CUA's Business School's First Conference, Part III

by Michael Sean Winters

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Tuesday and Wednesday, I wrote about last week’s conference “Liberty & Solidarity: Living the Vocation to Business,” which was co-sponsored by Catholic University’s School of Business and Economics and the Napa Institute. Today I shall conclude my reflections on this event.

Edward Hadas, the economics editor at Reuters Breakingviews, gave a lively discussion that unwittingly caused all my alarm bells to go off. He right said that “in the economy today, the unity [that we are called to] is a crying need.” And, he rightly said that the narrow understanding of the purposes of a corporation as maximizing profit “doesn’t include the depth of purpose humans are capable of.” And, he urged corporate leaders to help spread social justice. But, his reason for this last bit of advice gave away the game. Hadas said that, “Corporations can do great good and if they don’t do it, then it is up to the collectivist state to do it.” I shudder when I hear anyone in 2014 use the word “collectivist” when not speaking about North Korea. Stalin died in 1953 for pete’s sake. Collectivist? I take as much umbrage as the casual deployment of this word with all its ugly historical resonance as I do when some MSNBC talking head talks about “the need to be on the right side of history,” apparently unaware of the Stalinist pedigree of that particular rhetorical trope. But, Hadas bounced back and made a very salient point, saying that “the poor are probably not even in sight due to exclusion,” and urged the business leaders in the room to always ask themselves how their actions affect the poor.

That afternoon, Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute spoke. Let me state up front: As someone who cares and cares deeply about the Catholic identity of the Catholic University of America, I am only marginally less appalled by having someone from the Acton Institute speak at a campus academic conference than I would be if CUA was to host someone from Catholics for Choice. I support entirely the idea that difficult questions should be posed to our Catholic teaching and that a Catholic university is the place to pose those questions. But, groups like Acton and Catholics for Choice are not trying to develop doctrine, they are subverting it, intentionally or not.  Besides, having read two of Gregg’s books – Becoming Europe and Tea Party Catholic - and reviewed them here, the kindest adjective I can apply to his work is tendentious.

Gregg spoke about crony capitalism which he defined as “hollowing out the market economy and replacing its mechanisms with political economy,” in which “instead of market outcomes, outcomes result from political connections.” This results in “injustice,” and so it does, although Gregg seemed not very concerned about the corrupting effects on the political life of the nation and heartily concerned that the precious mechanism of the market were being frustrated. No one is in favor of crony capitalism, so it is a convenient whipping boy. And the world would be better without it, as the world would be better without original sin, and me thinks the two are intertwined in such a way that no human scheme for organizing the political and economic life of society will be entirely without some measure of cronyism. But, looking at all the problems in the world that are economic in nature – extreme, grinding poverty, growing income inequality both within societies and between them, an aging work force, millions of unemployed young people, trade relations that favor the movement of capital but restrict the movement of labor, stagnant or declining wages, rapacious corporate practices the constitute an economic colonialism, and the continuing economic power of fossil fuel industries – well, compared to that list, discoursing on crony capitalism seems a bit like arguing we need new curtains in the living room of a house that is on fire.

Catholic University law professor George Garvey gave one of the best talks of the conference, including a strong defense of the traditional role of organized labor in facilitating solidarity and subsidiarity in the socio-economic sphere. He also made a very critical observation that warrants much reflection: “The regulatory state represents a strong commitment to markets but it doesn’t facilitate solidarity or subsidiarity.” Indeed, he noted that the regulatory state has grown as mediating institutions like organized labor have declined in influence and power. When the papers or video of this conference are out, I wish to go back to his talk a couple of times as I think it touched on some very important issues and was more obviously engaged with the Catholic intellectual tradition than many of the other presentations.

I come now to the presentation of Andrew Abela, the Dean of CUA’s new business school and principal organizer of the conference. (The order is not chronological – he spoke before Garvey and Gregg.) First, let me stipulate that it is almost impossible not to like Dean Abela: He is smart and he is charming, charistmatic even, and he is patently sincere in his desire to be a good Catholic and, while I do not know him well at all, I suspect that he mostly succeeds. But, I think he is enthralled by the promise of developing a new development in Catholic Social Teaching that I see as a dead end. Still, how can one not admire the boldness of someone who states, without blushing, that because CUA is the only pontifically charted university in the country, this new business school aims to be “the pope’s business school in America” and that the purpose of the school was to ask the kinds of questions being raised at this conference.  Like Hadas, he noted that solidarity, like other virtues, is instrumentally good for business and even though virtue is good in itself, “we shouldn’t be embarrassed by that [instrumental good].” He noted that the new school has a course on marriage and family, citing a CEO who told him he would not hire a man going through a divorce because he worried the man would be distracted. I am not sure that example really illustrates what solidarity demands – a person going through an intense personal struggle may need a little leeway at the workplace, but they should scarcely be discriminated against, indeed, we should reach out to people going through such traumatic events.

Abela said that the inculcation of virtue in the life of a business rests on three pillars, hiring, coaching and evaluation, and leadership. He held up as an example of inculcating virtue in coaching and evaluation the fact that the personnel evaluation forms at Koch Industries distinguish between “virtues” and “talents” with the former term covering both values and beliefs, while the latter term covers skills and knowledge. Now, I am a sincere, if complicated, man of the left and so I find, per se, any mention of the words “Koch Industries” with the word “virtue” in the same sentence to be deeply problematic. I need not recite here all the objectionable things the Koch Brothers do with the money, although making libertarianism an intellectually respectable position has done great violence to everything the Church teaches about public life. I will say that holding them up for their evaluation forms would be like being called before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1975 and noting that Richard Nixon loved his wife Pat. I am sure he did. That did not excuse the crimes he committed. Abela was no doubt using this analogy to be provocative, and it worked.

Abela also voiced his support for the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case. Smarter people than me hold the same position. But, I would think that it would occur to the assembled Catholic businessmen and business scholars that metaphors work both ways. The irreducible and inviolable dignity of the human person is the cornerstone of all Catholic ethics. Making the case that a corporation shares in that personhood certainly muddies the waters. Are those who file for bankruptcy to be charged with murder? Indeed, the whole purpose of forming a corporation is to avoid personal liability, yet under the logic of Hobby Lobby, corporations are entitled to all the rights of personhood without any of the corresponding responsibilities. The linkage of rights with responsibilities is one of Catholic Social Teaching’s cardinal contributions to the development of human rights theory, and one of its best, unless one actually holds to a more libertarian understanding of rights. Such complications were not addressed by Dean Abela.

Nor, as mentioned before, was I able to raise such complications. Nor was anyone else able to raise their probably different complications. The identity of a Catholic university must respect both words, Catholic and university. As one of the participants said during last week’s conference, the proceedings were less academic than catechetical. Now, I am a big fan of catechesis. Last week’s conference would have been wonderful as a presentation in a parish in Silicon Valley or Greenwich, Connecticut, to a group of parishioners many of whom are titans of the business world. But, the failure to permit questions after the presentations and the lack of panel discussions both crippled the value of the conference as an academic exercise.

Furthermore, if the CUA School of Business and Economics really aspires to be “the pope’s business school,” you would think that the conference might have focused on some of the issues Pope Francis raised in Evangelii Gaudium. I was not present for all the talks, but I did not hear anyone wrestle with the Holy Father’s most succinct and emphatic observation about modern economics: “This economy kills.” The problem is not that I come at these issues with different intellectual prejudices from those of Dean Abela and his colleagues. Those different prejudices are the stuff of intellectual engagement. The problem is that the real challenges were not engaged at all. I support efforts to help businesspeople see their lives in vocational ways, and in specifically Catholic terms. But, if the virtue which all the participants agreed was necessary is always privatized and personal and extrinsic, we miss the full demands of Catholic Social Teaching. We must insist not only on the private path of personal virtue, but on “the institutional path – we might call it the political path – of charity, no less excellent and effective that the kind of charity which encounters the neighbor directly.” That is not my bias or prejudice. That quotes is from Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate, # 7.  That quote went unmentioned in the presentations I listened to. I hope it came up at the cigar receptions.

The CUA School of Business and Economics is still young and the verdict is still out. I hope that its professors and future conferences will truly engage the breadth and depth of the Catholic intellectual tradition, but this premiere event failed to do so. The failure is not terminal but it is worrisome and it should be watched. Certainly, anyone who cares about Catholic Social Teaching should be watching. In the meantime, I will stick with Pope Francis’ bracing critiques rather than what “the pope’s business school” served up last week.  

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