A champion of Catholic business ethics

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Andrew V. Abela has heard all the jokes about business ethics - two popular ones being it's an oxymoron, and it's the shortest doctoral dissertation in the world. But Abela, who teaches at Catholic University in Washington, said ethics and its relationship to Catholicism is no laughing matter.

Abela is the author of numerous business articles and several books. He and co-editor Joseph E. Capizzi have collected pertinent church teachings on business ethics in a new book, A Catechism for Business - Tough Ethical Questions & Insights from Catholic Teaching.

Abela, 48, was born on the island of Malta where his family can trace their roots back 1,000 years.

Although he comes from a Catholic family, Abela said he hasn't always been Christian.

"I lost my faith in high school," he said. "I was effectively an atheist."

When asked the reason for this falling out, Abela said that Malta is very public in its expression of faith with beautiful churches, processions and feasts. But he said that schools on the island did not match the religious intensity of the rest of the country.

"At school we experienced a '1970s catechesis' that said almost nothing about Christ, about virtue, about the glorious vision of our Catholic faith," said Abela.

His family moved to Toronto when he was 17. After high school, he earned a bachelor's degree from St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto. He said the experience at the Catholic school helped draw him back to the faith. It was the example of students at the school and one very close friend, Peter, that helped him return to the faith.

Abela calls this his "reversion." He said his return to the faith of his youth and family reminded him of G.K. Chesterton's book Orthodoxy, where Chesterton said he'd like to write a book about a sailor who gets lost and thinks he's in the South Seas but actually had returned to his homeland.

"What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?" Chesterton wrote.

After graduating in 1987, Abela worked for about four years as a brand manager for Proctor & Gamble in Canada.

He decided to pursue a master's of business administration at the Institute for Management Development in Switzerland where he continued to rediscover his faith.

When he returned, he went to work for the marketing consulting firm McKinsey and Co.

While on a business trip to New York and staying at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, he walked past St. Patrick's Cathedral every day going from his hotel to the office. A colleague suggested he should stop in for Mass.

He did, and one day Cardinal John J. O'Connor was celebrating Mass.

"I was so taken by his preaching," he said, that he had thoughts of becoming a priest.

He did not enter the seminary, but he quit his job at McKinsey after he found out he was expected to lay off a large number of people. He had a sailboat, so he left Toronto and sailed to Washington, D.C.

He met and married Kathleen in 1996 and moved back to Toronto, where he worked again for McKinsey.

In 2002, he joined the faculty of Catholic U. where he is now the dean of the School of Business and Economics. In 2003, he earned a doctorate from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business in Charlottesville.

In the introduction to their new book, Abela and Capizzi said that the Catholic church does not profess any expertise in business. The church offers principles for reflection so that business people can act ethically in a business situation.

"The purpose of this book, therefore, is to collect and make accessible church teaching to facilitate that reflection," they wrote.

The book poses questions such as, "Is it morally acceptable to make a profit?" The answer to this question from Pope Benedict XVI, who spoke on profit in 2007, is "Naturally, profit is legitimate and, in just measure, necessary for economic development."

Some questions are a bit thornier. "Do workers have the right to unionize?"

The answer is from Blessed Pope John Paul II in his encyclical "Centisimus Annus" issued on the 100th anniversary of "Rerum Novarum" (on capital and labor): "To achieve these goals there is still need for a broad associated workers' movement, directed towards the liberation and promotion of the whole person."

The book asks and answers tough questions about producing and selling birth control products, and involvement in the abortion industry, and in the production of armaments.

Abela said that there is a link between morality and a strong economy.

"A flourishing economy depends on a virtuous citizenry," he said, adding that people need to work hard, pursue new opportunities and trust each other. Without virtue, an economy is run only through enforcement.

"(With enforcement) you get mere compliance, not creativity or enthusiasm," he said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014