Catholic News Service
A view of Wall Street. Tom Sheridan argues that gospel values would help business.
Catholic News Service
A view of Wall Street. Tom Sheridan argues that gospel values would help business.
Want to know about the values of a culture? Check out its slang.

That's right, slang, the language of the streets. And in this case I don't mean Wall Street.

Example: When you "give someone the business," you probably aren't bestowing a commercial enterprise on them (unless, perhaps, you do live on Wall Street). No, you mean you're going to hurt that person.

Which is why there are no best-sellers -- no serious ones, in any event -- called, "The Gospel According to Business."

The primary goal of business is to make a profit. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. Profit fuels global enterprise and keeps economies humming. The problem is the unethical and illegal actions some businesses take to make that profit.

Once, a society's values were set by the ruling monarch. Over centuries, royalty gave way to religion as value-setter. In recent decades, society's values have been determined -- or at least heavily influenced -- by businesses and corporations.

How has business lived up to that awesome responsibility? Quick answer: not very well. The Gospel? Generally, most businesses aren't bothered by such pesky things as feeding the hungry or giving drink to the thirsty. Unless it's profitable. Or deducible.

This isn't exactly a newsflash, folks. Unethical businesses have long been seeking the soul of society. More than 100 years ago, President Teddy Roosevelt battled corrupt corporations and trusts that believed the world was separated into two parts: a plutocracy of the wealthy and the herd, the working class.

Then, as now, the big complaint was income inequity: The rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. Not all businesses were unethical, of course, but the corrupt ones rigged prices to kill competition and thwart the middle-class dreams of exploited blue-collar workers.

Much has been made, some critically, of Pope Francis' repeated calls for businesses to play fair with workers and consumers and avoid greed. But there is history here.

It was the sometimes violent clashes -- physical, political, cultural -- in the latter decades of the 19th century between new industrial-age corporations and the laboring classes that encouraged Pope Leo XIII to write "Rerum Novarum." That groundbreaking encyclical letter formed the basis for the church's social gospel.

Pope Leo called for businesses to treat employees with respect and pay a fair wage, and he encouraged workers to negotiate for their salaries. He also called on workers to value their effort and provide honorable work.

Most Catholics in that era were members of that blue-collar laboring class. The virtues outlined by Pope Leo and championed by Roosevelt and others through the mid-20th century helped create a balance that in large part spurred the great movement of Catholics into the middle class.

Labor unions, fair wages (or at least more fair than many today) and family-based companies rather than soulless corporations helped create the postwar culture that turned groups of disparate Catholic immigrants into today's potent and vital economic, political and cultural force.

Much of Pope Francis' comments on business put a 21st-century spin on Pope Leo's words. Bottom line: Corporations and businesses have a Gospel-like responsibility to comfort the afflicted and, yes, afflict the comfortable.

And in large measure they aren't doing a great job of it. Today we see some of the same abuses that gave Roosevelt fits: unfair competition, massive and undisguised greed, CEO and worker salaries out of sync, and an avoidance of "the common good."

What would it be like if business lived Gospel values? Yes, some businesses do play fair with employees and work to help the poor. They deserve honor for doing the right thing. But not enough of them do.

What is the right thing? "Rerum Novarum" and the follow-on words of Pope Francis are good starting points.

The writer is a former editor of The Catholic New World, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago and a deacon ordained for the Diocese of Joliet, Ill.