but enough to be encouraging that we can nudge business toward what it can become — a force or good.