When Catholic business leaders and experts gathered for a recent Vatican meeting, they were asked to take part in an unusual thought experiment.
Andreas Widmer, a former Swiss Guard and business executive, told them: "Imagine you are put on trial for being a Christian, and they will use your company and how you run it as proof of your faith. Worst case scenario would be they can't convict you because there's no evidence."
Widmer, co-founder of the philanthropic SEVEN Fund, made this point to underline how difficult it can be to put one's faith to work and make it inspire corporate policies and behaviour.
He was one of about 40 guests invited to take part in a Feb. 24-26 seminar at the Vatican co-sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.
Titled, Caritas in Veritate: The Logic of Gift and the Meaning of Business, the seminar looked for ways to help entrepreneurs and Catholic educators inject spiritual values into business practice.
More specifically, its aim was to use the principles outlined in Charity in Truth, Pope Benedict's 2009 encyclical on social justice issues.
The Ryan Institute's director, Michael Naughton, said it's not true a business built around the logic of "gift," which reflects the Christian sense of self-giving, would be at a significant competitive disadvantage against businesses whose primary focus is profit at all costs.
Neither is it true that the logic of money is the key to success, he said. The continuing financial malaise has shown the folly of that view. "What we've seen is the logic of commodity and of price didn't do too well recently."
A business based on values that put authentic human development and the common good first may not "always make you more money, but it's also not going to lead you to economic failure either," Naughton said.
A values-based business will still need to be dedicated to competency, efficiency, productivity, thrift and profit in order to succeed, but the priorities don't end there, he said.
It's about building solid caring relationships with every player in the business bubble: the workers, the consumers, the stockholders and the community, which includes the environment and future generations, Naughton said.
Naughton sits on the board of directors of a manufacturing business. When the company found itself in major difficulty during the global crisis, it weathered the storm, he said.
"It's like a family; families get all sorts of stuff thrown at them and if the relationships are grounded, based on virtue and have a spiritual connection, they can often weather those difficulties more than if the relationships are based on the thin thread of price."
The Church offers a huge wealth of teachings on the moral and social responsibilities of businesses. But there are few guidelines or frameworks to help business people and Catholic business educators apply those principles in practice, said participants at the Vatican meeting.
To fill the gap, Naughton and two other speakers authored and presented to the pontifical council a draft 11-page practical "primer" on Catholic social principles for business professionals and business educators.
The council has now set up a small working group to work with the draft, and officials said they would try to get a final version out by July.
The consensus among speakers at the meeting was that a spiritual crisis is at the root of current financial failings, and they highlighted the importance of underpinning business ethics with the theological values of hope, faith and charity.
Widmer warned that there was a worrying trend in some businesses of narrowly defining "socially responsible" or "ethical" behaviour. The danger, he said, is that a corporation "throws a bone to the poor and it thinks all is fine and business as usual."
Businesses have been blessed with the gifts of property, capital and profits, he said. These should in turn be "re-gifted" in various ways, including to the excluded so they develop the skills and opportunities that will turn "idleness into work, handouts into salaries, and the gift of leaving poverty for prosperity."
A 43-year-old nun from Paris is bringing that ethos from the Bible to the corporate boardroom. Assumption Sister Cecile Renouard walks the halls of subsidiaries of foreign-owned industries that operate in the developing world, like in Nigeria and Indonesia, and ministers to managers and CEOs.
With her degrees in business, theology and philosophy, she comfortably works with company policymakers in directing their investments in ways that empower local communities.
Companies need to see "their role is not to replace the government," Renouard said. That is what the one petroleum drilling giant she advises in Nigeria had been doing. It supplied the town's electricity and water and was basically "throwing money at the people."
The company has recognized that its approach in dealing with the local people "was a failure," she said.
Renouard encourages companies to establish partnerships and invest in agencies and NGOs that have experience in real development. In that way, they can foster skills and opportunities that can lift people out of poverty.