[Editor’s Note: Andrew Abela is the founding dean of the School of Business and Economics and Associate Professor of Marketing at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His research on the integrity of the marketing process, including marketing ethics, Catholic Social Doctrine, and internal communication, has been published in several academic journals, including the Journal of Marketing, the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, the Journal of Business Ethics, and the Journal of Markets & Morality, and in two books. He spoke to Charles Camosy.]

Camosy: Can you tell us a bit about how the Catholic University of America business school came to be? What is its story?

Abela: The world didn’t need yet another business school. But what it desperately needed was a business school that puts the human person right at the center of business and teaches that the purpose of business is to serve society. And this, of course, is exactly what the Catholic Church teaches about business. Back in 2012, when the U.S. was still struggling to climb out of the Great Recession, a group of us here at The Catholic University of America proposed that we should launch a new business school grounded in Catholic Social Doctrine, and were blessed to have a senior administration, led by our (at that time new) president, John Garvey, and a group of donors, led by (at that time) University Trustee, Tim Busch, who were very supportive.

You didn’t always work in higher education. What did you do before and why did you make the change? 

Prior to my career in academia I spent a dozen years in business. I was young and ambitious, and aspired to work in the finest business organizations I could find. God granted that aspiration, and I spent several years at Procter and Gamble working in advertising, and as a management consultant with the firm of McKinsey & Company, where I worked all over the U.S. and Canada, Central and South America, and in Russia.

Along the way I “reverted” to the Catholic faith and began to wonder how does one live as a faithful Catholic in the business world. One day I was offered a new assignment — to lay off 10,000 managers from a large bank. I couldn’t do it. Which is not to say that layoffs are always wrong, but in my case my own father, who had been in banking all his life, had recently been laid off from a senior management position. So I quit and went to study theology.

I completed the first year of the Master of Theological Studies program at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family (now affiliated with Catholic University) and my eyes were opened to the riches of Catholic Social Doctrine. Then I did a PhD in Business Ethics at the Darden Business School at the University of Virginia, and have dedicated my academic career to researching and teaching how business should serve society — and I find that Catholic Social Doctrine has unquestionably the best resources for this.

It is refreshing to see a scholar of business so deeply committed to Catholic Social Doctrine. How do you respond to those who don’t believe effective business practices can be reconciled with Catholic teaching?

It’s a similar problem to trying to convince those who say business ethics is an oxymoron. (My own dissertation was in marketing ethics — so I’ve heard all the jokes: “Shortest dissertation ever!” etc.) There’s a fallacy that my professor at Darden, Ed Freeman (the founder of contemporary stakeholder theory), called the “separation thesis.” The separation thesis is the false idea that you can clearly separate “business” from “ethics”: That it’s possible to do business without ethics. You can’t. There is always some form of ethical content, good or bad, underlying every non-trivial business decision. There is always some view of the good, some concept of human flourishing, whether robust and uplifting, or narrow and demeaning.

You might believe that the purpose of a company is to serve society, to help people, or you might believe that its purpose is to enrich yourself regardless of the consequences to others. You might believe that human beings have inalienable dignity, or you might believe that they are tools for your personal gratification.

All of these beliefs are grounded in one form of ethical perspective or another. Some are good and some are not. But there’s always some perspective at play: it’s never “just” business. The key thing is to identify the underlying principles, bring them out in the open, and expose any fallacies and weaknesses.

So you can’t separate ethics from business. And faith helps us be more ethical. Empirical evidence and common sense show that people of faith are generally more ethical than atheists. This is not to say that religious people aren’t capable of heinous crimes – of course we are, sadly. However, a person who loves God, fears hell and desires heaven is more likely to be ethical than one who thinks that life ends when we die — is more likely to sacrifice for others even without any hope for reward in this world.

Catholic Social Doctrine provides a foundation and a comprehensive set of reflections that provide sound guidance for behaving ethically in economic life. These have been developed over millennia, and not just since Rerum Novarum (the encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, who was also the founder of Catholic University), as Jesuit Father Rodger Charles pointed out in his magnificent two-volume history of Catholic Social Doctrine, Christian Social Witness and Teaching: The Catholic Tradition from Genesis to Centesimus Annus.

You’ve taken some heat in the Catholic press for the politics of donors to your business school. What thoughts do you have about this criticism?

I understand that when we were first founded, some people were concerned that donors might influence our School in ways that are at odds with our Catholic faith. By now, I hope it’s abundantly clear that this did not happen and will not happen.

Here at the Busch School of Business, we are very clear about who we are and what we want to achieve: A principled, person-centered economy that serves society and, particularly, serves the poor. As an example, our faculty and students are currently working with 350 small and local businesses in the District of Columbia, mostly minority-led, helping them with access to capital and new ideas, so that they can grow and better serve their neighbors.

This is a new approach to teaching business that flows directly from Catholic Social Teaching. We are more than happy to work with anyone who shares, or wants to support, those same goals and activities.

We both presented at a recent conference put on by the Focolare which focused on the Economy of Communion. Can you say a bit about how this way of viewing economic exchange can help us move beyond some of the old and stale options in our public discourse?

The Economy of Communion (EoC) is a beautiful attempt to take Catholic Social Doctrine and apply it in individual businesses. We have been fans of the EoC since the founding of the Busch School, and have had scholars and practitioners of the EoC visit and present to our students. The EoC  was started by the founder of the Focolare Movement, Chiara Lubich, after she read St. John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus. EoC companies strive to live a person-centered approach to business, and commit to giving a portion of their profits to those in need in their community.

The EoC is a great example of a fresh alternative inspired by Catholic Social Doctrine, that avoids the polarization created by so much of contemporary business discourse. On one side, we have those who say that the purpose of business is to make as much profit as possible for its owners, and if businesses are allowed to just do that, all else will fall into place. A lot of harm is done in the name of that narrow theory — and by those who claim that all entrepreneurs are only driven by profit.

The entrepreneurs we work with are driven by something bigger than money – they have a great idea they want to bring to the world, and they want to make peoples’ lives better. Yes of course they want to make profits too, and Catholic teaching acknowledges the legitimacy of that, because if they didn’t make profits, then how would they sustain themselves? But setting profit as the sole or primary motivator pulls you away from, not towards, serving society.

On the other side, we have those who say that businesses and local communities cannot be trusted to do any good, and that everything important (healthcare, education, welfare) should be handled by the national government. Call it socialism, or the welfare state, or what have you, it seems to me to be based on the naive idea that a person who runs a business is automatically evil, while a person who runs a government department is automatically a saint. I don’t see it! They’re both human beings, created as good but flawed by Original Sin. To paraphrase Lord Acton, when power is concentrated in a few hands, it corrupts those hands, whether they are in a big business or in a big government.

In a keynote speech at the Napa Institute last summer, I drew a distinction between what I called Imperialistic Capitalism and Entrepreneurial Capitalism, and argued that the former is what causes all the harm and gives a bad name to capitalism, while the latter allows us to live Catholic Social Doctrine in business.

What I particularly like about the Economy of Communion is it allows us to begin here, now, right in the messiness of today. The problem with most public policy debates is that they can be an excuse to avoid taking action. We shout at (or past) each other, and pretend that we’re doing some good. The EoC companies instead are forging ahead, serving the needy, and showing us the way. In our own humble way, the Busch School of Business is trying to do something similar.

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