Day One

SESSION 1 of 2: Lessons from the VOCATION of the BUSINESS LEADER

Dr. Michael Naughton is the director of John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought, and also currently serves as the interim director of the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas. In partnership with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, he led the development of The Vocation of the Business Leader, a resource that provides practical guidance informed by Catholic social teaching to those in the business world.

This opening session provided a reflection on the vocation of work. How do business practices reflect the importance and dignity of the person within the primary sector of Agriculture?

Dr. Naughton began his presentation by stating that he would focus on the Vocation of the Business Leader” reflection/resource and then suggest how to develop a similar one for the Agricultural Leader. “A document like the Vocation of the Business Leader was written to help people see God’s purpose for them in work they do,” he said. “This gives the widest conceptual map on which people can discern their work and meaning. This world needs this especially today.”

“In this talk,” he continued, “I would like to speak with you about how the document of the Vocation of the Business Leader and how it envisions ‘the Good’ business does and begin to address what this means for ‘the Good’ agriculture does.” He outlined these steps:

  1. The Context: How the “Vocation of the Business Leader” reflection came about and the Challenges in completing the document.
  2. The Wording of the Title:

          – “Vocation” (Faith) and why it is so important to take religious/spiritual categories seriously in this technological/secular age.

          – “Business” (Institution) and why we need to think and act institutionally.

          – “Leader” (Person) and why leadership requires a person of good will.

  1. Structure of the document: See-Judge-Act.

I. Context & Challenges

The intent of the Business Leader reflection was to develop a concise statement and vision for the business world according to Catholic social teachings. The challenge was to boil this massive tradition and great depth of faith-based social teachings in a way that can connect to business leaders. Although written with Christians in mind, the document invites others of good will to reflect according to their faith tradition. Naughton proceeded to highlight critical challenges for Christian business leaders.

Accommodation: The church and its members assimilate too much of the world. “Christians . . . have accommodated themselves to the world, living as if God does not exist. They not only live in the world, but they have become of the world. When Christian business leaders fail to live the Gospel in their organizations, their lives conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion.”

Assimilation: Christians have assimilated much of the free-market ideologies that their faith seemingly has little to contribute.In effect, we accommodate ourselves to a divided life. The Church – in the form of dioceses, parishes, schools, universities, health care, social services – are run like other business or secular institutions: they become generically value-based institutions, rather bureaucratic, risk adverse, and appear no different than other institutions.”

Despite these and other challenges, the Christian tradition as a whole can offer a positive vision of work and business. “So in order to introduce you to this Tradition, let’s look at the three main words of the title of the document: Vocation, Business and Leader.”

II. Wording of the Title


The heart of vocation is informed by a “Logic of Gift”. In the Gospel of Luke (12:48), Jesus tells us: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” This is the “logic of gift”.

Two realities to confront: (1) Receptivity: Businesspeople have been given great resources (material, spiritual, cognitive, etc.) and (2) Giving: The Lord asks them to do great things. This dynamism of receiving and giving is at the heart of vocation.

The Logic of Gift is very different than the logic of the market (which is an important but incomplete logic). The logic of market presupposes that nothing is given, that things are only “acquired” and “chosen”.

  • “Acquired” (worked for): Life is a struggle, the struggle between humanity and nature: You get from nature only through assailing her—the harder the assailing the more you get.
  • “Chosen/Choice”: Because things are acquired, life is about our individual choices where we maximize our utility satisfactions.

In the logic of the market, choice in and of itself is placed as the highest value, not the content of the choice. Choice by itself does not have the capacity to give our work meaning; we fall into “psychological perplexity” without a purpose for our choices.


Importance of Institutions: A vocation is lived out through Institutions: Vocation demands a location, so to speak. Business institutions include cooperatives, multinational corporations, small entrepreneurial start-ups, employee-owned businesses, family businesses. “Some of these businesses are publicly traded stock companies, while most are privately held. Some have revenues larger than many countries, but most are small. Some are owned by thousands of investors, others are owned by a single person or family.”


“Obviously we wish to speak specifically to Christian business leaders, who have at the heart of their work the deep sense of God’s calling to be collaborators in creation.” But a second audience is all business leaders of good will: all those “who have an influence on the behaviors, values, and attitudes of the people comprising their enterprises.” Third are leaders who exercise influence, whether formal and informal, in the political, social and cultural milieus (including mass media and civil society).

III. Structure of the Document: SEE, JUDGE, ACT

Dr. Naughton laid out the structure or process for determining the principled actions of a leader. An important part of the business leader’s vocation, he said, “entails seeing clearly the situation, judging with principles that foster the integral development of people, and acting in a way which implements these principles in light of one’s unique circumstances.”


Acknowledging that business leaders see and experience “permanent white water” in the daily flux of events, it is possible to identify major trends or factors in the business world. “The Vocation of the Business Leader” reflection guide highlighted four “complex factors” within business – along with the moral and spiritual issues they present:

  • Globalization, which increases economic opportunities as well as inequality.
  • Communication technology that reduces barriers of entry, but create a “tyranny of the immediate”.
  • Financialization, which reduces everything to price: commodities (people as labor, nature as property) to be bought and traded.
  • Cultural Changes, spurred by self-interest, that leads to radical individualism, consumerism, and relativism in contrast to the common good.

These trends are “a complicated mix of factors” that present “a complex interplay of light and dark, of good and evil, of truth and falsehood, of opportunities and threats.” What appears as economic opportunity could also be a social and ecological threat.

{NOTE: The Vocation of the Business Leader document acknowledges that many other factors than the four above have a bearing on businesses today: e.g., state regulation, unions, role of international authorities, environmental issues, work/family tensions. These deserve analysis, but were skipped over in the Vocation of the Business Leader reflection in order to be succinct.}

So how can we see in a way that reveals rather than conceals reality? “Business leaders need to see things whole, not just parts. They need to see things in relation to each other (including inherent tensions between things) and begin to form judgments about the overall nature of realities they encounter.”

2. “JUDGE”

The way we see already implies a “judgment,” Naughton explained; in particular a judgment about the good a business does. What is the concrete good that business does? When operating well, a business creates three goods which contribute to the social conditions of society:

  • Good Goods: making goods which are truly good and services which truly serve.
  • Good Work: organizing work where employees develop their gifts and talents.
  • Good Wealth: creating sustainable wealth and distributing justly.

As an institution, business contributes to the larger community by the way it orders these three goods which subsequently are shared in common with customers, employees, investors, suppliers, and society in general. [NOTE: There is a vigorous debate going on among pundits whether business is really only about one these goods, Wealth – more specifically, “shareholder wealth maximization.”]

3. “ACT”

So how do we act in business and agriculture that is informed by a robust seeing and judging? We need to root human action in the “logic of gift” and reconnect the contemplative life with our active life. This begins with understanding that we have been “gifted” with something.


As Naughton explained it, a person “comes in the profoundest sense to himself not through what he does, but through what he accepts.” The significance of life is not measured by outward achievements, but inward acceptance of what is right: Receive the sacraments, live by the scriptures, honor the Sabbath, pray and participate in the disciplines of the spiritual life. Without a deep well of reflection, contemplation and prayer, it is hard to see how businesspeople, or any other professionals, can resist the negative dimensions that come from financialization, technological overload, hyper-competitive situations, etc.

It is precisely this kind of receptivity that helps us to see reality:

  • If we don’t get “receiving” right, we won’t get “giving” right.
  • If we don’t get inward reflection right, we won’t get external work right.
  • If we don’t get the Sabbath right, we won’t get Business right.

Receptivity may be the most difficult activity for the businessman or woman. But it does not stop here: What has been received must be given.

Second Act: GIVING

The Church calls the business leader to give in a way which responds to what has been received:

  • Individually: The better we understand what has been given to us, the better we give in a way that develops others and ourselves.
  • Institutionally: This giving must find expression through business practices and policies that provide Good goods, Good work and Good wealth.

In summary: It is in receiving that we find our most profound identity, and it is in giving that we experience our most expressed mission.


So what does all this mean for the vocation of agricultural leaders? Dr. Naughton put forward a set of questions for this symposium to answer:

  • SEE: What are the principal challenges and opportunities within Agriculture?
  • JUDGE: What principles are important in defining the good Agriculture does?
  • ACT: What are the necessary actions of agricultural leaders in light of these judgments?

In other words, how would one manage the complexities of agricultural production and the global food system as if faith mattered?

Q&A period:

Steve Peterson noted that a key question or area of concern is the concentration of commodity production by a few mega-farm operations: about 80% of agricultural production in the U.S. comes from 200,000 farm operations. Bigger is not always better, but neither is it intrinsically bad. How do we keep farmers on the land? What can be done about the high cost of land (and machinery) for beginning farmers?

Rev. Gregory Mastey noted the reality of “Big Ag” and specialized production versus small, diverse, family farm operations. “How to balance both sides?”

(Unidentified speaker) How to balance legitimate profit and respect for nature? Naughton responded that this is the “tension of goods” that he mentioned in his talk. He said we must avoid the “idolatry” of one good over another.

Mike Callicrate brought up the “abusive market” and said we must deal with it and fix it. Naughton suggested that this could come about “through dialogue”.

(Political economists would shake their heads at that. The “abusive market” comes about through unequal power relationships, and those in power will not give their advantages unless forced to do so through legislation, litigation or popular movements, as Callicrate would say later in the symposium.)

Jason Adkins brought up another tension or imbalance: Individual property rights versus communitarian ideals. Naughton recalled the “social nature of property and work” as espoused within Catholic social teaching as a way to address that.

Steve Read asked the broader question that encompassed many of the previous comments made: How to express the “value” of farming to agribusiness leaders who tend to monetize everything?

Adam Kay listed a number “trade offs” such as growing food versus degrading the land, wages versus prices; farmland versus other societal uses. Naughton replied again about “negotiating” or holding dialogues, but to do so by “reframing” the discussion. In effect, the starting point is to ask: What is the world for and how are we to use it?

The last commenter was Bryan Bademan who noted the “secularization” of agriculture that has taken place over time, yet this is a sector that is otherwise “more open to God” than other economic sectors. Is there a way to bring the sacred back into agriculture? In response, Naughton ended the discussion with this quote from John Henry Newman:

“God created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it fully in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow, I am necessary to His purposes… I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught.”

Newman’s quote, Naughton said, “captures the religious and spiritual impulse on a meaningful life: that we act with an end in mind. Our choices are the prime indicators of our destiny; they take us somewhere. Our life becomes part of the eternal.”


SESSION 2 of 2: “The Person in a Human Ecology”

Dr. Christopher Thompson is the Director of Theological Formation at Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity. Since 2006, he has served as the academic dean of the Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity, where he also teaches moral theology. An expert in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, Dr. Thompson has written extensively on the connection between Catholic moral teaching and care for the environment. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Chapelstone Foundation, an organization that promotes Green Thomism ( Dr. Thompson is also a board member of Catholic Rural Life and the International Catholic Rural Association.

The purpose of this session was to offer a reflection on the human person as a creature within creation who is called to the task of stewardship. How does a theological understanding of the human person influence our approach to all who work within agriculture and food production? How does the purpose and structure of creation serve as the framework in which the vocation of agriculture unfolds?

1) The Church has a long-time concern, but needs more dedicated attention

The magisterium (Church authority of authentic teachings) has been raising the issues of agriculture for nearly a century and in truth, our time does not permit us to recall all of the efforts to raise concern about our environmental challenges in light of the human person.

(Note: Some of these Church statements and positions can be found in the Resources section of Faith, Food and the Environment website, specifically under “Faith Perspectives”:

Despite long-time efforts to raise awareness among the faithful about the importance of agriculture in both its moral and personal dimension, it is staggering to note that of the 244 Catholic degree granting institutions of higher learning within the U.S., not one offers a program of study in Agriculture.

This symposium, therefore, is important. The nexus of faith, agriculture and the environment is one of the reasons why the church is calling for the development of an authentic human ecology. The call to provide food for all is a basic church tenet. We have a generation disconnected from the land and faith-based institutions of higher education unprepared to address it.

Thompson underscored that the broader aspects of agriculture – namely food security, human labor, use of the earth’s resources, treatment of animals, habits of consumption, and migrant workers, to name a few – make it unacceptable to exclude agriculture as a human and therefore moral endeavor from the arena of the Church’s educational mission.

He said a challenge “goes first to my own community, namely the Catholic intellectual community, to continue the work of this conference beyond these few days. If we hope to promote an authentic human ecology, a comprehensive culture of life, then we have to celebrate the life of agriculture and begin to consider concrete ways in which food growers and producers can become contributors to the life of the university at large.”

He also noted a personal hope to see the creation of a “Pontifical Institute on Agriculture and the Environment” as an outcome of this symposium. Such an institute, based at a suitable Catholic university, would bring together the diverse groups who are deeply invested in these conversations and which need the perspectives of each other in order to come forward with constructive solutions.

2) Our place on the land – and in Creation

Dr. Thompson continued his presentation by stating: “There is even more to be gained by reflecting upon our place on the land. The search for a human ecology is not just a matter of calling for better land practices or broadening our circles of concern; it is not a matter of merely making each other more aware of our surroundings and our environmental life. Attending to the earth and our status as stewards, not only in matters of agriculture, but in regards to environmental stewardship in its broadest terms – is really about taking our own Christian heritage more seriously.

“For here and only here, on this earth, squarely within this temple of creation, a Christian culture takes root, the good news of Jesus Christ moves from its conceptual power to its cultural expression, heaven and earth are united in the physical body of the believer, the mystical body of believers, and the plan of the Incarnation takes root in history.”

3) Consider the vocation of the farmer

“Consider the vocation of the farmer: bent low in respect of the soil, the farmer enters into a relationship with this order of creation that is itself already ordered and whose wisdom becomes his norm. His practical wisdom must submit to an intelligence which lies hidden in the order of things. This is why his labor was understood for centuries to be an ars cooperativa, a co-operative art, because his achievements are yoked to the intelligible forces at work in creation itself. The prudent farmer labors with nature’s creative forces and coaxes from the earth the fruits destined by Providence to yield.”

“The farmer’s practical craft is to be distinguished from that of the craftsman, who works to create what is first only in the human mind. The farmer, by contrast, becomes a master in his craft only through the long and laborious tutorial in the fields. Agriculture is a unique human enterprise, for it is through this labor, perhaps more than any other, that one learns of the grammar of the Creator.”

In order to develop an authentic human ecology, a challenge goes forth to farmers and agribusiness leaders: it will be necessary to respect the order of creation and respect the creatures that God has placed under our care. God exercises dominion over the entire creation and we participate in that dominion and we therefore are called to live within the parameters of that partnership.

4) Faith as a meaningful resolution to the “agricultural problem”

Committing ourselves to a faith-filled human ecology would require restraint and self-discipline, Thompson explained. “The doctrine of original sin reminds us that it is we who are aliens in an otherwise integral order, such alienation will only find its remedy in the grace of Christ. In short, there are no practices at the personal or public level that will overcome the alienation which lies at the heart of the human being as he or she ponders one’s place in the world.”

At the same time, Thompson warned against the notion that all can be made right with the world simply by practicing ever more austere programs of efficiency or simplicity. “Efficiency is a feature of prudent use, but it is not itself an end. It cannot address the spiritual wound within the heart of the human being, who nonetheless dwells in the gift of an integral cosmos.”

We must take care, he said, not to place a false and ultimately futile confidence in technological solutions when our problems arise spiritual deficiencies and a wrong-minded approach to Creation and the created order. “The absence of any reference to Christ when considering agricultural or ecological practice reduces the original vocation to care for the earth merely within a secular horizon, as if our destiny is merely to co-exist among species, as managers in a managed world.”

Thompson noted that the consumer – meaning all of us – must also be willing to change our habits of consumption. We cannot demonize agribusiness companies and demand that they change their habits of production, he said, if we ourselves are unwilling to change. “Fasting on simpler meals, abstaining from excessive consumption, dedicating our resources toward a just economy: these are the ancient spiritual practices that would allow us to place our concerns for the earth against the horizon of heaven.” It is Christ, not creation, that the answer to a fulfilled life is found; fidelity to His kingdom will be our only route to a satisfying stewardship.

Q&A period:

Steve Read noted the general public “disconnect” from land and agriculture; how do we address that? Thompson replied with a call for dialogue among farmers, agribusiness and universities as a way to start that conversation and work towards a resolution.

(Unidentified speaker): A remark was made in favor of agri-tourism and how that might begin a “theology of encounters” with land, farmers and agriculture.

Kevin Edberg suggested that, in public discussions about farming and food production, we need to “change our language” so that it is less economic in terminology and more ecological or even faith-based. Dr. Thompson replied that the Church is late to the public debate, despite its various documents and in-house statements, but current Church leadership is beginning to speak out more popularly in that regard.

Ron Rosmann began by saying that we need more farmers (noting the Beginning Farmer & Rancher program of the USDA) and to be ready to replace aging farmers. He went on to voice a rejection of the science that is “modifying nature” (genetic engineering). Thompson replied about purchasing policies by institutions (like churches, schools and universities) and buying from “right livelihood” farmers.

Adam Kay asked about GMOs and what principles to employ. (Faith groups have addressed this issue in the past, more than 10 years ago now. An updated statement would be timely and appropriate.)

Anthony Granado wondered about organics feeding 9 billion; that is, can organic production produce sufficient foodstuffs for everyone in the years to come? Or is there a trade-off between “sustainable” food production and “sufficient” food production? (On the other hand, it is believed that current conventional production cannot be sustained, so at some point food shortages will also come about.)

Deborah Savage remarked on the need to “conjugate” agriculture, development and the environment. She referenced Thomastic natural law as a way to guide us in how to set up agricultural practices that also meet the needs of economic development and ecological sustainability.

Steve Peterson stressed the need for “radical inclusion” and “all at the table” so that all voices/stakeholders in the food chain are heard. (A question left unasked: when will corporate agribusiness firms open their boards to “radical inclusion”?)