It’s been called our “best-kept secret” and
stands in blessed contrast to so much bad news the Church
has generated during recent months. It’s Catholic social teaching.
Revisiting it becomes urgent among the latest revelations
of corruption in some corporate back rooms.
Some might say, How dare we Catholics talk about
corruption in business? Our own house has problems of its
own. A minority of sick priests has indeed hidden in a system
designed to uphold the priesthood for service to the People
of God. Correcting this problem, though, as long as it takes,
cannot put aside our Church’s prophetic responsibility in
We can thank media-star-home-stylist Martha Stewart
for bringing the corporate mess to our recent attention in
an imaginative way, but she is in no way alone. We had already
heard enough about Enron executives’ misdeeds to make anyone
sick. Then, after we were updated daily about Stewart’s trial
and conviction for obstruction of justice, the Tyco International
executives’ trial took center stage. (Two former executives
are accused of looting $600 million.) A juror received threats,
the judge declared a mistrial and the whole show is starting
Whether or not the men are found guilty, their
actions—and those of Enron executives and celebrity Stewart—call
into question the whole of corporate behavior. Do we really
think these could be isolated incidents? Or is it more likely
that our corporate conscience slipped a bit during the prosperous
We must ask, Do companies exist for profits to
their top executives and richest investors only? Or is there
a broader purpose for capitalist enterprise, one that benefits
the entire community? Whatever happened to business ethics?
Catholic Social Teaching
The Catholic Church is no stranger to these
social questions. Over 100 years ago our society underwent
massive change that accompanied the Industrial Revolution.
Child labor was prevalent, once-strong family and parish units
were weakening as people moved from country to city to seize
opportunity for a better livelihood. Pope Leo XIII wrote the
landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum (“On the Condition
of the Working Classes”) that spoke about rights and values
Catholics, indeed all people of good will, should protect
as society moves forward.
We continue to hear his words. On every significant
anniversary of that document our hierarchy has repeated Leo’s
call. In 1999, our own U.S. bishops’ office of Social Development
and World Peace issued a summary statement, “Seven Key Themes
of Catholic Social Teaching,” that serves as a good reminder
for all of us.
The Social Gospel Today
That summary briefly presents how our dignity as God’s children
must be respected as we live and work together. The “Seven
Key Themes” document reminds us first that each person’s life
and dignity must be respected. Second, each person is not
only sacred, but also social, note the bishops: We are called
to family, community and participation.
Each of us also enjoys fundamental rights to decency
and has responsibilities to help others enjoy their rights.
The Church—each of us—is especially called to help ease the
plight of the poor and vulnerable.
Human work is a gift from God, and is meant to
help each of us live in dignity, we are reminded. Workers
have fundamental rights, including the right to organize,
which must be honored. We are called to other forms of solidarity
as well, to live as brothers and sisters together.
Finally, we are called to care for God’s creation,
as a matter of human morality.
A recent book published by Orbis gives a
good summary of Catholic social teaching. Catholics, Politics
and Public Policy, by Clarke E. Cochran and David Carroll
Cochran, is a fine, up-to-date overview of the Church’s consistent,
and evolving, teaching.
The authors remind us that “The Gospels record
Jesus speaking about money more than most other topics....Catholic
teaching about material goods, their production and use, is
central to the Church’s mission.” They flesh out the case
for the Catholic position: “...that the purpose of economic
life is human flourishing, not economic growth.” That is not
to say that growth is not necessary, but that the quality
of human life comes first.
It is only fair to note that our fascination with
Martha Stewart has more to do with her celebrity as the middle
class’s role model than with the extent of her crimes. And
what some might call her snobbery made some observers relish
her demise all the more. But more than one columnist pointed
out, at the time of her trial, that Stewart’s misdeeds are
child’s play compared to the millions of dollars others have
stolen from those of us who never step foot in corporate boardrooms.
We Catholics, approaching the season of political
choices, have a duty to use our political voices to ensure
justice to the greatest degree possible. We are correct to
be offended by corporate misdeeds and the back-room politics
that allows them to happen. It is our prophetic duty to speak
out and to work for betterJ.B.F.
The bishops’ 100 Years of Social Teaching is available,
condensed, from Catholic Update on this Web site. The
bishops’ documents, including “Seven Key Themes” and its larger
source, can be found or ordered at usccb.org.