Thursday, April 15, 2010

Catholic Church Ethics

In the current 3ED of our book (out this month) we have extended a bit the consideration of religion in business ethics. After all, religion is a source of ‘right and wrong’ for a lot of people on earth.
However, the debate on religion has received an interesting twist recently with the way the Catholic Church has dealt with the child abuse cases, which have popped up recently in an unprecedented manner. The case shows that ‘business’ ethics, or more broadly, organizational ethics, is also a topic for a church.
In some ways, one could see the
Catholic Church as the oldest and one of the largest ‘multinational corporations’ globally, with roughly 2,800 subsidiaries (dioceses) and 1.5bn members in nearly every country of the world. In some ways it is to no surprise that ethical infractions occur in such an organisation. Albeit that the current problems of the church are going beyond the normal ethical problems of MNCs and consist of criminal actions and human rights violations commited by their ‘executives’ (some of them senior), most notably towards children.
From a business ethics perspective, the current handling of the crisis by the official hierarchy of the church, most notably the Holy See, is questionable - to say the least. The effects on the ‘brand’ already now are disastrous. Looking at the classic tools of business ethics, such as codes of ethics, or reporting and auditing systems, the Catholic Church is virtually devoid of all these tools. But most crucially, every business ethics expert knows the pivotal role of ethical leadership – and it is here, where the Church has probably its biggest problems.
Apart from blaming all sorts of other factors, such as homosexuality (argued by Cardinal
Tarcisio Bertone, No 2 after the Pope in the Church hierarchy) or the sexual revolution in general (by the German Bishop Walter Mixa, himself now accused of child abuse in his early years as a priest) the spotlight now focuses on Pope Benedict himself. There is ample ground for speculation that the Church has systematically obstructed justice towards offenders and has mostly attempted at covering up known cases of sexual and other abuse of children by Church officials. Even the letter of the Pope to the Irish Church is considered by many as too little too late, as it only deals with just one country, while the scandal now seems to be endemic in the church in many other countries, most notable the US, Germany and Austria.
In our book we take the simplistic starting point that ‘business ethics begins where the law ends’. For the Catholic Church this might become true in the opposite sense: Famous Oxford biologist
Richard Dawkins and Vanity Fair columnist and author Christopher Hitchens have now hired lawyers in the UK to check whether the Pope himself could be arrested on the grounds of systematic cover up of criminal acts, once he visits the UK in September. However tantallizing the idea might be for some, one has to doubt whether they will be successful. But simply having a debate on legal implications of the scandal might finally accelerate thinking about change within the Church. It has happened before in many other cases of 'business' ethics. It will continue to be an interesting case. We keep you posted...

1 comment:

  1. There is substantial area of initiative and research on voluntary sector ethics and accountability. Yet this has been largely focused on those organisations open to such discussions and self identify as "NGOs". Religious institutions have not had the same spotlight on them in the past, and I had most of my discussion of religion edited out of the UN report on accountability of the voluntary sector that can out in 06; although some remains (see below). Many people just seem uncomfortable in criticising religious institutions. Well, its about time. How much have religions been looked at in the business ethics literature?

    The link to the UN report:


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