The Church as an Institutional Ethical Consultant

I enjoyed reading Matt’s recap of Daniel K. Finn’s “Building Better Economies: Why Popes and Economists Need to Talk” lecture at Fordham. One paragraph of Matt’s write-up, in particular, stood out to me:

As Finn concluded his remarks, I was left wondering about what might actually be done to further the sort of dialogue he believes is necessary. Sure, popes have consulted with economists when they want to write about economics; have economists consulted with popes when they want to write about ethics? Do economists ever want to write about ethics? I approached Finn after the talk and asked him what he made of this asymmetry and how he thought it should be addressed. He acknowledged that this was a problem, and offered a few examples of forums and conferences that have modeled the kind of interaction wants to see become more widespread. Yet his examples were events that were sponsored by the Church! My point still stood.

As important as Finn’s thesis is, Matt’s observation speaks to the underlying issue with any sort of ecumenical-economic dialogue: it’s always a one-way discussion. No matter the extent to which the Church incorporates economic theory into papal encyclicals and other official documents, there’s no guarantee major economic institutions will integrate Christian ethical principles into their organizational frameworks.

Matt’s main point still stands, indeed. Not only are most forums for conversation usually initiated by the Church, but most ethical discussions in the business and finance community are reactive in nature. Prosperous environs are not conducive to calls for temperance. It’s clearly not a coincidence that major banks instituted more responsible protocols after the damage of the risk-fueled 2008/2009 crisis had already been done.

So what, if anything, could encourage secular organizations to engage the Church in constructing moral guidelines? Is it ludicrous to even consider this happening on anything more than a miniscule scale?

Perhaps. But the papacy of Francis has presented a unique opportunity for the Church to capitalize on its current favorability and crossover appeal with nonbelievers and non-Christians. And if we think of Francis’ first year as a period in which the papacy regained respect from secular society, it’s possible that the next few years could see the Church itself become a body worth consulting for guidance.

What I’m proposing, in effect, is a scenario wherein the Church heavily promotes itself as a sort of Christian Ethical Consulting Firm, a body that provides advice for organizations looking to reshape their culture. In effect, members of the Church could work with businesses and major economic groups to provide advice for growth and success within a Christian ethical framework.

Why would this scenario appeal to big businesses? The public’s post-crisis perception of most major institutions is still deeply negative; banks, in particular, continue to look for ways to make it seem like they’re working to atone for their sins. The Church could take advantage of this opportunity (be it sincere or simply superficial) and gradually work to advise the company on more responsible practices going forward.

To suggest that big banks would go to a religious institution for advice seems slightly crazy, especially given that the profit-maximization objectives of most financial institutions are in opposition to the Church’s economic philosophy. Without question, there would be limits to the Church’s ability to achieve the kind of economic justice described in Rerum Novarum or John Paul II’s encyclicals. Goldman Sachs would not begin donating its quarterly profits to charity after a brief morality sesh with Timothy Dolan. But the underlying goal would be a gradual integration of Christian ethics into different facets of a bank’s macro workflow, with the intent of achieving responsible outcomes over the long term. Not only is this kind of guidance going to look good from a PR standpoint, but it could engender business practices that might actually lead to more temperate growth and development. I’d bet that, in retrospect, the Bear Stearns board would have jumped at the opportunity to take on the Church as a consultant in exchange for moderately lower short-term profits.

The key to this scenario, of course, is the Church’s ability to employ people for this kind of consulting work who know what they’re talking about. If there is one concrete outcome from this year’s upcoming Synod of Bishops, I hope it’s the elevation of lay Catholic leaders in business, medicine, science, and other professions to more influential roles in the Church. Espousing a theology with effective, measurable outcomes requires the input of those who know their disciplines best and who also have a deep sense of faith and service. Their views should be viewed with equal weight to those of cardinals and bishops, at least in matters of their expertise.

The good news is that this is already happening! Late last year, the Financial Times ran a detailed story of how lay bankers were helping clean up the Vatican Bank’s messy finances. Just a few days ago, the panel of the Vatican’s new Council of the Economy (a sort of “ministry of finance”) was announced, and it includes seven laypeople with backgrounds in financial governance and executive leadership. I’d imagine lay professionals have long been asked to assist in high-level Church initiatives, but Francis has indicated a more extensive and foundational role for these kind of experts going forward. Let’s hope this is the case.

As noted above, there’s no need for this kind of consultation to be limited to business and economic matters. There are plenty of areas where the Church could apply its ethical principles in service of secularists who would otherwise have no interest in learning about Church teaching. Marriage comes to mind as an intriguing case study. The oft-cited statistic is that 50% of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. Much has been said of how the Synod will likely tackle the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics later this year, but what if the Church worked to tackle the breakdown of civil marriage as well? Perhaps a consultant board could provide services to couples who are considering getting married, with a message of, “Let us help you make the most of your commitment to each other so that it’s as rewarding as possible.” It could employ lay relationship counselors to provide advice along the journey, advice rooted in secular language with distinctly Christian underlying principles.

The important phrase in the previous paragraph is “in service of.” Right now, one fears that non-Christians might view the Church with an attitude of skepticism for what Pope Francis would call its “legalistic” trends: pronunciations of what not to do combined with a focus on the consequences of these transgressions. The Church as a “consultant” would instead emphasize gradual reformation with a combination of firmness, compassion, and logic. You won’t engage nonbelievers by telling them what they’re doing wrong, but you might get their attention by proving to them the advantages of the Church’s way.

Most studies of Church attendance in the last few months have not found any measurable impact of the so-called “Francis Effect.” That is, there has been no jump in people attending mass despite the Pope’s high favorability. And that makes sense. One man might make people more understanding of the Church as an institution, but it’s difficult to single-handedly convince non-believers that Catholicism’s beliefs and practices are a worthwhile paradigm. Even if the Church doesn’t adopt the measures outlined above, the general conceit should be its priority going forward: engaging more effectively with non-believers on their grounds. This requires the presentation of ideas and beliefs in a way that makes sense on a secular level.

To be frank: my comparison of the Church to an “ethical consultant” is somewhat watered-down and clinical. It strips the mythology of a communion of people into a panel which provides advice sapped of explicit Christian associations. No doubt this would strike many as foolishly ineffective or a betrayal of the Church’s tradition, but I’m finding myself increasingly drawn in the other direction. The Church’s size and ability to unite believers across countries, languages, and governments is an advantage it should leverage. Using that weight to make a concerted push for dialogue with nonbelievers, on their terms, is something the Church can – and should – do.

Returning to Matt’s original question about economists and Christian ethicists: imagining the Church operating in the aforementioned manner wouldn’t turn the one-way street of economic-ecclesiastical dialogue into a two-lane highway. But it would provide a broader and more effective set of tools to make sure that conversation keeps growing and the effects of such dialogue have progressively greater impact. Francis has laid the groundwork for this type of cooperation to begin in earnest; let’s see if we can’t take those next steps to make it happen.

3 thoughts on “The Church as an Institutional Ethical Consultant

  1. Perhaps the best place for the Church to begin exercising it’s economic principles is the Church herself — and Pope Francis has directly addressed this, by (as you said) appointing more lay leaders, but also by directly drawing more attention to the Church’s most embarrassingly unCatholic financial mishaps (bishops who’ve spent $20,000 on bathtubs, or Vatican clerics embezzling, fraud, etc.), and doing something about it, rather than let the ‘secular media’ rip it apart without a word from the insiders.

    Another problem with “church as ethical consultant,” was that, bishops will most likely have to oversee their own diocesan projects. And in the United States, that’s scary. One only has to look at Milwaukee, Newark, Woebegon, etc. to understand how the idea that the Catholic Church is good with money doesn’t quite hold, or how it is inescapably political (how much money does the Pro Life, the anti-porn, the Hobby-lobbying Catholic force…raise?) – and so.

    But then again the Church, the global Catholic church still is the largest humanitarian organization in the world; so there are perhaps just as many (or more, but with less overall wealth) Catholics who practice Catholic economics — congregations of sisters, foreign missionary organizations, Catholic worker-like communities, even (maybe?) Catholic Charities, Ignatian Solidarity Network, and other big domestic aid groups — and so, perhaps, in spite of everything, we still know better than most institutions and corporations to care for others through good stewardship. It’s a mandate, after all.

  2. Hi Kaitlin,

    Thanks for your insightful comments. Without question, it’s important to acknowledge that the Church itself does not have a pristine financial record in either its internal or external business dealings. I completely agree that firmer disciplinary action against Catholic financial mishaps is important in bolstering the Church’s broader economic credibility.

    Perhaps my original imagining of the Church-as-consultant was overly monolithic and all-encompassing. As one would expect from an institution with a billion members, there will be debates as to which causes should serve as the “backbone” for any Catholic business consultation effort. Your point about how the Church’s finances are often used for “political” measures is a good one. In my idea of a consulting Church, I would hope these varying expenditures would perhaps be downplayed in favor of the Church’s specific stance on broader economic questions, such as those addressed in Rerum Novarum and Gaudium et Spes.

    Ultimately, I hope the organizations you list in your last paragraph are the best ambassadors for the good which can come from Catholic economic teaching. I suppose the idea of scaling the principles they espouse was the intent of this conceptualization of Church-cum-consultant- it would be good to see their values getting play on a larger scale.

    Thanks very much for reading!

  3. Hey Kaitlin – I just noticed Chris’ comment and remembered that I had meant to respond a while back.

    I completely agree that the Church in the United States (or anywhere, as evidenced by the Bishop of Bling) is not the greatest steward of large pots of money. I’m not sure I agree, however, that it’s necessarily a bad thing for the Church to use that money for “political” purposes.

    I’m certainly frustrated by the quixotic political adventures of some of the most high-profile US bishops, and I think it’s unfortunate to see the amount of money spent on DVD campaigns against same-sex marriage or the time and political/moral capital spent on publicizing an annual two-week celebration of religious freedom. I find their ordering of priorities inexplicable, even when I’m inclined to agree with their actual positions.

    That said, I don’t think it’s a problem per se that the bishops – or the institutional Church more generally – act *politically.* The USCCB lobbies Congress on behalf of a number of issues that I think you and I would both agree are extremely worthwhile (e.g. food stamps). Moreover, I think we would agree that those who claim that private charity will always suffice as a substitute for government action are way off base, and that when the Church calls for collective action, that sometimes means *state* action.

    I don’t think that the problem is with the bishops “playing politics.” I think the problem is that 1) they often aren’t particularly good at it, and 2) their politics in many cases don’t align with those of the majority of American Catholics – who are themselves deeply divided about political questions.

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