Business organisations in contemporary Irish post-secular society are generally ‘religion-free’. That’s not to say that they are anti-religious per se, but that the workplace is usually seen as a space that should remain entirely in the secular realm. Listening to a recent RTE interview with Michael Kelly, the new editor of Ireland’s oldest religious publication, The Irish Catholic one gets a clear sense of how religion in Ireland, depsite being a highly important influence on Irish society, remains a deeply private matter for individuals in a way which doesn’t happen in, for example, the US political sphere where candidates for public office regularly discuss their faith. This is probably a good tactic given the findings which demonstrate how membership of particular congregations tends to correlate with political preferences.
This religious openness is sometimes evident in organisational life in the US. The restaurant chain, Chick-fil-A, for example, is led by an openly religious president and Chief Operating Officer, Dan T. Cathy. His executive profile on the Chick-fil-a website declares that his ‘personal passion is to see the fulfillment of the Chick-fil-A Corporate Purpose: “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.” ’ Presumably this applies to all except the chickens who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.
The idea that religious traditions are the source of some of the most well-developed ethical positions, appears to be undergoing re-investigation in the UK. The reasons for this are quite obvious: the type of ethics taught in business schools and as part of professional education programmes have been found to be sorely lacking. When we look at recently revelations about the enormous sense of entitement which individuals connected to the banking and finance sectors still appear to have, at the same time when our most vulnerable are being subjected to painful cuts, people are increasingly angry at the continuing evidence that while the rest of us deal with the impact of austerity, certain parts of the business world continue to operate according to an ethics of greed.
Ireland, of course, is not alone in this. One interesting recent response to this in the UK, has been the turn towards Catholic Social Teaching (CST) as an ethical resource for a range of leaders in business and social organisations. This phenomenon has even been the subject of a recent documentary on BBC Radio 4.
It is easy to see why CST has been of interest in recent times.CST has it’s roots in pre-Christian ideas of virtue (from Aristotle) and Christian human dignity (from Saint Thomas Aquinas) which ensures that the needs of the individual and the social (community and/or society) work together in a way that supports each other. It stresses the need to practically engage with the complex social and political issues in order to attain the common good at a time when the rampant greed of certain individuals and groups has led to growing inequality and instability.
The growth of interest CST does much to emphasise the role that business has in progressive social development. The eminent sociolgist of religion, Linda Woodhead, has highlighted that the progressive nature of CST might be hampered by apparent contradictions in the Vatican’s edicts on areas of personal morality.
Beside this very important point, it is very important to think about how this might work in Ireland. Ireland is showing signs of beginning a genuine process of secularization, and even if in Ireland the majority of those born into the Roman Catholic faith still identify as Catholic to some degree or other there is no doubt that the influence of the hierarchy on social matters has radically diminished. Roman Catholicism in the UK has long been a minority faith, and although membership across the water also appears to be in decline, it certainly doesn’t carry the same baggage that being Catholic (lapsed, devout, cultural, a la carte, or whatever) does in Ireland. In short, CST may be a ‘harder sell’ in Irish political and business life. This doesn’t mean however that people who are interested in the relationship of business and society, and in corporate ethics, should ignore its potential.