Five Things Every Catholic Businessperson Must Know

A few years ago, I had an interesting conversation with one of our country’s most well-known and respected business leaders. It started as I was chatting with the man’s wife, and she asked me what I did for fun. I could have told her I enjoyed golf, or gardening, or skiing, or any number of acceptable banker hobbies. Instead, I answered truthfully that I have a passion for learning what our Faith has to teach us about business and our work in the world.

Surprised, the wife called over her husband — and with him came the crowd. He was intrigued and wanted the “elevator pitch” version of what Faith could do to inform business, beyond its admonishment about the rich man’s difficulties getting into heaven. Here’s what I told him — the five things that every Catholic businessperson must know.


1. Man is called to work, and money is spiritual.

Man is wired for work — to be productive. It is part of our mission and who we are as human beings.

We find this laid out in the opening verses of Genesis. God is introduced to us as the omnipotent Creator who makes man in His own image, inviting man to work the soil and cultivate and care for the Earth. Man is given dominion over all living creatures — not as a tyrant, but as a caretaker and protector. The man did not create the goods of the Earth; they are God’s creation, and man’s role is to respect and fulfill the responsibility of the stewardship of God’s material world. God is the owner, and man is His manager.

It is important to remember that work is part of the original state of man and precedes his fall. It is not therefore a punishment or curse, but something that should be enthusiastically embraced. We know that work is honorable, because it provides the resources necessary to live a decent life and to have the means of combating poverty. In its most elemental sense, work is the fulfillment of our duty pursuant to our state in life.

Of course, we’ve come a long way since the days in the Garden. Today, work is often associated strictly with the production and accumulation of wealth — and there is some truth in that. But with eyes of faith, we see there is more to it: Work is service to mankind, and money is simply a medium of exchange.

Real value is not measured solely by money. Money itself is a spiritual thing, in the sense that its true essence isn’t material: It can be created and destroyed without ever touching it. If the world were ending tomorrow, what would be the value of your assets tonight? Immediately, wealth would be destroyed. Conversely, markets can be driven up simply based on news reports or advertising — and suddenly, wealth is created.

Why are these notions of work and money valuable? They are the basis of understanding our vocation to business as spiritual, and thus within the realm faith.


2. The Catholic Church is the repository of some of the richest and most relevant economic philosophy available to man.

Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers contain great wisdom in the areas of work and wealth: Exodus and the Gospel of St. Matthew, St. Clement of Alexandria’s Who is the Rich Man Who Shall Be Saved, Pope Leo the Great’s Homily on the Beatitudes, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Love of the Poor, and many others. All share a remarkable consensus that wealth is morally neutral and can serve as a valuable instrument in the spiritual transformation of individuals and societies.

From these early writers, the Church draws her context, framework, and inspiration for her teachings on economic issues. Men and women in business would be well-served to read Rerum Novarum (1891), Quadragesimo Anno (1931), Mater et Magistra (1961), Populorum Progressio (1967), Laborem Exercens (1981), Solicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), Centesimus Annus (1991), and Caritas in Veritate (2009).

What we find in these documents is that the Church has much to say about our interaction with the material world, synthesizing a beautiful three-fold formula to guide man in his economic affairs:

  1. respect for human life and the dignity of the human person,
  2. emphasis on solidarity among men, and
  3. respect for the notion of subsidiarity — the delegation of responsibility to the smallest, lowest, or least centralized authority.

These are perennial truths, not subject to political whim or market sentiment.


3. Although imperfect, capitalism is the best model we have for organizing economic activity and ensuring the true development of the human person.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that “everyone has the right to economic initiative; everyone should make legitimate use of his talent to contribute to the abundance that will benefit all, and to harvest the just fruits of his labor” (2429). We understand this because we understand the nature of man and his relationship to his Creator.

Both the Catechism and Blessed John Paul II, in Solicitudo Rei Socialis, explain that “experience shows us that the denial of this right [economic initiative], or its limitation in the name of an alleged ‘equality’ of everyone in society, diminishes, or in practice absolutely destroys the spirit of initiative.” From a spiritual perspective, human initiative in the economic sphere can be understood to reveal man’s humanity as creative and relational.

Capitalism has proven to be the most successful economic system to recognize and support free human creativity in the economic sector and to recognize and protect its elemental ingredients: the fundamental role of private property, commerce, and the capital markets. Problems arise when capitalism becomes a system with a purely economic conception of man, where the sole considerations are profit and the law of the market.

As Catholic businesspeople, we understand capitalism to mean an economic system that is placed at the service of human freedom, within the context of a strong juridical framework that emphasizes the ethical and religious aspects of human freedom.


4. “For-profit” is not necessarily bad, just as “non-profit” is not necessarily good.

Blessed John Paul II in Centesimus Annus reminds us that “when a firm makes a profit, this means that productive factors have been properly employed.” Similarly, Clement of Alexandria was the first to argue that if no one possessed anything, it would be impossible to obey Jesus’ commandment to give to the poor. Of course, the legitimate pursuit of profit must be balanced with the absolute protection of the dignity of workers at all levels.

“For-profit” and “non-profit” are, in the end, tax statuses. Both entities must sustain themselves, even if their sources of revenue are different. Certainly many good and honorable people work for for-profit companies, just as arguably some of the most morally questionable business initiatives have come from non-profit ones. Making a profit is not an inherently bad thing.


5. There is no such thing as “business ethics.”

It is imperative to be ethical in business, but “business ethics” is an entirely different concept. In many businesses today, ethics is discussed on a situational basis: What is the right or wrong thing to do in a given situation? This is a worthy starting point — but as Catholic business professionals, our bar is set higher.

Aristotle reminds us, “Virtue makes its subject good, and makes the subject’s work good” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book II). Virtues belong to the soul, according to St. Thomas Aquinas — but companies do not have souls; man does. And when man has perfected the virtues — prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance — he is as God intended him: a sound manager.



Dawn Carpenter currently serves as a Senior Vice President at a major Wall Street firm and is a leading authority in financial management for nonprofit corporations. Ms. Carpenter is a recognized expert in the intersection of faith and business/wealth management and has taught financial management in the graduate schools of three major universities. She is currently a member of the faculty of the Graduate School of Business and Economics at Catholic University, where she teaches Applied Financial Management, synthesizing technical financial analysis with theological principles. Ms. Carpenter holds an MPM in Public Sector Financial Management from the University of Maryland and a M.A. and B.A. in Political Science from American University, and is currently a candidate for a M.A. in Systematic Theology at the Notre Dame Graduate School at Christendom College. She and her husband have two daughters and reside in Great Falls, Virginia.

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  • Gregory Murphy

    From “Iota Unum – a study of the changes in the Catholic Church in the XXth Century” by Prof. Romano Amerio (Vatican II peritus to Bishop Jelmini of Lugano), Sarto House publishing, 1985.


    “…[thus] the whole of moral activity comes to be included in the category of work in two novel ways: first, that work is man’s primary duty in God’s original design; second, that work is the all embracing means whereby man creatively realises his personality. As to the first point, one might say that it is characteristic of the Old Testament to see man as intended to dominate the earth by means of his labour because the Old Testament has a relatively earthbound outlook on life, is little concerned with the life of the world to come and envisages an earthly reward for virtue and for religious practice: “If you hearken to me you will enjoy the goods of the earth” (Isaiah 1:19). This earthly conception of man’s goal is left behind in the order of grace proclaimed in the New Testament and, in comparison with the New Testament message, the present lauding of work can be seen as a regressive tendency. There is not a trace of the glorification of work in Christ’s preaching, which lifts the whole perspective towards the kingdom of heaven. It is true that God’s kingdom begins to germinate here in this world by means of moral goodness but it transcends all that mortal hearts can imagine: in comparison with that kingdom, the things of this world are so much refuse and dross (cf. 1 Cor. 4: 13). The lauding of work as the universal category for all man’s spiritual activity is a moving back towards a theology that the New Testament left behind, when it firmly subordinated the conquest of this earth to the quest for the kingdom of heaven.

    “PARA 214


    “The depiction of Christ as a worker, pertinens ad opificum ordinem is also a novelty (cf. Laborem Exercens, 26 “Belonging to the working class”. There was much amazement when Archbishop Montini met metalworkers beneath a statue of Christ as a workman with a hammer and sickle.) This presentation depends on Matthew 13:55 where He is called “the son of a carpenter” and Mark 6:3 where he is Himself called “a carpenter”. But the scriptural foundations here are weak. The descriptions come from the mouths of the people of Nazareth, who had known Jesus as working with Joseph and who therefore continued to refer to Him as they had known Him, even though He was no longer doing that sort of work. In fact, the Gospel contains no evidence that Christ was ever a workman.”

    • Charles

      Mr Murphy,

      Section 1 of the above article establishes that work is a part of the original created order. Consequently, work is worth our consideration in a spiritual sense because it was not a punishment brought about by sin. Thus, our work, which is often closely tied with fulfilling our vocation responsibilities, should be given particular attention and spritual consideration. I do not think that Mrs. Carpenter’s categorization is an attempt to establish the “novel” concept that “work is man’s primary duty in God’s original design.”

  • Tom

    “1. Man is called to work, and money is spiritual.”
    Man is only called to follow God’s two commandments: e.g.: “Love God, and neighbor”, and that is it.
    First comes prayer to God. Work is of value only if it supports one’s obedience to God’s two commandments.
    Work is needed, as stated by St Paul, but money is not spiritual (can not serve mana), any more than a work is spiritual, if it does not serve the two commandments of God, hand in hand. Worshiping chocolate making by itself is not Christian. Evil selfish people need to work, use money and they like chocolate also.

  • Daniel


    I think you missed, like, 10 other commandments there friend.


  • Tom

    Matthew 22 36-40

    “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
    He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all
    your soul, and with all your mind.
    This is the greatest and the first commandment.
    The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
    The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

  • Tom

    …now making great chocolate is good, if it helps spread the two commandments (like baking a delicious chocolate cake for a birthday!).

  • Wilbur M Bolton

    A meditation from Cursillo: What do you spend your time thinking about? What do you spend (or invest) your money on? What do you employ God-given talent on? — These questions apply to one “in business” just as they apply to those who work for schools, government agencies or charitable organizations.
    The parable of the Last Judgment (Matt. Ch. 25, v.31-45) and the parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16, v.19-31) apply to individuals. Government employees are not excluded from these tests.

  • Tom

    errata: can not serve mana should read can not serve manon, sorry!

  • Gian

    Spiritual in the sense of immaterial is not necessarily good. Satan was a spiritual being. So it is not saying much that money is

    What I would like is a critique of the notion of self-interest and Invisible Hand of Adam Smith from
    a Catholic viewpoint.

  • Marti

    I really like this article and I “get” what Ms. Carpenter is talking about! We need more articles like this in Crisis Magazine. Thank you!

  • Nick

    I highly encourage anyone who enjoyed this article to also read the DISTRIBUTIST REVIEW, an online website which is focused on Economics and Social Theory from a CATHOLIC perspective. This is not ‘dry’ reading, but rather short and opinionated insights on day to day issues.

    Two points I’d like to make are that:

    (1) The people commenting above on the claim “money is spiritual” are misunderstanding the point. The term “spiritual” here isn’t speaking of things pertaining to the soul, but rather an abstraction of reality (e.g. money is just PAPER we choose to project a value to).

    (2) The article states Capitalism is imperfect but is the “best model we have.” I would consider this misleading at best. The Church has openly and explicitly condemned the notion of ‘free market capitalism’ such that economics is wholly divorced from morality and the sole motive is profit making. I don’t think the article made this sufficiently clear, and instead gave the average reader the impression our favored economic system is fine as it is (which is actually very far off the mark). Making a profit is fine, but not under the guise of ‘free market capitalism’. There are alternative economic theories (e.g. broadly defined “Distributism”), which strive to follow the Church’s teachings, so it’s wrong to say Capitalism (esp the current version) is the best we have.

    One very good example of this is to consider the Church’s official teaching regarding paying a worker a “Just Wage”, from the Catechism:
    “2434 A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice.221 In determining fair pay both the needs and the contributions of each person must be taken into account. “Remuneration for work should guarantee man the opportunity to provide a dignified livelihood for himself and his family on the material, social, cultural and spiritual level, taking into account the role and the productivity of each, the state of the business, and the common good.”222 Agreement between the parties is not sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages.

    Notice especially the last sentence: “Agreement between boss and worker is NOT sufficient to justify MORALLY the amount to be paid. This claim is blasphemy to modern “capitalist” ears, but it’s fundamentally a MORAL claim on economics that the Church grounds in Natural Law and the Gospel.

    All in all though, it is very refreshing to see articles like this posted, because most Catholics are totally unaware that the Church has spoken officially regarding what is and is not acceptable economically.

  • Nick
    Free market capitalism is in fact not what we have now. What we have now is a nearly feudal usury based economy emphasizing consumerism.

    Unfortunately business schools teach profits first, sometimes only.

    Free markets between responsible Christians closely resembles distributism.

  • Bob

    For a deeper insight and study into the Church’s statements through the Popes accross centuries and their applicability to the present age and the worthiness of capitalism today, I suggest reading The Catholic Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism by the very esteemed Michael Novak who, for his writings and contribution on this subject, was awarded the Templeton Prize.

  • fides

    Well said. It resonates within the heart of every man of good will. There must be a great effort to have this message repeated as often as possible in our churches, schools, communities, etc.