The message of Pope Francis for business

Managing for Society

The Manila Times

January 19, 2015

I am writing this during the early stages of the visit of Pope Francis in the Philippines.

For months, the whole country has been giddy with excitement in anticipation of the arrival of the much-loved and charismatic Vicar of Christ. From what I’ve seen on TV and social media, people have found the waiting more than worthwhile. The Pope has cemented his place in the hearts of Filipinos with his simplicity, disarming smile, demonstrative affection for poor children and spontaneous humor.

Amidst this glowing love fest with the Filipinos, it is easy to forget one of the pope’s main messages during this pastoral visit. Even before his arrival, Cardinal Chito Tagle already relayed the pope’s reminder: “I should not be the focus. Jesus should be the focus.” The talk he gave in Malacañang plays on the theme of Jesus’ mercy and compassion more specifically: “The great biblical tradition enjoins on all peoples the duty to hear the voice of the poor. It bids us break the bonds of injustice and oppression which give rise to glaring, and indeed scandalous, social inequalities.”

And this is where the pope’s message reaches out to business leaders in the largest Catholic outpost in Asia with, sadly, one of the highest poverty rates among its neighboring countries.

The pope has delivered this message before to an important audience. In January 2014, just before the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, an Oxfam report revealed that the 85 richest people in the world share a combined wealth equal to 3.5 billion of the poorest people—or half of the world’s population! His message to the rich and powerful at Davos was classic Pope Francis—deploring such awful inequality with equal part scolding and equal part inspiration: “What is needed, then, is a renewed, profound and broadened sense of responsibility on the part of all. Business is—in fact—a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life.”

What would business leaders do differently if they were to heed the pope’s offered vocation? He points out the need for decisions that better distribute wealth, create employment and promote the holistic development of the poor. The pope asks that a simple welfare mentality be avoided. Unfortunately, many businesses still see philanthropic activities as their main social responsibility.

The pope knows only too well that business leaders often decide with profits in mind while neglecting the needs of the vulnerable. “Reforming the social structures which perpetuate poverty and the exclusion of the poor first requires a conversion of mind and heart,” he explained to his Malacañang audience.

From February 26 to 28, De La Salle University, Ateneo de Manila University and De La Salle-College of St. Benilde will be hosting the 9th International Conference on Catholic Social Thought and Business Education. The conference theme supports the pope’s message: “Prosperity, Poverty and the Purpose of Business—Rediscovering Integral Human Development in the Catholic Social Tradition.” Business faculty from around the world are working together to support the pope’s call for the conversion of the new generation of business leaders.

What about the established crop of Filipino business leaders? The pope’s Davos challenge can’t be any clearer: “I ask you to ensure that humanity is served by wealth and not ruled by it.”

Dr. Benito Teehankee is an associate professor at Management and Organization Department of the Ramon V. Del Rosario College of Business of De La Salle University.