Business Ethics

At first sight, it may seem strange to turn to a sixth century monastic rule for guidance on business ethics, but RB 31, What Kind of Person the Cellarer Should Be (together with RB 57, On the Artisans of the Community), has a lot to say about our current concerns.

The cellarer is effectively the business manager of the monastery, responsible for everything from finance to food. Benedict begins by giving us a pen-portrait of the qualities the cellarer should have. Some of them, turned into corporation-speak, are still used today to identify senior management, but there are others which touch on the cellarer’s moral identity. How many financial institutions would dare to ask themselves whether the person they are considering for a senior position is ‘wise, mature in character (not necessarily age), abstemious, not greedy, not conceited, not a trouble-maker, not offensive or lazy or wasteful’? (RB131.1-2) To do so would be to acknowledge that the values by which we live our private lives are reflected in the public sphere. Benedict is principally concerned here with honesty and integrity and a watchfulness over oneself which is the mark of maturity. Such qualities have taken a battering of late, but they are at the heart of the trust on which so much economic activity still depends.

Benedict sees the cellarer’s responsibilities as all-embracing. In effect, he asks the question, what is wealth for? The answer he gives highlights the danger of losing sight of the purpose of God’s gifts. The cellarer is to ‘take meticulous care of the sick, the young, guests and the poor’, in other words, the most vulnerable members of society, yet at the same time to treat the monastery’s goods and property ‘as if sacred altar vessels.’ (RB31. 9-10) Again and again, the cellarer is reminded that his authority over these is given by the abbot and he must neither neglect anything nor go further than his instructions allow. He is essentially the servant of the community, but not in the menial sense we often ascribe to that word: his service is that of a father to the community (RB 31.2), one who provides, enables, fosters growth. So often we think about business success in terms of ‘what’s best for me’ rather than ‘what good I can do’.

It is clear that Benedict expects the work of the monks to generate something over and above what they need for mere existence, something that can be shared with others. Even this sharing, however, is not exempt from the need to be consistent with what the monks profess to believe. The cellarer is warned against the temptations to which his power makes him susceptible. Instead of arrogance, there must be humility; when there is nothing else to give, a good word must be spoken; he mustn’t use his office to demonstrate his own importance by acting haughtily or making others wait to receive their due.(RB 31 13 to 16) These are not only the temptations of the monastic cellarer and minor bureaucrat, they are the temptations of every person who is given a great deal of freedom in the exercise of his or her responsibilities.

The recent Note on Financial Reform from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the protest at St Paul’s, the Report of the St Paul’s Institute and, above all, the daily turbulence within the Eurozone have served to remind us that the economic structures with which we are familiar are all rather fragile; that ignoring the moral dimension of wealth creation and distribution is to undermine the basis of a civilized society which cares for the weak as well as the strong; that selfishness and greed make for general misery; and, most important of all, that it doesn’t have to be like that. We can be, like Benedict’s cellarer, good stewards, worthy of the promise contained in 1 Timothy 3.13. The question is, do we want to be?

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5 thoughts on “Business Ethics”

  1. the wisdom of the RB -Chapter 31 and others in particular -really cannot be stressed enough in the current crisis. But still voices that smack of anything “spiritual” are seldom listened to. I managed to publish a paper on managing by the RB, based on a case study (I spent a week in a trappist monastery which operates a brewery staffed by lay people but managed according to the RB). The conclusion is very close to what you say: Do we really want to be ‘good cellerars’? And, if I may add: does the world really give us a chance at trying to be good cellerars?

  2. “How many financial institutions would dare to ask themselves whether the person they are considering for a senior position is ‘wise, mature in character (not necessarily age), abstemious, not greedy, not conceited, not a trouble-maker, not offensive or lazy or wasteful’?”
    Unfortunately, all these lovely charateristics fly in the face of modern management principles. Companies are only interested in whether the candidate can get them maximum ‘bang for the buck’, cut expenses (i.e. at great costs to the average worker not the upper echelons) and just make them piles of cash. In other words, it’s all about greed. Sigh.

  3. Thank you for your comments. I find it very encouraging when one meets someone who has been very successful and yet stayed true to his/her principles. Sadly, they tend to be in a minority. In fact, they are more likely to be laughed at than emulated. We pray often in community for those who try to uphold standards of truth and probity in the light of the kind of constraints Terry mentions.

  4. “We pray often in community for those who try to uphold standards of truth and probity” – thank you for your prayers; we pray for people who are missionaries (ie in “darkest Peru”, to quote Paddington Bear (I’m sure Peru is a sunny as anywhere else), or for ordained church leaders, or people working for The Church, but actually we are all missionaries wherever we go, and, bringing to mind a lovely and helpful response you gave me a few weeks ago, in ourselves we bring “someone who knows and loves the Lord” into every situation – a demanding obligation indeed, and much assisted by the prayers of fellow members of our Christian family worldwide.

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