THE BLOG
12/20/2013 01:24 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2014

Pope Francis and the Social Responsibility of Corporations

The recent distraction about the purported "Marxist" beliefs of Pope Francis pronounced by people who have obviously not taken the time to read his recent exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium", (The Joy of the Gospel) is just that, a distraction. And the labels of Socialism, Marxism and Capitalism, employed to describe economic theories, rarely serve to educate or enlighten and are mostly just labels used to discredit and marginalize - not to promote constructive conversation.

The real news, intentionally buried by this distraction, is that a growing portion of the business community acknowledges that their "social license to operate", their corporate charter and their commitment to "good citizenship" demands that they integrate the social values and policies that the Holy Father and others in the faith community espouse into their business models. This trend becomes immediately evident when one completes a quick scan of the number of companies and leaders who are actively promoting and measuring their social and environmental impacts. In 2012, for instance, more than 50% of S&P 500 companies published sustainability or corporate social responsibility reports.

The recently concluded business and human rights forum that was hosted by the United Nations in Geneva saw a significant increase of participants over the 2011 gathering. The forum was established by the UN Working Group on Business to promote and implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and will require their active participation cooperation if they are to be successfully implemented.

In paragraph #203 of the exhortation, the Holy Father clearly articulates his views on the role and responsibilities of the business sector. He writes that "business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all."

This understanding establishes a standard of responsibility and an ethical vision that can inform and inspire business leaders and the business community. It is both a reminder of the broader purpose and meaning of all human activity and a specific call to the business community to embrace the full import of their social charter which includes an explicit responsibility to society; a call corporations are heeding in greater numbers.

Much has changed since the classic debates about the inherent conflicts between labor and management, the public and private sectors and the pros and cons of different economic models and systems. The Catholic Church for a long time consistently pointed to the positive and negative aspects of different macroeconomic systems, the space needed to respect individual freedom and the important role that the governments must play in protecting and promoting the common good. In more recent years we have witnessed both a clearer recognition and positive articulation of the role private entrepreneurship, appropriately regulated, can play in responding to different social challenges and opportunities. Responsible corporations can and do improve the quality of life for communities wherever they operate.

A reciprocal recognition by businesses about the role of governments and international bodies when it comes to legislation, standard setting and rule-making has been slow to gain traction. I want to suggest that business leaders must be willing to recognize their rightful role if the future of the planet and communities everywhere are to be safeguarded and promoted. The strengths and limitations of both sectors alongside the contributions of civil society are consistent with the growing edge of catholic social teaching and with the views presented by Pope Francis.

The attempts by pundits and some commentators to try to dismiss the urgency of his analysis and his call by resurrecting outdated concepts and fear-inducing labels are a gross misreading of his teaching and, again, a pointless distraction. The fallout from the near financial meltdown of 2008 was, and continues to be, a shrill reminder to leaders, investors and communities across the world about the limits of an unregulated financial system. The extent to which an ethically unhinged corporate sector increases inequity and injustice and destabilizes the financial security of millions the world over cannot be discounted. It is absolutely within the purview of Pope Francis and all faith leaders to challenge corporations to see the greater meaning in life and to serve the common good.

"Evangelii Gaudium" is an important wake-up call from the Holy Father that should be welcomed by all stakeholders and all sectors. He calls upon us all, including corporate leaders, to roll up our sleeves and begin the important work of making the resources for a better quality of life more accessible and available for the hundreds of millions currently living without life's basic necessities. This is neither socialistic, communistic nor capitalistic. It is both a moral and spiritual call, and it is what God expects of us.