|Interview With Michael Naughton of University of St. Thomas
By Annamarie Adkins
ST. PAUL, Minnesota, 2 JUNE 2008 (ZENIT)
Suspicion within the Church
of profit and the residue of an ancient prejudice against “shopkeepers”
and moneylenders have fueled a perception that Catholicism and commerce
are like oil and water.
But the vast majority of Catholic colleges and universities in the
United States offer undergraduate business majors, and many have
graduate business programs leading to professional degrees. As a result,
there has been a developing body of scholarship dedicated to formulating
the unique mission of a Catholic business school.
Michael Naughton has been at the forefront of this movement. Naughton is
the Moss Endowed Chair in Catholic Social Thought and director of the
John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought at the University of
St. Thomas in St. Paul.
Naughton’s Ryan Institute is co-sponsoring the June 11-13 conference at
the University of Notre Dame titled, “The Role of Mission-Driven
Business Schools,” to explore these issues in greater detail.
Naughton previewed for ZENIT some of the themes of the conference and
discussed the challenges a Catholic business school faces.
Q: Many critics believe a business school has no place in a Catholic
university because business promotes selfish ends. How would you
respond? Can business really be a professional calling?
Naughton: There is, as you say, a bias against business, particularly
among some of the faculty in the liberal arts. They often operate with a
Platonic/Aristotelian bias against commerce, since they understand
business only in terms of its economic and instrumental dimensions.
Once I had a theologian say to me that success for him was persuading
students away from majoring in business, since he saw little redeemable
value in pursuing such a line of work.
However, if we look at some of the great Catholic thinkers on education
Cardinal John Henry Newman, Jacques Maritain, Poe John Paul II, etc.
what we find is that they all see a role for professional education
within the university, precisely because they hold to the importance of
the dignity of work.
Today, business is one of the major forms of work for our students; a
Catholic university, as a cultural institution, plays an important role
in the formation of students as to what this work should be.
Q: How should the principles and pillars of Catholic social teaching
subsidiarity, solidarity, respect for human dignity and the common good,
and a preferential option for the poor
shape the curriculum and culture of a Catholic business school? Do
Catholic business schools currently live up to this standard?
Naughton: It is important to remember that all business education
involves an education in principles. The question is in what principles
are we forming our students
Machiavellian principles, economic principles, Catholic social
At the University of St. Thomas the vision statement of our college of
business is “educating highly principled global business leaders.” I
have found this to be a helpful vision because it has opened up for us a
way to engage our faculty in an honest discussion on the principles of
various moral traditions.
As to the culture part of your question, I see four important areas to
engage these principles that can shape the identity of a Catholic
The first is hiring. When Catholic business schools hire faculty, they
should have candidates read an essay on Catholic social principles and
ask them how they would engage such principles in their discipline. This
would give a good sense of mission fit of potential new faculty.
Faculty development is a second area. If a Catholic business school is
going to take its mission seriously, it has to devote time to engage
faculty on the Catholic social tradition.
The third is research. Father Ted Hesburgh, former president of Notre
Dame, once said that the Catholic university is where the Church does
In a Catholic business school some of that thinking as it relates to the
Church’s social principles should be engaging questions within finance,
marketing, human resources, entrepreneurship, etc.
The last area is curriculum. There should be specific courses on
Catholic social thought and business in which Catholic social principles
and business theory and practice are specifically engaged.
But throughout all their business courses, students should encounter
ethical and spiritual questions as they relate to a wider variety of
issues such as the purpose of the firm and finance, just wages and human
resources, humane job design and operations, truth telling and
marketing, wealth distribution and economics, capital ownership and
strategy, and so forth.
Catholic business schools that take these four areas seriously would be
well on their way to living up to their vision. My sense is that most
Catholic business schools have room for improvement in these four areas.
Q: What does “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” have to say to Catholic business
Naughton: “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” does not say much specifically to
Catholic business schools, but the vision of the document is extremely
relevant to such schools.
John Paul II wrote of four characteristics of a Catholic education: “(a)
the search for an integration of knowledge, (b) a dialogue between faith
and reason, (c) an ethical concern and (d) a theological perspective.”
These four criteria are desperately needed in business education today.
Warren Bennis and James O’Toole
in a highly critical article on business education entitled “How
Business Schools Lost Their Way” in the Harvard Business Review
argued that business schools are increasingly becoming more specialized
and less interdisciplinary, and they are adopting a scientific instead
of a professional model of business education.
It seems to me that Catholic business schools, if they are informed by
the vision of “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” stand the best chance to address
these criticisms that Bennis and O’Toole raise in their article.
Catholic business schools can provide a distinctive vision of business
education that enables them to stand apart from their competitors.
Q: Most business schools require a course in “business ethics.” Does a
Catholic business school teach this any differently? How does a Catholic
business school differentiate itself from secular business schools?
Naughton: In the past, Catholic universities have tended to take
business ethics more seriously than other universities; however, there
is a temptation in business ethics to come to a common agreement by
driving the discussion down to the lowest common denominator.
This kind of ethical approach quickly moves one to either the law,
namely, what is ethical is what is legal. Or it leads to a position that
ethics pays, namely, good ethics is good business. What is often avoided
in this approach to business ethics is how people can speak from their
center in making ethical decisions, and in particular from their faith.
It seems to me that business ethics courses at Catholic universities
should open up students to a robust vision of business leadership as a
profession and a vocation. A business ethics approach at a Catholic
university has an intellectual arsenal that is unique from most
Depending upon the theology and philosophy requirements, a business
ethics course can and should demand from its students a more
sophisticated integration of theological and philosophical ethics. This
vision should draw upon the ethical tradition of the natural law, the
virtues, Catholic social principles, rights and duties, etc., that
inform and form students in the moral and spiritual importance of
This approach to business ethics can help students manage the
complexities of business life without either losing their soul or going
broke. This is certainly a large order, but one that lies at the heart
of what makes business education at a Catholic university distinctive to
Q: Benedict XVI stated in his recent address to American college and
university presidents that a Catholic institution of higher education
should assist students in deepening their relationship with Jesus
Christ. Can this really be accomplished in a business education program?
Naughton: John Henry Newman wrote that “every profession has its
dangers,” and business is no exception.
The excessive pursuit and desire for money and power, the cold pragmatic
instrumental reasoning of treating employees as means only, rather than
ends, the prideful conceit of understanding business as only a career,
etc., are all indicators to a destiny that excludes God.
The Second Vatican Council document “Gaudium et Spes” warns us that the
split between one’s professional life and one’s religious commitments is
a dangerous error of our age. This divided life, particularly for
Christian businesspersons, seriously impairs their relationship with
A Catholic university, if it takes its mission seriously, needs to
engage its business students in ideas of vocation, faith and reason,
spirituality of work, principles of the Catholic social tradition, the
cardinal and theological virtues, responsibilities to poor and
marginalized, all of which can move the student to a richer
understanding and relationship with God.
Q: The main goal of a business is to successfully create, market, and
sell a product or service for profit. How does a Catholic business
school navigate the tension between teaching its students to be
effective businesspeople, and discouraging cynical and self-serving
practices like exploiting the vices of consumers?
Naughton: A Catholic business education is a formation in “practical
wisdom,” an education that engages students in the utilization of highly
effective means toward morally good ends. It is an education in both the
how and the why of business.
If our students are not effective in the “how,” they can go broke; but
if they are not thoughtful on the “why,” they can become corrupt.
One of the most powerful insights in Catholic social teaching comes from
John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical letter on work, “Laborem Excercens.” He
explains that work is not only about the effective changes on products
and services, but more profoundly the change work has on the person.
As John Ruskin put it, “The highest reward [or punishment] for man’s
toil is not what he gets from it, but what he becomes by it.”
--- --- ---
On the Net:
The Role of Mission-Driven Business Schools: www.stthomas.edu/becu