Business and the Development of Christian Social Thought

By Ballor, Jordan J. | Journal of Markets & Morality, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Business and the Development of Christian Social Thought


Ballor, Jordan J., Journal of Markets & Morality


Gratian, the great medieval codifier of canon law, included this aphorism: "It is always unlawful for men to fornicate, but it is sometimes lawful to do business." (1) To say that the Christian tradition's interaction with the world of business has been mercurial might be an overstatement, however. There has been a relatively clear development in the attitudes of Christian theologians, from the church fathers to the present day, moving from outright criticism and cautious skepticism (if not unambiguous rejection) to relative critical appreciation and cautious optimism (if not uncritical embrace). A recent book by Anthony Percy provides a helpful survey of these developments, particularly over the last two centuries of Roman Catholic social thought, culminating in John Paul II's encyclical Centesimus Annus, in which Percy writes that "John Paul II brings to light the relational dimension of the entrepreneur in a way that no other pope before him has done." (2)

The church's understanding of the realm of production, consumption, exchange, and service may have achieved a fundamental insight with Centesimus Annus, but reflection on these areas has not remained stagnant in the last two decades. In 2004 the All-Russian Orthodox Council of the Russian Orthodox Church developed a document that includes "Ten Commandments for Businessmen," with mandates such as the obligation to "remember the spiritual meaning of life while earning daily bread" and observations such as "the culture of business relations and adherence to promises help people become better and improve [the] economy." (3)

Most recently Benedict XVI's encyclical Caritas in Veritate has applied the criterion of truth to human social life, particularly in light of global realities. As Michael J. Naughton notes, this encyclical is part of a growing recognition "that we need to embed our understanding of business and organizational life in a larger transcendent reality that has the capacity and the resources to order our interests, profits, and contracts to a good that develops us in relationship to others. We and our organizations need integral human development." (4) To this end the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace released The Vocation of the Christian Business Leader: A Reflection, a note that recognizes the good that Christians are called to do in the world of business. In spite of challenges represented both by sin and evil (both personal and structural) as well as technological change and innovation, "Business leaders who are guided by ethical social principles, lived through virtues and illuminated for Christians by the Gospel, can, nonetheless, succeed and contribute to the common good." (5)

Protestant social thought concerning the business world has likewise struggled to integrate the Christian faith with faithfulness in spheres traditionally understood to be secular. In our Scholia feature in this issue, the Elizabethan bishop John Jewel (1522-1571) applies Christian moral teaching to the problem of usury and loans. Like many of his predecessors and contemporaries, Jewel assumes a fundamentally static view of economic life. In his contribution to the symposium in this issue from the Evangelical Theological Society's Theology of Work and Economics Consultation, Craig Blomberg identifies this theory of "limited good" as also characteristic of the person of the biblical world, in which "if a member of their society became noticeably richer, they would naturally assume that it was at someone else's expense." (6) This perspective represents a strand of continuity between the biblical and the later Christian world up through the early modern era. As Jewel writes, "Here, you say, he who lends is a gainer, and he who borrows is a gainer. It does good for both. If both are gainers, who is the loser? For usury never passes without working loss. Take this as a rule: there is never usury without loss."7 Again, this classical view is shared across confessional lines in the early modern period. …

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