A onetime leftist who morphed into a proponent of free-market capitalism, Catholic theologian Michael Novak has been a strong voice for the role of business in God's purposes for more than 20 years. Author of Business as a Calling and Toward a Theology of the Corporation, in which he likened multinational firms to Christ on the Cross, Novak spoke to CT about apparent moral failures in companies such as Enron Corp., WorldCom Inc., and Tyco International Ltd.
Post-Enron, is there anything you would add to Business as a Calling?
I reread my chapter where I mention [former Enron Corp. Chairman] Ken Lay, and it stands. The basic structure of what I want to say is intact: Business is a moral activity, and you can't escape the moral questions—both great good and great evil may be done.
Kenneth Lay wanted people in his company to think outside the box and open up new horizons. This is a good emphasis, but there is a great danger when this approach is applied to ethics. In technology and business models we can invent new things, but in ethics you can't. Virtues are permanent. The more innovative you are in business models and technology, the more guarded you must be in permanent standards.
What can we learn from the recent business scandals?
Tyco and Enron show the temptations that are powerful in fast growth when sound ethical standards are discarded as "outmoded." People who are imaginative and creative know their value to their firm—a few decisions can save or earn millions of dollars. As a result, they can think of themselves as beyond price, and their success can lead to moral carelessness. But I don't see any correlation between bad behavior and high executive pay.
The theological limit to high executive compensation, however, is ...1