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Pope to Business Leaders: Put Individual Dignity at the Heart of Business

Addressing business leaders, Pope Francis recently said, “May the common good serve as a compass in business”, while also calling for “a new humanism of labour” and recognising the crucial role enterprise plays in growth for that “just economy” that is of such importance to him, as he has reiterated in recent speeches. The Pope has also called for “new strategies, styles [and] conduct […] to invest in projects able to reach those who are often forgotten or overlooked”, i.e. the elderly, who are “too often discarded as useless or unproductive”, and young people, “prisoners of precarious employment or of unemployment that has lasted too long”, insisting that it is the individual that must be at the heart of enterprise, while urging business leaders to take the “high road” of justice and to “reject the shortcuts of nepotism and favouritism and the dangerous detours of dishonesty and compromise”. His warning is clear, and drew the applause of business leaders: “It is dignity that is absolute, not the market.”

Seven thousand business leaders and their family had gathered in the grand, solemn Paul VI Audience Hall one grey, rainy day for the “Jubilee of Industry” and to show their sincere respect for what the Pope had to say. Shortly prior to the speech of Pope Francis, the president of Confindustria, Giorgio Squinzi, spoke briefly, recalling that “the only true antidote to speculation is enterprise”—the values of enterprise, its focus on the individual and on the idea that dignity comes from a job well done.

This meeting of the members of Confindustria and the Pope was an important, first-of-its-kind event that shows how, in times of crisis, solutions are not to be found in the shallows of economism, but rather in a new way of viewing the individual, labour, and enterprise—in values.

Indeed, “value” is the operative word in business, “creating value for shareholders” through profitability, growth in stock prices, dividends, and the financial resources needed for further investment and to further increase that ever important “value”.

Of course, that same term also has its plural form, “values”, and, if we take this a step further, beyond the more limited view of the “spirit of capitalism”, it could also be said that, in this day and age, no value can be created if we do not also pay close attention to values, plural—to respecting the individual and the environment, to safety, to safeguarding the rights of both workers and consumers, to harmony between the enterprise and the community in which it operates. Not only is there no contradiction between “value” (even in the specific sense of business profits) and “values”, but it is only from this new perspective that businesses can grow and that the nation can grow in a matter that is more balanced, better, and more “just”.

“Do business to create values”, wrote Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, on the front page of Il Sole24Ore to present the seminar “Fare insieme”, a meeting between Confindustria and the Vatican held Friday, 26 February, at the conference centre at the Augustinian Patristic Institute one day prior to the audience with the Pope. In the same way, the president of Confindustria, Giorgio Squinzi, wrote an article in Avvenire in search of “answers to difficult questions” about values, about the meaning of doing business, and about responsibility for “creatively building opportunities for growth even for those who have less, to innovate, to generate new jobs and social capital”; in short, to build a new social contract “together” (this was the operative word).

This first-of-its-kind meeting between the Catholic Church and the Italian industrial federation provided an important opportunity for open, sincere dialogue between diverse viewpoints in search of convergence, a shared commitment to look to development, not only for the economy, but also, and above all, for society and for humanity as a whole—an attempt to reconcile the importance of “doing” (the “Fare” from the name of the event) in business with the values of “together” (“insieme”), of solidarity, of community, and of inclusion.

The seminar on Friday (which was attended by economists, business leaders, representatives from the Vatican, and experts of ethics and economics) went beyond the typical meeting of the Church and Catholic business leaders to seek to give enterprise greater positivity and meaning.

It was an opportunity for enterprise to approach the universe of values, values that it already embodies in part, but that it must also accept as a challenge to be overcome, a quest for a new and better social legitimacy that sets aside that anti-business culture that remains all too common in Italy. For the Catholic Church, one of the most respected moral authorities today, it was an opportunity to approach the issues of society today, of alarming levels of individualism (selfishness might be more to the point), in an effort to steer society more towards sharing and solidarity. Indeed, enterprise can be—and often has been throughout history—a place of inclusion and of good citizenship, the embodiment of rights and duties, of individual responsibility and social value.

“Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life,” wrote Pope Francis in his Evangelii Gaudium as he outlined the features of a “just economy” that is able to go beyond “the fetishism of money”. Reacting to these words of the Pope, the philosopher Michael Novak delivered an address entitled “The Vocation of Business Is the Main Hope for the World’s Poor”. In the words of Cardinal Ravasi, “Industry has met with the Holy Father [in search of a] common ethos” on issues such as “justice, freedom, individual dignity, solidarity, knowledge and education, responsibility, individual and social rights, labour, authentic faith, and morality”. But he further clarifies these important words by noting that it is to be done in a manner that is free from “vaguely moral stereotypes” and that seeks new and fuller meaning by living life towards the common good.