“And you, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High…” Benedictus (Lk 1:76)
“It’s not personal, it’s just business,” a common phrase spewed by many a savvy business manager to justify uncomfortable or otherwise unjustifiable yet profitable decisions. So, you could imagine my surprise when it came from the Pastor’s mouth. Perhaps a momentary mental lapse on his part, as Catholic Social Doctrine is rooted in the simple fact: persons are never to be treated as means to an end, but are ends in themselves. Unfortunately, when performing managerial, administrative, or otherwise “business” acts, the seemingly dominant perspective is that reverence for the inherent dignity of persons takes a back seat or is evacuated all together. The truth is that it is easier to deal with a hard situation by excusing the decision as “just business”, by reducing the action to merely transactional, than to wrestle with the moral implications, especially if an encounter with another person is involved.
Created in the Imago Dei
Recognition and reverence for the human person is first discovered in the story of creation when “God created mankind in His Image… male and female He created them” (Gen 1:27). To be clear, when we affirm the human dignity inherent in another person, we are affirming the Goodness of God Himself. Therefore, the reverse is true, i.e., when we deny human dignity, we deny the Goodness of God present in that person. To be sure, as long as the human family has walked the face of the earth, people have been trying to take advantage of one another, but the false dichotomy around business and the human person manifested itself in a new way during the Industrial Revolution as the owners of the factories of production exploited workers, which included child labor and deadly working conditions. The Church responded with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. He wrote, “The following duties bind the wealthy owner and the employer: not to look upon their work people as their bondsmen, but to respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character”(Rerum Novarum, 20). Said differently, our value as human persons is not reducible to our economic output. Our value is rooted in our personhood, imprinted with the very life of God (cf., ibid., 40).
Pope Leo was clear that labor and capital were not to be viewed as at odds with one another, but rather as different parts of the same body, “just as symmetry of the human frame is the result of the suitable arrangement of the different parts of the body” (ibid, 19). He promoted the cooperation of labor and capital to support the common good of humanity. And on the ninetieth anniversary of that watershed document, Pope John Paul II reiterated his predecessor’s message: “Since work in its subjective aspect is always a personal action, an actus personae, it follows that the whole person, body and spirit, participates in it, whether it is manual or intellectual work. It is also to the whole person that the word of the living God is directed, the evangelical message of salvation, in which we find many points which concern human work and which throw particular light on it” (Laborem Exercens, 24).
Prophets of the Most High
By virtue of our baptism, we are sharers in the threefold office of Christ as priest, prophet, and king (CCC 1241). And, as Zechariah commissioned his son, St. John the Baptist, so are we sent to evangelize the world with the knowledge of salvation (cf., Luke 1:76).
It’s a guarantee that whether you are a small business owner, corporate executive, or other business professional, you will encounter real business challenges. The Coronavirus pandemic proved that no one is exempt from this fact. One of the greatest business challenges we encounter is an inability to pay our workers that sometimes necessitates a reduction in workforce. The temptation is to fall back on Michael Corleone’s phrase “it’s not personal, it’s just business,” as revenue slides and expenses surmount for perhaps unforeseen circumstances (like a pandemic). But, resist that temptation! It is our responsibility to develop sustainable business strategies so as to provide work for our people and sometimes we fall short of the mark. But, it is personal. Each one of our workers is a person, loved into being by our Creator, with his or her own subjective personality and ideas, with a family, with friends, with neighbors. Regardless of world circumstances, as baptized Christians it is our responsibility to affirm their human dignity. Therefore, as we deliver the devastating news of an inability to pay and loss of work, we must also do whatever we can to provide support for that person, such as resume assistance, recommendation letter, or even a homemade meal.
As Catholics in business, this translates to not only avoiding reductionist phrases such as “it’s not personal, it’s just business”, but also approaching our business practices with an intentionality that moves away from transactional exchanges toward Eucharistic encounters. From our daily emails to our open-door policies that invite untimely visits, we are challenged and, even more so, we have a responsibility to recognize and revere the imago Dei of the person before us. If with each interaction with us, we communicate “This is my body, given for you,” others will have Christ’s love for them made present, and hopefully, recognize it and respond in kind.
Your Sister in Christ,
A previous version of this post was first published on 4-20-21 at Catholic Women in Business