By Frank Wessling
What would it mean if a Vatican agency, people who work under the direct oversight of Pope Benedict XVI, were to say that Mitt Romney’s work in the financial industry was honorable?
That is a conclusion to be drawn from a document of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace — not precisely that Romney himself, now the presumptive Republican candidate for the presidency, did honorable work but that the kind of work he did at the investment firm Bain Capital in the years 1984-99 has value in a modern economy.
At the end of March, the Vatican agency made public a project it had worked on since the 2009 publication of Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth). Business leaders, educators, scholars and church leaders were involved in studies and discussion that produced “Vocation of the Business Leader” (available on the web at www.bit.ly/businessleadervocation).
That document reviews the work of business executives in light of the Catholic social justice tradition and asks them to take a broad view of their responsibility. It does not tell what to do; rather, the document’s final section is a list of questions, “A Discernment Checklist for the Business Leader.”
Some of the questions:
• Do I promote a culture of life through my work?
• Have I been living a divided life, separating Gospel principles from my work?
• Do I place the dignity of workers above profit margins?
• Am I engaging in anti-competitive practices?
• Am I creating wealth, or am I engaging in rent-seeking behavior?
“Rent-seeking” is evident in lobbying and the desire for a monopoly. It means all of the activities done by an actor in the economy to gain advantages or prevent competition by using political influence. Such activity typically does not produce new wealth; it seeks to reserve or control existing wealth. It has also become endemic in our society.
Back to Mitt Romney. The “Vocation” document notes that finance is replacing production as a dominant sector in modern capitalist economies. This shift to “financialization of the economy,” where firms like Bain Capital have a prominent role, has helped keep complex modern societies functioning. It has “given millions of people easier access to credit in consumption and production; sought to spread risk through derivative instruments; created ways to leverage capital to make it more productive; and more,” says the document.
But there are dangers. With so much focus on finance, we tend to measure and value everything in terms of money. “Financialization has tended to completely commoditise businesses,” says the document, “reducing the meaning of human enterprise to only a price.”
It contributes to the notion that maximizing shareholder wealth is “virtually the sole metric by which business leaders determine their performance and their worth.” The pope saw this so-called bottom line mentality as a moral danger zone when he wrote in Caritas in Veritate, “Without doubt, one of the greatest risks for businesses is that they are almost exclusively answerable to their investors, thereby limiting their social value….”
The “Vocation” document is the first Vatican project designed especially for business leaders. It honors its prospective readers and its subject by acknowledging the complexity of modern business and economic life, and by asking readers to work for their own answers to its questions. It wants to equip them with a robust moral context in which they are better able to “see,” to “judge,” and to “act” with integrity and profit both for their firms and their societies.
If Mitt Romney reads “Vocation” he will have to judge for himself how well he performed according to the vision it lays out. But he will find a blessing of sorts on the kind of business he did.