Catholic University’s Virtues-Based Business School: An Interview with Andrew Abela
Religion & Liberty Online

Catholic University’s Virtues-Based Business School: An Interview with Andrew Abela

catholic-university-bschoolEarlier this year, the Catholic University of America announced the creation of a School of Business and Economics that will be “distinctively Catholic.” The new school offers a model based on Catholic social doctrine and the natural law that is unlike theories prevalent at most leading business schools. “Business schools focus on teaching commercial skills and rules of ethics, but they neglect the importance of character,” says Andrew Abela, the school’s dean and Acton’s 2009 Novak Award Recipient. “Our distinctive idea is to bring the rich resources of the Catholic intellectual tradition and the natural law to bear upon business and economics.

I recently spoke with Dr. Abela about the new program, what makes a Catholic approach different, and what it means for business and economics to be “people-centered”:

Why is it so rare for Catholic colleges and universities to take a “distinctively Catholic” approach on subjects like business and economics?

I think there are several possible reasons for this. First, the business and economics education at many Catholic universities tends to mirror that of non-religious universities in that it focuses on knowledge, not on will. But this is not enough. We have to cultivate our students in virtue, which needs the formation of both the intellect and the will. It’s not enough for students to know the good, they have to do the good, and even to love the good. Second, as you know much of higher education suffers from political correctness, and faculty are thus reluctant to commit to any one approach to ethics. Students end up being taught several (frequently conflicting) theories of ethics, with the result that they graduate as sophisticated relativists. Finally, faculty are committed to existing business and economics theories, and it is hard to reconcile these theories, which claim to be morally neutral, with the Catholic intellectual tradition, which holds that all human action has a moral dimension.

Why are you creating a new School of Business & Economics now – does the world really need another business school? And why a School of Business and Economics?

Markets are suffering from somewhat of a crisis of legitimacy. Given how critical markets are to economic development and prosperity, this is a very worrying tendency. We believe that part of this crisis of legitimacy arose because scholars and business leaders forgot that markets, and the related institutions of private property and private enterprise, are inherently moral ideas–in the normal course of things, they are not morally neutral or ambivalent, they are actually morally good. The Catholic church has affirmed the moral goodness of private property for centuries, for example.

Our goal is therefore to contribute to a revitalization of the economy by promoting the idea that when the inherent morality of markets, of property, etc., is recognized and respected, then these institutions function well and should be popular. But it’s not just enough to know this, one also has to develop the habits that place the human person at the center of economic life, so that one develops the courage to resist the temptation to cheat and to cut corners – hence our focus on virtue.

The reason why we are a school of both business and economics is that this project of revitalizing the economy by promoting a person-centered focus requires collaboration of both the business and economics disciplines; by combining us both into the same school, we promote that collaboration.

What does it mean for business and economics to be “person-centered?”

What we mean by business and economics being “person-centered” is that they are based on the deepest insights about being human. Sustainable business success and related economic prosperity require a clear understanding of the conditions under which human beings thrive—how to bring out the best in people. For example, we know that human beings are at their best and most effective when they have healthy relationships with those around them and feel comfortably speaking the truth to their colleagues and managers; they have the freedom to make decisions about what affects them most; and they know that they are trusted. While other schools teach the importance of relationships, freedom, and trust, we make those ideas foundational, by ensuring that the principles of solidarity, subsidiarity, and human dignity are incorporated into all our teaching.

The model for your new program is based on Catholic social doctrine and the natural law. Can you give an example of how that might be different from what is generally taught in business schools?

The most obvious difference is in our treatment of ethics. Typically, schools teach business ethics as a separate subject, or – at the very best – they try to add a class or two on ethics into every course. The problem with this approach is that it emphasizes the separation between “business” and “ethics” that is already enshrined in conventional business and economics theory. Our approach is to integrate ethics into everything we teach, so that students realize that ethics is not something that should be added on to business activity, but it is a way of doing everything you do. Our graduate program in business, the Master of Science in Business Analysis, does not even include a course in business ethics, because the ethical dimension is integrated into all its courses.


Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).