One would think most people would be happy about principled people operating businesses. If a member of the community can support her family and do some good with her business—such as providing well-paid jobs and donating to local causes—then so much the better for the community. Many religious people running businesses contribute to the common good. They operate their enterprises with a sense of mission. We want companies to pay their employees well and to care for the communities that support them. The CEO of Whole Foods Market has even called for a "conscious capitalism," where businesses "endeavor to create financial, intellectual, social, cultural, emotional, spiritual, physical and ecological wealth for all their stakeholders."
However, an increasingly common, and troubling, assertion today is that people no longer have the right to exercise a religious conscience when they enter the stream of commerce. The argument is that if you object to certain practices and activities, then you can express those objections as a private citizen, but in your capacity as a business person, you must acquiesce to secularist mores. Your faith is fine in the sanctuary, but it has no place in the marketplace.
This argument is troubling, because it effectively discourages principled people from using business for good. Many people express their faith through work. Many companies—such as those that promote a sustainable environment or fair trade—use the platform afforded by their business to advance a particular cause or to serve a particular community. These companies make the marketplace more inclusive and show ways that business can be a force for good. The argument for a marketplace stripped of religious conviction tells people of faith that they must either conform or stay out. Pope Francis spoke out against this kind of uniformity in Philadelphia, calling it a form "of modern tyranny" which seeks "to suppress religious freedom, or […] try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square." He warned against a tendency "which consciously aims at a one-dimensional uniformity and seeks to eliminate all differences and traditions in a superficial quest for unity" and held up as an alternative the ideal of "a healthy pluralism which respects differences and values them as such." Our public spaces should not require that we dispense with our differences as the price of admission. Our whole society profits when people bring a positive vision to commercial life.
At the heart of Catholic teaching on religious freedom is the dignity of the human person. The human person should have the freedom to exercise her capacity to seek truth and live in accordance with that truth. On the flight to Rome, a reporter asked Pope Francis if even government officials have a right to conscientious objection. The pope responded that "if a government official is a human person," then yes. In other words, a person doesn't cease to be a person with the right and duty to follow his conscience when he takes on a public role. This certainly applies to people who own and manage companies. A marketplace stripped of religious values deprives society and violates human dignity. We can do better.
Aaron Matthew Weldon is a Program Specialist for the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. Learn more about the U.S. bishops' religious liberty efforts at www.usccb.org/freedom.