CUA Business School's First Conference

Last week, I attended the first academic conference sponsored by Catholic University’s still relatively new (18 months old) School of Business. Titled “Liberty and Solidarity: Living the Vocation to Business,” the event was co-sponsored by the Napa Institute, the brainchild of Catholic businessman, and CUA Trustee, Tim Busch. I readily confess my suspicions of the CUA Business School, but I tried to go in to the proceedings with an open mind.

Also, with open eyes. I realized immediately that this was a different kind of academic conference because of the obvious police presence. I counted eight uniformed officers of the D.C. Police milling about the halls, although I may have counted one officer twice, so it may have been seven. Why were they here? I asked one of them and he said he had no idea. I wondered: Are they here to protect the Catholic one percent who had gathered for the conference, or to protect the rest of us from them? Alas, the dangers posed by the one percenters are all, or almost all, legal. The next day, there was only one officer in the hallway outside the venue.

The program also indicated that each night’s proceedings concluded with a dinner at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, one of the most fancy-schmanzy hotels in the city, and after dinner each night there was a cocktail and cigar reception. Not sure how the academics in attendance fit in with this rite of the uber-rich: the press were not invited to observe the cigar receptions.

The third thing that jumped out at me from the program was the near constant availability of sacramental confession. You could go to confession before the sessions or after. If the sign in the hallway outside one of the green rooms was to be believed, you could even go to confession during the proceedings. This raised two questions: What goes on at those cigar receptions? And, could it be that these masters of the economic universe really are conscious of the structural sins of modern capitalism, that the sector of human endeavor within which they have risen to prominence really is the “filthy, rotten system” Dorothy Day said it was? More on that question later.

The first speaker was Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace. He is a lovely man and he began his speech in warm tones, noting that the Holy See – and himself personally – did not wish to point a finger at businessmen but wanted to reach out to all people, including business people, with open arms. He quotes St. Pope John XXIII about entering into dialogue with the human family. He re-iterated some themes from an earlier talk on the vocation of the business leader, such as highlighting the human need to share in the creative work of God. I am ambivalent about this language because I think modern capitalists means something different from creativity than what the Good Book means by creativity. Here is an issue, one would hope, that the CUA Business School would examine, if not at this conference, than subsequently.

Soon enough, +Turkson’s talk began to shine with evidences of traditional Catholic Social Teaching and, specifically, the new emphasis Pope Francis has placed on that teaching. “Competition and efficiency are not enough to foster the development of people in the world,” the cardinal said. He spoke of Pope Benedict’s call for the world of business to include gratuitousness, the logic of gift, in its methods. “The logic of gift must find a place within the normal world of business,” +Turkson said, but he did not explicate how this is to be done in a system premised on competition. Note, however, that this sentence, and indeed the whole of Caritas in Veritate, points to the need for an intrinsic humanization or sacralization (for the Catholic, the two are distinct but always linked) of the world of business. Here is another point for further consideration and discussion.

“Employees must be seen as persons not merely as instruments of production,” Cardinal Turkson observed, although an argument could be made that nowhere is the common faulty anthropology of both modern capitalism and discredited Marxism more obvious than in the manner in which both systems reduce the human person to an instrument of production. Think Bain Capital and its confreres in the world of investment banking.

“The Church sees business as making an integral contribution to human development,” +Turkson affirmed. This was said, obviously, as a prescription not a description as anyone familiar with, say, the practices of mining and other extraction businesses in the Global South will attest. But, again, that word “integral” jumps out at me. “Business must recognize the fundamental dignity of all human beings,” the cardinal said, which must become more than boilerplate Catholic language if we are ever to address the problems the modern economy creates. “The service to the common good comes before private good,” he stated, again, obviously in more prescriptive mode than descriptive, unless human dignity has suddenly gained cachet at the stock market instead of, say, future earnings. And the cardinal insisted that the Catholic vocation of a business person should “provide good goods and services that truly serve,” a nice rhetorical play on goods and services, that business should supply good work and foster the special dignity of work, including allowing workers to participate in business decision-making, and that the creation of wealth must be undertaken in the context of stewardship, especially for the environment.

Cardinal Turkson’s talk, in short, did what any good opening speech should do, setting forth important themes for further reflection and discussion. But, alas, there was no discussion after his talk. I was told that the “Napa model” of how to run a conference does not allow for questions-and-answers after each presentation, nor a general Q-and-A at the end of the session. There was not a single panel on the program, which at least would allow the scholars to get into some discussion if not the audience. The conference was styled like an old-style Vatican Synod. I found this odd for an academic conference.

The next speaker was Professor Russ Hittinger and he, too, gave a provocative talk. “The vocation of business people is often wounded by a self-description that is entirely utilitarian, focusing only on maximization and innovation,” he said. He contrasted this with the emphasis in the thought of St. Pope John Paul II on the “intrinsic value of human actions.” There is that word again – intrinsic! Hittinger set forth three basic keys to understanding and overcoming the difficulty in articulating a Catholic conception of the vocation of business. First, we must remember that actions are more important than things, and that the excellence of our actions cannot just be implicit in an enterprise that understandably is focused on products. Second, “utilitarianism is the last standing public philosophy; all of us think this way in part,” he said, which is a point that can’t be repeated too much nor with too much regret. Third, “in our political and legal culture, we are reluctant to claim moral authority for any intrinsic actions,” an incisive observation that, like the rest of his talk, deserved much amplification and discussion in the Q-and-A. except there was no Q-and-A.

Hittinger noted that “justice is always situated, never abstract” and that this fact was a pressing problem for business: “Who is my neighbor? Globalization challenges our ability to answer this.” Here, I thought to myself, the density of Catholic anthropology is a needed corrective to any abstract humanitarianism that is bound to ineffective because it ignores normal human social bonds. Here, was a point worth examining in detail.

Hittinger had many other great points, and I look forward to reading the text when it is published, but one especially jumped out at me. He stated that business was not one of the three great institutions that generate human happiness. These are matrimony, politics and ecclesial life. But, he noted, that business courses through them all. Every part of that paragraph is interesting and important and needs further examination and explication. Indeed, Hittinger is one of those thinkers whose insights challenge everybody across the ideological spectrum. I could spend days unpacking his densely argued talk and will be sure to link to it, or to the video, when it comes out.

Tomorrow, I will continue my report on this conference.


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