Pope Francis’ new encyclical calls for a renewal of virtue in our economic practices. Catholic University’s new School of Business anticipated him by two years.
In 2013, Catholic University already had a 118 –year-old Business and Economics Department. When its faculty surveyed the national and international business environment, however, they saw a worrying decline in basic dedication to right and wrong, and an anemic understanding of the tremendous potential of business to serve the common good, and particularly to contribute to lifting people out of poverty.
Wanting to change that culture, the Board of Trustees at CUA approved the elevation of the business department into the new School of Business and Economics. By infusing Catholic Social Doctrine into every aspect of the curriculum, the new school hopes to change the way business education is conducted, and, through the influence and example of its graduates, to contribute to the sort of cultural renewal the pope seeks.
Here’s an interview I conducted last month with Dr. Brian Engelland, the Edward J. Pryzbyla Chair of Business and Economics, and the interim dean of the school. It’s interesting to note how harmonious Dr. Engelland’s answers are with what Pope Francis says about business in the new encyclical, which of course had not at the time been released.
Catholic Vote: There are a lot of business programs. What does CUA hope to achieve that is unique?
Dr. Engelland: While universities have become world class at preparing the business technician in accounting, finance, marketing, management and strategy, they all too often fail to prepare business leaders who can articulate and defend the very purpose and essence of our economic system. In particular, they fall short in teaching the critical role the vocation to business plays in the advancement of human flourishing.
A big part of what we do is centered on the concept of virtue. While every business school teaches business ethics (and business ethics is about knowing the difference between right and wrong), the problem is – that’s not what the students really need. When people go to jail for some white collar crime it’s usually not because they didn’t know what they were doing was wrong; rather, it’s because they had not developed the routine habit of making good decisions.
We focus on virtue, building the habits that are required for successful personal growth and a flourishing society. It’s not just knowing the difference between right and wrong but cultivating the courage to resist the temptation to make the wrong choice when circumstances arise. We help students cultivate the habit of always telling the truth when faced with the temptation to lie or dissemble.
CV: What does that look like, practically?
Dr. Engelland: A virtue is a habit – a good habit. Vice is a bad habit. Virtues are developed in a number of ways. First by learning what they are, second by observing others who have developed these virtues, and third by practicing virtue yourself. So we try to give all of that to our students.
We have them understand the notion of virtue and teach which virtues are most relevant in each disciplines- in accounting, in marketing and so on. We are very careful about who we hire. We want all of our faculty members to be good role models for the students. Many, in fact the vast majority, of our faculty have tremendous business experience so they’ve been out there and they’ve experienced the kind of things that they talk to students about. We expose our students to role models through our mentorship network, to our board of advisors and so on, who themselves are successful Catholics in business, and to other Christians in business. We arrange mentor relationships. Then through internships, projects, through the case discussion method, we give students the opportunity to practice the various virtues we are trying to cultivate in them.
CV: Why “Business” at a time when Pope Francis is calling for a “poor” Church and seems skeptical of the capitalist project? Aren’t “Business” and profit-seeking in tension with the radical form of Christianity the Pope seems to be calling us all to?
Our Holy Father has called us to a renewed emphasis on solidarity in the marketplace in order to draw more people into the “circle of exchange.” He has taught us that “business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 203)
There is a special commitment within the Catholic Social Doctrine to understand and live solidarity with the poor. Rooted in our Christian commitment to love and serve our neighbor, this element of Catholic Social Doctrine inspires us to make the practice of business and economics a path to reduce poverty through greater prosperity for all.
The church teaches that the purpose of business is not solely to make profit. Profit is a good thing, a required thing. Without it, your business requires help from others for sustenance. For an entity to sustain itself and sustain others, it needs to generate more wealth than it has put into it, that’s why profit is important.
At a deeper level the church teaches us that the purpose of business is to serve society by becoming a supporting community for all stakeholders, including workers, customers, investors, and those who live near the business. We don’t like the notion that business should give back because giving back suggested you took something out of society. The proper understanding of business is not to be taking but to be giving; to be doing something for society, creating products and services, and employment, all of which are good for society. The goal is to make some great products, serve customer needs, and to provide employment. If you put all these things together and you do that well, you are a sustainable and profitable entity.
CV: I’m of the opinion that the time is ripe for a re-presentation and rediscovery of the Church’s Social Doctrine; yet in my experience it’s difficult to get even faithful Catholics to engage it. They think they know what it contains, for better and for worse — even though often what they know are catch phrases that may or may not bear any relation to what the Church actually teaches. Do you find that too? How will a typical student in the School of Business & Economics learn about the Social Doctrine of the Church? And what difference will that make when they graduate?
Dr. Engelland: You are right, in fact, one of our professors, Andreas Widmer, recently released findings of Faithful Measure: Gauging Awareness of the Catholic Church’s Social Doctrine. This fascinating study shows that Catholics and non-Catholics alike misunderstand key tenets of Catholic Social Doctrine. Of concern, most Catholics think they understand terms such as “social justice,” “solidarity,” and “property rights,” but when they are asked to identify their definitions, they do little better than non-Catholics.
Perhaps no institution has given more thought over a longer period of time regarding the intersection of the state, the economy and human well-being then the Catholic Church. Beginning in 1891 with the landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum, the Catholic Church has played a central role in studying, analyzing and contemplating the role of persons in both civil and economic life. In the ensuing 124 years the church has promulgated over 14 major documents discussing the role of markets, labor, the state, private property, and entrepreneurship. This body of work, commonly referred to as Catholic Social Doctrine, makes up the very foundation of our new Business School.
It is our belief that this integration of Catholic Social Doctrine into a business school education not only provides an antidote to the misunderstandings of the free enterprise system, but can positively illustrate how to conduct business in a manner that is a force for good.
Developing teaching and scholarship in business and economics that is inspired by the Catholic Social Doctrine is a primary objective of our school. The very first business class that our students take as freshmen is called “The Vocation to Business.” One of the texts for this school is a document from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace called The Vocation of the Business Leader. And that is very much a theme that we drive through our whole program.
CV: Pope Francis speaks often about the dignity of work and the need to create what he calls a “culture of work” as opposed to a “culture of welfare.” What do you think he means by that, and what bearing does it have on a Catholic business program?
Dr. Engelland: An authentically Catholic business education means you don’t want to be living the “divided life,” in which you behave as a perfect Christian when you go to Mass on Sunday, but then on Monday you act just like everybody else. If you want your faith to infuse everything that you do, faith should particularly infuse your life at work. When you are running a business all of your decisions should be made in the light of faith. That’s what we mean by being authentically Catholic. There’s no space where the light of gospel does not shine in your life. Every business decision, as St. John Paul taught, should be a moral decision.
What is needed for an authentically Catholic education is first and foremost a rigorous education, and our program is very demanding, very rigorous. It has its own quantitative angle to it, and that’s absolutely critical, but it must not stop there. There’s a strong practical dimension as well – in internships, as well as a lot of exposure to the business realities that people will face. Underlying it all is a clear sense of what this is all about. This is a human person in service of others, a business as a service to society.
CV: Why would any serious Christian or person of good will want to go into business right now, when the right to set up a business and operate according to the dictates of moral conscience is less and less respected and more burdened by statutes and regulations? Quite apart from those issues, the U.S. seems increasingly to be beset by cronyism, with entire sectors of the economy in the de facto control of regulators who have too-cozy relationships with the industries they purport to regulate. This impedes honest competition and inhibits upstart businesses. Yet your students seem excited about the future. Why is that?
Dr. Engelland: Our new School of Business and Economics was created in January 2013, and the timing was providential. Two months later Pope Francis was elected and in his early writings he elevated the commitment of the Church to lifting the poor out of their condition, a theme very much contained in our school’s founding documents. Reaction to the School’s creation and to its message has been strongly positive. In the Fall of 2014 the school enrolled its second freshman class of 173 students, an increase of 23% over the previous year for a total school enrollment of 674. This Fall we expect another 20% increase in freshmen enrollment.
The secular and religious press has covered the launch of the school with much interest. Business leaders and alumni have committed over $10 million towards the effort. Two years into the founding of our school we have successfully demonstrated the “proof of concept.” There is a clear need and demand for business education centered on fully integrating the Catholic Social Doctrine into the various business disciplines.
We’re seeing really strong demand for the distinctive focus of our school on the human and moral approach to business. This resonates particularly well among young people. Young people in every generation, but particularly this generation, want very much to have meaning in their lives. So the idea of business as something meaningful is very inspiring to them.
CUA’s School of Business & Economics premiered a promotional video at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast on May 15, 2015. It’s worth watching for additional insights on the program and the value of Catholic Social Doctrine for the world of business from other faculty members and students. Dr. Andrew Abela, who appears in the video as Dean of the Business School, has recently been elevated to provost of the university.