Principled Entrepreneurship In a Time of Woke Capitalism

By Christine Warner & Stephen Auth
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Corporate social responsibility is standard and expected in business today. Organizations rally around environmental, social, and governance issues to activate change. But it wasn’t always this way. For decades, scholars, Church leaders, and others have been asking businesses to be more ethical. Is this sudden zeal sincere or is it just posturing? How should Catholic business leaders navigate the dynamics of these corporate issues and Catholic ethics?

Stephen Auth, a keynote speaker for the 2020 Principled Entrepreneurship Conference, shared his perspective: “Like many movements arising out of the political left, ‘woke capitalism’ is, in my mind, a well-intentioned attempt to make the world a better place, but one that is poorly implemented.” The problem, he says, is rooted in the lack of a central moral compass which causes this zeal to become “a surface palliative rather than a real recipe for organizing a business or economy.”

While woke capitalism can be a weakened version of ethical management, its goals align with Catholic social teachings. Auth explained, “Many of the central tenets of ‘woke capitalism’ are ones which Christians the world over have long held true and fast, and which are incorporated into Catholic thought under the heading of ‘Catholic social teaching.’” The execution is where it breaks down. After putting forth values publicly, organizations lack follow-through to incorporate them in the reality of day-to-day operations.

Stephen Auth gave the example of human dignity as a common value of Catholicism and woke capitalism. Relying solely on resources like human resources seminars to instill this value in employees and business practices falls flat. However, “when treating people with dignity and respect is a core belief rooted in deeply held and grounded understanding of our role in the world and our position as beloved sons and daughters of God — all of us — the likelihood of a positive outcome rises,” he said. Human dignity, or any other value, must be so ingrained in the corporate culture to be something that all believe in and adhere to.

What can we do to uphold core morals as part of this movement? Auth encouraged faith-based leadership. “People of faith should be out in front. Leaders, not followers. We have the formula, we’ve had it for years. Dignity of all. Mutual respect for all our stakeholders. Treating our customers right, for the long term. Being respectful of our environment and our role as protectors of all of God’s creation. The power of diversity. Servant leadership. Prudence. Self Mastery.” Not only are these Christian virtues, they are also proven to be successful aspects of business management — benefiting an organization’s bottom line and also making the world a better place. 

To explore your role in ethical business and woke capitalism, consider attending the 2020 Principled Entrepreneurship Conference. Stephen Auth, a 2019 attendee, shared, “If you come, you will be reminded of the many elements of our faith that make for successful business over time, and you will have the chance to network with other like-minded Catholic business leaders.” You’ll leave empowered to become part of the solution that the world is looking for through woke capitalism. Business needs Catholic leadership more now than ever. Like Auth urged, “Be bold. Be Catholic.”

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I recently began subscribing to Napa Institute newsletters, your focus on the Catholic business model is fascinating. Although unable to attend this year, I definitely will try for 2021. The resources you offer online are deeply appreciated. Have a blessed Easter. John A. Lombardi Perry Hall, Maryland