Acton Commentary

Recovering the Vocation of Business


Do modern day business people see their work as a vocation of service and a way to unity with God? In the present cynical environment, many of us are tempted to smirk at such at such a question and dismiss such a thought as outrageously naïve and silly. There is no doubt that greed has gotten the better of some in the corporate community. Sadly, the effect of this greed has been the destruction of people’s savings and the loss of trust in our nation’s capital markets. While new policies governing certain aspects of business life may be necessary to ensure greater transparency and accountability in certain financial matters, the most effective reforms will occur only if those in business begin to understand that business is a vocation—a way to serve God, not just a convenient way to make money.

As the corporate world continues to be daily buffeted by accusations of executive malfeasance, questionable accounting practices, and insatiable greed, it is clear that the vocation of the businessman is taking a severe beating. Despite the harm caused by some businessmen’s moral lapses, the dignity and demands of vocation still remain. The fact that profit is earned does not diminish the moral potential or the moral demands contained within the call to serve in business. For the Christian businessman, the goal of all human activity is unity with God and this is no less true of commercial activity. Thus, St. Ignatius of Loyola can state with clarity in the first principle and foundation of his Spiritual Exercises :

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created. Hence, man is to make use of them in as far as they help him in the attainment of his proper end…

All too often it is easy to miss the evangelical call contained within the vocation of business, to see that it is a way to serve God. The business world, often caricatured as cutthroat, shady, and immoral by nature, is no more susceptible to immorality than are the people who populate it, which is the case in any profession. Unfortunately, some of those called to serve in the vocation of business have fallen short of the demands of their vocation. This situation, however, is not a crisis in the vocation of business itself, but rather the result of sin committed by individuals. In many corporate cultures, as in the culture at large, vice has been more appreciated than virtue and the moral demands of the life of faith were assumed to be separate from the workplace.

The relegation of morality and moral witness to one’s “private life” while expecting a non-committal amorality in the work environment has opened a harmful divide in the lives of business people and has done harm to vocation of business. In reality, in each and every situation, public or private, Christians have the obligation to conform their actions and activities to the moral norms demanded of those who would call themselves believers. In this regard, there is no public or private, no separate ethic for work and for everywhere else. For within the life of faith one is called to be a witness at all times and in all places. Since most people spend a majority of their time at work, it is the workplace where the moral life is lived, tried, tested, and perfected.

In the coming months various policymakers at all levels of government will be calling for new regulations, new policies, and stricter punishments for corporate malfeasance. The reality of such policy actions is that some will be effective and others ineffective. As in all attempts at regulation, one always runs up against the realization that no regulation can effectively eliminate vice in the human heart. What is needed is for faithful believers in the business community to rediscover the power of personal witness in their work environments. This doesn’t necessarily mean keeping a Bible in plain view at all times, but something more sublime—the witness of personal holiness and moral integrity. In an early sermon, “Personal Influence, the Means of Propagating the Truth,” John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote:

Men persuade themselves, with little difficulty, to scoff at principle, to ridicule books, to make sport of the names of good men; but they cannot bear their presence; it is holiness embodied in personal form which they cannot steadily confront and bear down.

It is the witness of the “good man” that is now needed in corporate America—the witness of men and woman who are proficient in their work and committed to their faith. Such a witness will serve as the foundation of the most important reforms necessary to restore confidence in our nation’s businesses. Recovering the sense that all activity, even commercial activity, is a means to “praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord” will go far in establishing the free and virtuous society on solid ground for many years to come.