Dr. Michael Naughton. Photo by Jude Severson

The Logic of Gift at Work

Two years after the publication of "The Vocation of the Business Leader: A Reflection for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace," we publish an interview with its co-author, Michael Naughton, on the applicability of the Catholic social tradition.
Suzanne Tanzi

During these times of persistent unemployment and “lack of engagement” in work, as in life, the Church carries hope to a way forward. In the land of free choice, the key is chosen-ness; in a life of acquisition, the pivotal point is giving. Dr. Michael Naughton, Director of the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought, University of Saint Thomas, drafted The Vocation of the Business Leader: A Reflection for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, soon to be in 16 languages. Traces revisits this reflection and its co-author to understand better why and how the seeds for change it carries are being spread, over the two years since its publication, by the winds of certainty in individuals like Naughton who “speak from their center” to share the applicability–and profound meaning–of the Catholic social tradition.

You have said that your main hope regarding the document you helped author, The Vocation of the Business Leader (VBL), will speak to our fundamental sense of humanity. What generated the creation of this document?
It began with Benedict XVI’s phrase, “the logic of gift,” and was born at a February 2011 seminar with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace entitled “Caritas in Veritate: The Logic of Gift and the Meaning of Business.” This meeting followed the October 2010 conference, “Caritas in Veritate and the USA.” Underlying both meetings is the Church’s firm conviction that all Christians are called to practice charity according to their vocation and to the degree of influence they wield in the polis.

Does rereading this document two years after it was published, in an ever evolving social and cultural dynamic, bring something new?
The document highlights the “see, judge, act” method in business, which is very current. The “see” section may eventually become dated and we will have to reassess that in terms of technology and other factors, but the trends described are major and will be around for a while. The “judge” section deals more with the principles of Catholic social tradition that can help people live out better business practices– which come into play in the “act” section. While the document is focused on business it is really more broadly about human work, drawing upon a long social tradition.

This tradition includes a number of encyclicals…
The document is unique and will always be timely–as the needs are urgent–in that it takes a very big tradition and tries to extract what is relevant for the business leader, for the people of work. Caritas in Veritate, Rerum Novarum, Centesimus Annus are all encyclicals in which one can find great material, but people are not sure what it all means for them in their work. This document boils down these rich and important texts so they are accessible to those who are seeking.

Can you explain the emphasis, concerning this “fundamental sense of humanity” you speak of, on the logic of gift and its connection to giving?
As Pope Benedict reminded us, charity is love that is received and given. The logic of gift is recognizing that we have received much. VBL opens up with Jesus’ line: “From everyone who is given much, much will be demanded” (Lk 12:48). When we first experience our being as created, as being gifted life, this receiving enables us to see our doing and having as ways of giving, which they were meant to be.

How can we keep this awareness alive?
Silence, prayer, and worship are fundamental habits of receptivity which then nurture this deep sense that I have been given–and am continuously receiving– an abundance, and that part of my work then is to give of myself.

How does the logic of gift differ from the logic of the market?
Whereas the logic of gift presupposes that something is given, the logic of the market presupposes that nothing is given and it is only acquired. You have to assail nature and grab things out of it, and then it becomes yours. Whereas the logic of gift presupposes that we are chosen, the logic of the market sees only discreet individual choices; one decision is no better than the other. We are simply the arbitrators of our own choices, as in in careerism and materialism, in which everything is acquired and nothing is given.

Especially now, the market is being watched eagerly for signs of recovery– upticks in business bring hope to most.
To be clear, I am not against the logic of the market; profit is a necessary and valid goal. But if it is the only logic a business person has, it will undermine the logic of gift. The logic of gift is the much larger logic, which the market is imbedded in and thus controlled by.

So when there is no logic of gift, subjective choice reigns?
There should be a dynamism between choice and chosen-ness. The market does not recognize the chosen part just as it does not recognize the logic of gift. If all I have is choice–relativism– that is not judged, a consumer mentality gets imposed on all decisions. But in reality, I choose well when I have a deep sense that I myself am chosen for something. Otherwise, I am left in a barren wasteland in trying to find criteria for my choices. A deeper context in which I can understand my choice is needed.

In your book Leading Wisely in Difficult Times, you highlight businesses that operate from within this deeper context. Which of these case studies was the most striking?
We examined the business practices at a food processing company in Montreal where, if a manager lays off or fires someone, he has to meet with the former employee twice in the ensuing 6 to 7 months. The company CEO gave us two motivations for this practice: 1) it transcends the “fault” issues, giving space to the very human experience of asking someone, “How are you doing?” and 2) when people are fired or laid off by their manager, a deep rift is formed. The CEO wanted to create an opportunity for reconciliation. Even in this fallen world we live in, we can still find ways to be human toward each other.

Relationships are important in understanding the Christian concept of “managing as if faith mattered.” You travel a lot and make many other sacrifices in order to encounter people on this plane and share ideas.
There are many great groups out there doing incredible outreach. For example, I am connected to an action- oriented organization called Seeing Things Whole. With one of my colleagues there, I went from company to company, to get a better sense of what is going on in the world of business. You have to get into the guts of the action; you cannot just understand it in principle. Pencils are important but people live and tell the story. Also, I work a lot with Catholic business schools. Internationally, there are about 1,800 institutions of higher learning in the Catholic tradition–and I am trying to stay in touch with them all.

But it seems that Catholic social doctrine is not much emphasized in Catholic universities…
True, and this constitutes a constant challenge of mission and identity. Philosophy and theology instructors might teach it from a political standpoint, but business majors don’t know how to apply what they learn in these classes to their business goals. Students and professors are focused only on their own disciplines, so we are trying to create a bridge by engaging the faculty. The Church has a difficult but rich doctrine that speaks to so much of the world of business–property, just wage, design work, institutional set up, and market products. Much of my effort is geared toward trying to get faculty to take all this more seriously.

Do you agree with Alasdair McIntyre’s insistence that universities are increasingly losing their capacity to help their students see things whole?
This is certainly true, but I have hope in the projects being cultivated around the country. Still, there is a fundamental force in the academy that thwarts our efforts. One of the main problems is rewards: you get highly rewarded if you publish in A-1 journals, which are very quantitative and empirically driven. If I want to get my tenure and promotion, I should forget about the ethics and focus on the empiricism of my own discipline. For this reason, I am trying to find respectable publishing opportunities in ethics studies that will reward business aspirants both personally and professionally.

The Church has a rich doctrine that speaks to so much of the world of business. My effort is geared toward getting faculty to take it seriously.

It seems your emphasis on education from a grassroots level–university business schools–is key.
We need to start wherever we can–wherever we are planted. Grassroots is very important, and that’s why I value the efforts of CL and Focolare and others who are educating to the indispensability of social doctrine, as are Catholic conferences around the country. The USCCB is challenging the political system in unprecedented ways, particularly regarding religious liberty and the question of marriage.

VBL has received much positive feedback from other Christian denominations, Jews, and even Muslims…
Social doctrine is a place where you can have an ecumenical convergence with other traditions, but the language we use in such engagements makes a difference. A friend of mine phrases the challenge like this: “How can you speak from your center in such a way that you invite the others to do the same?”

In your own story, what catalyzed your journey on this road?
My father was an entrepreneur. Hard work was very important to him, and I understood its value through his example. I never saw myself as an academic, and I still don’t! I grew up in a blue collar neighborhood on the south side of Chicago–something about that never gets out of you. But later on, when I was teaching high school, I read John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens encyclical on human work. I realized I could spend the rest of my life exploring the theology of work. Then, at Marquette University, I was asked to start the collection process for Dorothy Day’s canonization. Her writings of the ’30s and ’40s, which reveal the deeply Catholic underpinning of her actions, personally inspired me. So I would say that she and John Paul II had a major impact on my endeavors of today.