Sister Helen Alford wants people to think.
The Dominican nun and international voice for justice in the work place asked deeply challenging questions from the moment she began to present the Servus Omnium Lecture address at the University of Saint Francis’ Robert Goldstine Performing Arts Center in downtown Fort Wayne on Feb. 28.
A professor of economics and ethics at the prestigious Pontifical University in Rome and advisor to the United Kingdom’s Blueprint for Better Business, Sister Alford asked those in attendance early on the Tuesday morning:
• What do you want from your job?
• What makes a good product?
• What makes you to get out of bed in the morning?
The answers varied, with audience member citing fulfillment, enrichment and helping others as components of the basis of their professional lives. Sister Alford said their answers indicate that people want more from their jobs than money and security. Those aspirations, she said — as well as demands of the market place — are at the core of Catholic social thought that has evolved over the centuries from it origin in papal encyclicals.
Sister Alford cited Interface Inc., of Atlanta, Ga., and owner Ray Anderson as a highly successful company that has placed CST at the heart of its operations. The company, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of modular carpet, makes a quality product, she said, treats employees justly and respects the environment. “And the company is doing better than ever,” she noted.
Interface makes a return on investment while also maintaining good relations with suppliers, using resources wisely, recognizing the needs of the wider society and complying with environmental standards set by the local, state and national agencies, “using CST as a blueprint.”
Catholic social thought includes concerns about wages and profits, she continued, “but it includes something more” — a respect for human dignity and service to the common good, a vision of a business as a community of persons. CST encourages leaders to focus on producing goods and services that meet genuine human needs while taking responsibility for the social and environmental costs of production and of the supply chain and distribution chain — all the while serving the common good, and watching for opportunities to serve the poor.
“Work is for man,” Sister Alford said, rather than “man for work.” Recognizing the human dignity of employees and their right to flourish in their work enables employees to do their best. Catholic social thought includes using resources to create both profit and well-being while providing a just wage for workers, just prices for customers and supplies and just taxes for the community.
During a question-and-answer period, Sister Alford said companies are generally accepting of the principles of Catholic social thought if the concept is presented reasonably and clearly. Business executives are receptive of most ideas that improve their companies, she said.
The audience, meanwhile, was receptive to Sister Alford’s message. There was sustained applause at several points, and individuals stayed after the presentation to ask questions and solicit her insight.
“Her talk was interesting,” said Fred Nash, who works at Bowmar, an aviation components company, “and very deep.” Another member of the audience, Kathleen Fogarty, said the presentation was “thought-provoking.”
The event was a great success, said Dr. Lance Richey, dean of the USF School of Liberal Arts and Science and spokesperson for the series. Sister Alford spoke a Dominican, Sister Alford explained, “I felt that was what God was calling me to do.”
The day before her presentation to local business leaders, Sister Alford spoke with USF students during class and at a private luncheon. “Students commented on the relevance of her studies to their own careers,” Richey said, “They thought she raised questions that matter to them personally and also are important for businesses and governments to address in the future.”
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