'Nothing much that the priest in the pulpit had to say seemed to be relevant to my experience of working life', writes Michael Phelan, a former chairman of a publicly quoted international money broking group. He thinks it is the business of the Church to challenge business people with her social teaching.
A ruler-wielding nun, in the forties, taught me that it could be painful to have less than instant and perfect recall of the answers to the questions in my little red book - the Penny Catechism. ‘Sister what mortal sins can I commit if I do not murder anyone?’ I naively asked one day. She dodged that one, but I knew somehow from the scowl on her face that I should not have asked the question.
The onset of puberty and the priests at my Jesuit grammar school taught me that there were other mortal sins than murder - those of the flesh. In my teens, a kindly and good Trappist novice master helped out by further advising me that it was sinful to even glance at the pictures of ladies’ corsets that then decorated the advertising panels of the London Underground. Poorly delivered and sometimes unprepared sermons and advice from the confessional completed my Catholic moral formation. As described by James Keenan, in the April edition of this journal, the challenge to me from my pastors and teachers had been ‘Have you sinned?’ rather than ‘Are you growing up?’
Swinging sixties in the City
My business life started in the wide and wicked world of the City of London at the beginning of Sixties. The golden calf of the square mile was money. The thrill of the chase made the adrenaline pump. Colleagues worked hard and played hard, too. Quick wits sparkled in the City dealing rooms and bars. Although I tried to follow the teachings, as I perceived them, of the Church in personal morality, I had never then heard of Catholic social teaching.
Perhaps I was particularly naïve, but in talking to some Catholic business friends of my own age, I have discovered that their early formations were not very much different to my own. Nothing that any of us learnt when we were young provided us with much of an ethical compass, with which to steer us through the very complex world of business at the end of the industrial age, and, now in the information age. True, we knew quite a bit about personal sin but this was in the days before much teaching of business ethics. We all had to grow up, think like adults in our business lives and find our own ways, but for many of us our religious education had remained stuck in childhood. Church teaching, for most of us, failed then and perhaps now to connect with our human experience.
The board room
As a newly married young partner in a City broking business in the late sixties, I heard many sermons, at Sunday Mass, on the evils of abortion and even a few on the evils of contraception. The world that I inhabited, however, for most of the week had many other ethical problems as well.
Was insider dealing OK? There did not appear to be any victims of such activity. Was heavy entertaining to gain business any different to bribery? Was it right to encourage young colleagues to wine and dine clients heavily in the pursuit of business? All of our competitors did it then! We would lose business if we didn’t entertain! What duties of care did employers have for their staff in a high-pressure sales environment? Many colleagues’ marriages broke up because of their business life styles. Some of my then colleagues died of alcoholism. More recently, a few of our successors have died of drug overdoses. Why did we recruit women as clerks and secretaries but only young white males as trainee brokers? Somehow we never found suitable women or non-white men to be highly paid brokers!
Going international provided the business and me with other dilemmas. Should we pay kickback in a European country, where it was the way that all the local brokerages did business in that market? Or should we perhaps deal through a correspondent broking company, who would pay the kickback thus enabling us to keep our clean reputation, but still do the business. Was it OK to receive some of our brokerage into a Swiss account so that our correspondent broking company in another European country could pay kickback to corrupt dealers in some of their client banks? Was it right to suggest highly sophisticated financial transactions to dealers, who did not fully understand the potential risks, which might endanger the financial standing of their institutions? We were only agents, not principals, and it was not our fault that some dealers were naïve and their managements unsophisticated, as long as we got our brokerage. Should we open a profitable subsidiary in the apartheid State of South Africa? Should we arrange barter transactions with some corrupt third world government agencies and businesses? These were some of the easier matters on which to decide.
Changing from a partnership - where ownership and management had been in the same hands - to being a publicly quoted company provided new challenges. Now the owners or shareholders were different to the directors and managers. Company law said that our primary responsibility as directors was to the shareholders. Was this morally right? What about the employees? Were they not stakeholders in the business? Could we afford or was it right to keep on expensive loyal and long-serving employees who were no longer putting enough brokerage on the sheet? Was it right that early leavers got such a poor transfer value from the company pension scheme? We always obeyed the law, the stock exchange rules, and the take-over panel’s yellow book! Should we be doing more than we had to? If so, we were damaging the interests of the shareholders. If I wanted to improve matters, how could I carry my colleagues, most of whom were materialists of the highest order?
Perhaps I climbed the corporate ladder then because I was fairly ruthless and decision making was never a problem for me. I took whatever time was available to consider a serious matter carefully and then made the decision. It could sometimes be wrong in the short term but right in the medium or long term and vice versa. As the chairman and managing director of a publicly quoted company, I had to make difficult decisions on limited available facts, which were never quite black or white. Often there was very little time available to consider a course of action, as many decisions in the City had to be made in split seconds.
The institutional Church
Of course I remembered the Ten Commandments and all of the Church’s laws. But the Church on a Sunday was a very different world to the one in which I worked during the week. It was more than easy to put Church and business into separate and watertight compartments. Nothing much that the priest in the pulpit had to say seemed to be relevant to my experience of working life.
Some of the pastors I saw were also autocratic but poor administrators of their own parishes and people. Their leaders, the bishops, may have been good and holy men but they were also often poor administrators and decision makers. Episcopal preferment, in the institutional church, seemed to go normally to good safe men, with little imagination. The clergy appeared to know little of my world. None of them appeared to have any fiduciary responsibility or accountability to the laity for the management or pastoral care of their parishes. In the diocese, what lay person knew how much money was spent on seminary training or Catholic education? A few years ago, a diocese in the south west of the United States faced bankruptcy through its unwise purchase and subsequent management of a TV station. The laity were never consulted fully on the venture or apologised to for the managerial incompetence. Just asked to pray and pay.
The dichotomy between Church and business could also be seen in Catholics who were pillars of the Church at the weekends but whose business practices were quite amoral. On occasions the institutional Church even gives papal knighthoods to ruthless and hard-hearted businessmen who have been generous to it. Sad to say, many of the Church institutions’ employment practices, particularly with regard to nuns and lay people, appeared to be very poor and unprofessional. To an ordinary Catholic business person, the two worlds of business and Church just did not appear to connect.
Catholic social teaching
Although I thought about and pondered on the ethical dimensions of the decisions that I had had to make in my business life, the Sunday teachings of the Church had never appeared to be of much help to me. True I knew all about avoiding mortal sin and saving my own soul, but nothing of social morality or the structures of sin. My understanding of how to love my neighbour in the late twentieth century had not developed. Until The Common Good was published in 1996, I knew only a little of our rich heritage of official Catholic social teaching. For me the juxtaposition of the twin concepts of solidarity in the horizontal plane and subsidiarity in the vertical became very powerful in both my business and political life. Since then I have rarely heard Catholic social teaching mentioned from the pulpit.
At a recent parish exhibition of all of our current activities, we had a flip chart for members of our faith community to write down perceived emerging needs within the parish. Music, crèche, ringing of the angelus bell, rosary, and bereavement counselling were included as some of the suggestions. The advocates of setting up a pro-life movement in the parish had a big stall, with models of foetuses in wombs. No apparent suggestion anywhere, though, of wanting to know more of Catholic social teaching. Perhaps it was too challenging and not simplistic enough. It would also intrude too much into the lives of ordinary Catholics engaged in earning their livings.
Structures of sin
A few years ago in the States, I met Thomas Kennealy, author of the book from which the film Schindler’s List was adapted. He told me that when doing the research for his book, he came across plenty of senior German business people, who lead blameless and very moral personal lives, were churchgoers, and model family men. Yet, they actively collaborated with the Nazis in the use of slave labour in their businesses. The irony for Kennealy was that Schindler, the bad Catholic, adulterer, and fraudster was one of the few who risked his life to help the persecuted Jews. That for me sums up a dilemma for business people. Like a latter-day Pharisee, you can be a good and respected person at the local Church and yet lead an amoral life in business, which is perhaps a part of a structure of sin.
The business conscience
Starting with so little education in Catholic social teaching or business ethics, I had to work hard on the moral dimensions of my business decisions. For many years my reading of what was right or wrong arose from the narrow base of my early religious education, as described above. The agenda was simple. Keep the commandments as they had been taught. Those were the easy times.
In my late thirties, I returned to the practice of my youth - daily Mass. Over a time, this produced great changes in my approach to business life - it now started to come together with my faith. The daily service of the Word and the Eucharist helped to sensitise and extend my conscience in business, personal, and social matters. During meditative prayer, some of my particularly difficult moral judgements in business matters were fitted into place. Morning Mass strengthened my resolve to try and do what was right in business during that day. From the daily readings of the Scriptures I was challenged to see the need for Christian morality in my business decisions. All of this in turn led me into more spiritual reading and consideration of the structures of sin and what in my small way that I could do. Subsequent reading on creation and liberation theologies, Catholic social teaching, and spirituality all contributed to my personal synthesis of good Christian business practice and political action.
It became clear to me as my business conscience was strengthened by prayer and the sacraments that knowing what was right was not always enough. In a pluralist society with colleagues whose moral codes were quite different to my own the art of what was possible also needed serious study. In the search for the Kingdom in the City one had to be a good political operator in the boardroom.
Naming social sins
Many of my City colleagues in the sixties and seventies, including the Catholic ones, had racist and homophobic views when it came to staff selection. What could I do to change this? As managing director I could set up internal company rules, but this was not enough. How to deal with the prejudice that permeated the City and my organisation then?
I remember when Enoch Powell came to talk to a crowded City market association meeting on floating exchange rates, that he got a standing ovation from all but a handful of us. I sat in my chair because I knew very well that the ovation was because of a general feeling that ‘Powell is right! They should all be sent home!’ Yet during all those years, I never heard a sermon about the sinfulness of racial prejudice or discrimination. Some Catholic priests and laymen I knew then even told racist jokes. At a Catenian clergy night dinner, I remember the shocked silence when a very sociable and witty priest friend told the Catenian teller of a racist joke that he did not find it funny. Until then I had always looked the other way on such occasions.
In our affluent town some time ago, a meeting sponsored by the local churches, was arranged by Church Action on Poverty, and a poster went up on our parish notice board. Some Catholic parishioners protested at this perceived attempt to introduce politics into the Church, and wrote on the notice board accordingly. Very few Catholics attended that event in the local URC church though the speaker was the then Catholic director of that ecumenical body. When are the wealthy in Church on Sunday challenged about the poor in our society?
The institutional church’s failure to name social sin has to my mind contributed to its apparent irrelevance to many of our young people, who are just starting their careers.
In the last great period of change - the industrial revolution - the majority of priests in this country lived with their poor congregations in the poorest parts of the cities. They were in touch with and understood the working and domestic lives of their parishioners. Their successful and relevant pastoral strategies grew out of this knowledge and experience. The smaller wealthy middle and upper classes were served by clergy who also understood their lives and their needs.
Now we are going through another period of great change - the so-called information age. Technology is advancing more and more rapidly. The nature of employment has changed. No longer is a job for life the norm. Most working people will change jobs many times in their lives and all will have to continually develop new competencies and skills. Many parishioners may have to face unemployment or underemployment in their middle age. Delayering of tiers of management and the development of information technology have all led to a very changed job market. That said, more and more Catholics are now in positions of responsibility in big organisations and others are running small and medium sized businesses. Business and professional people need pastoral help. The business and professional consciences of our people need to be sensitised and extended by means of Catholic social teaching.
Today’s pastors need to know more about the lives and problems of their people. As a minimum, our expensive seminary training should provide today’s new priests with some academic background to the great changes that are taking place in the business and working lives of their future parishioners. The ordination of mature married people would add considerably to this experience within pastoral ministry. Some business and political ethics should be taught in seminaries. Today’s good pastors are not social workers or business consultants but they do need to understand the needs of their flocks.
More of our priests in parishes need to be better educated. In-service training should include a better understanding of the problems of modern business and family life. MBAs and second degrees in business, information technology, social psychology, etc., as well as theology would extend the clergy’s own competencies and knowledge. Many of their parishioners will be using distance learning or evening classes to extend themselves, and so should their pastors. A better-educated clergy will thus have a better understanding of their parishioners’ working lives. Out of this increased appreciation of working life will come better pastoral strategies and preaching.
At a time of continuing secular education throughout life, most Catholics finish off their Catholic education and formation when they leave school. Dioceses, deaneries, and parishes will have to provide more adult Catholic education for their people if they wish to be relevant to a more educated and questioning laity. Catholic colleges such as St Mary’s, Strawberry Hill, are now providing business ethics courses from their theology departments. More provision of such religious academic education is necessary for all Catholics in the world of work.
In an increasingly complex world, adult Catholics in business and other walks of life need a better educated clergy to challenge and educate them in Catholic social teaching as well as personal morality. The language and symbols of church ritual and teaching need to speak to today’s laity about the social and personal problems that they face in their daily lives.
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