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Catholic Social Teaching in Business Education

March 18, 2021 7 min read
By Dr. Karel Sovak Dean, Gary Tharaldson School of Business, University of Mary
Business Education

While Catholic Social Teaching (CST) plays an important role in the educational programs of many Catholic liberal arts schools, the inclusion of such studies is generally found exclusively in those schools’ philosophy and theology departments, but not in their business departments – even most ethics courses are concentrated in those departments. It is true that much of the understanding of CST comes from moral theology, namely a mixture of the cardinal virtues and the faith; nevertheless, there is room for and an absolute need of such teachings in our business programs. Throughout history, the Catholic Church has provided a variety of encyclicals addressing social issues contemporary to each age. Although there may be a number of reasons why inclusion of CST in business programs is limited and such studies are often relegated to other disciplines, students taking part in business courses infused with CST are exposed to information that can better assist them in being formed for the whole of life.

When integrated into business education programs, CST uniquely complements the efforts of the faculty of mission-driven programs. In addition to calling those faculty members to an interior examination of how they can develop their students in their courses, there are ancillary benefits to society as a whole. First, students of such programs develop a greater appreciation for their own lives and how they can make a more just contribution to their communities, particularly the poor and the marginalized. Second, students who have benefitted from the integration of CST into business courses are formed in the ability to recognize that business is a noble vocation and how business can be used as a force for good. Such students are likely to develop a more virtuous, integrity-based perspective. Finally, the wisdom and insight provided by papal encyclicals, along with other Church and scholarly writings on CST, offers business students a richness of understanding of the true meaning of success, helping them to link their personal and professional responsibilities and allowing them to infuse such newfound wisdom into every realm of business and daily life. In general, the embedding of CST into business education programs allows the curriculum to go beyond simply providing for the technical skills required to live one’s profession and assists students in understanding their own vocations and place in society.

Receiving, Assembling, and Mediating

Nevertheless, exposure to CST does not necessarily lead to proficiency or deeper understanding. Pope Benedict XVI eloquently provides a blueprint for the educational benefits of studying CST, noting that CST “is a service to the truth that sets us free. Open to the truth from whichever branch of knowledge it comes, the Church’s social doctrine receives it, assembles into a unity the fragments in which it is often found and mediates it within the constantly changing patterns of the society of peoples and nations” (Benedict XVI, 2009, no. 9). This triune approach – receiving, assembling, and mediating – is one that all professors in business programs should seek to emulate and encourage within students. Without intentional formation, student reflections on encyclicals, scholarly writings, and conference presentations by notable theologians are rarely able to demonstrate the reception and assembling of ideas, let alone the mediation of such thoughts. The study of CST in business education programs can play a vital role in students’ interior work, forming them in the ability to reflect upon the Gospel properly and subsequently integrate such knowledge into their respective careers and vocations. Faculty of mission-driven business education programs cannot rely solely on liberal arts courses for such formation. Business education must be about the formation of the whole person.

Catholic Social Teaching and the Formation of the Whole Person

This formation of the whole person, as the subject of their work, follows upon the teachings of St. John Paul II in a number of his encyclicals. The notion of the formation of the whole person in education is not profound; however, it is a rarity in business programs. As one student noted,

Universities are designed to set their students with the best possible education for their future and a religious school should deepen their understanding of their faith and incorporate it into their desired profession. This is the exact role of Catholic social teaching in a business school; that they may help form virtuous professionals that excel in their fields because of their unique understanding of their faith incorporated into their work. Catholic universities promote these values as they contribute all of them to the formation of the person, giving their students an edge in the world and creating people who stand out in their fields, especially leaders.
Business students studying CST were also able to uncover the alignment of human dignity and the common good as a means to human flourishing. As another student noted,
That is why it is important to train business leaders and employees to make good decisions based on their and the company’s values. Business leaders need to gain experience through a Catholic university in order to make the right decisions on their own in the business world. Since actions have worldly and spiritual consequences, business leaders have to think about both of them. What they do in the world can contribute to the world and city of God. That is why CST and ethics are so important to include in a business school - they teach those fundamental principles.
For students, those leaders are not only the prospective leaders they will find in their vocations upon graduation, but are also the leaders who are providing for their educational needs throughout their time of study. Thus, to form the whole student, CST must infuse every part of their education including the lives of those who stand before them in the classroom.

Five Principles of Catholic Business Education

It was noted above that the integration of CST into business education programs is beneficial to society. Laczniak, Murphy, and Gassl (2012) wrote that there are meant to be five principles underlying a Catholic business education, and these five principles demonstrate how benefits to students are closely related to societal benefits. The first principle they present is the development of the moral and spiritual character of students. The second rests in the ability to nurture students such that they can use their managerial skills for the benefit of others. The third is fostering in students a special concern for the welfare of all employees, which is closely related to the fourth: instilling in students an awareness of the social ramifications of their business decisions. The fifth and final principle is to help make students aware of and develop a special concern for the disadvantaged in our society.

Students make it clear that a business education curriculum can accomplish all five of these principles through the integration of CST. CST is a time-tested, proven model for living a life ordered toward the common good, and it illuminates a path toward the creation of an environment in which human flourishing can exist. Importantly for a mission-driven Catholic school, CST provides all these benefits within the context of the faith and allows students to reinforce their faith. Archbishop Charles Chaput expressed a related idea in this way:

A lot of Christian life, in difficult times like our own, involves just holding firm to the Gospel and the Church and the basics of what we know as Catholics to be true, especially when those things are inconvenient; or seem pointless; or when they begin to cost us friends and social approval and opportunities. St. Augustine, who was no stranger to sin or dark times, said that being faithful in little things is a big thing. Today is no different. A large part of sainthood is the choice, again and again, to be faithful when it seems much more advantageous not to be faithful (pg. 2).
The role of CST in the formation of the faithful is the cornerstone from which business programs can begin an approach to instill quality business leaders into the workforce. The essence of a mission-driven Catholic business education must center on the integration of CST into the business curriculum, being woven into the fabric of all courses. Individuals coming into a business program only seeking intellectual stimulation, rather than a complete formative program touching on all aspects of the human person, do themselves a disservice.

Catholic universities and colleges that instill CST into their business curricula as a complement to what their students may receive in their liberal arts studies will find not only that they gain a competitive advantage, but also that their students are brought deeper in their own relationships with God. This integrative approach assists students in incorporating their faith into their studies in business and liberal arts courses alike. These benefits – and all those mentioned above – should be considered an invitation to business instructors in Catholic universities and colleges to find ways to incorporate CST into their curricula. Such inclusion would uphold what Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Deus Caritas Est: Catholic Social Teaching’s “aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgement and attainment of what is just” (28).

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