January 20, 2016 // Local

Sister Helen Alford to lecture at the Servus Omnium breakfast Feb. 9

By Tim Johnson

FORT WAYNE — Dominican Sister Helen Alford, an Ordinary Professor of Economics and Ethics and vice-dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Dominican University in Rome — the Angelicum, is the invited speaker for the University of Saint Francis’ Servus Omnium Lecture on Feb. 9.

The 7 a.m. breakfast and talk will be held on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday at the University of Saint Francis-North Campus at 2702 Spring St. Tickets, which include a Mardi Gras breakfast, are $10 each and can be purchased at http://servusomnium2016.eventbrite.com.

Sister Helen brings a unique perspective to the lecture. She studied manufacturing engineering at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom and worked at various manufacturing companies including Michelin Tire and British Aerospace.

After completing her doctorate thesis on “human-centered technology,” she entered the Dominican Order. As a result, she was sent to teach at the Dominican University in Rome, which is known as the Angelicum. Sister Helen is now an ordinary professor of economics and ethics as well as director of the master’s program in management and corporate social responsibility.

Sister Helen co-authored the book, “Managing as If Faith Mattered” (University of Notre Dame Press, 2001) with Michael Naughton.

Sister Helen’s research looks at the role and impact of ethics and Christian social thought in the field of management, especially as it regards Catholic social teaching and sustainability.

She is a consultor to the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace and a senior adviser to the “Blueprint for Better Business” based in the United Kingdom.

In an email interview with Today’s Catholic, Sister Helen said of her upcoming talk titled, “Have you been served? Human Dignity, the Common Good and the Purpose of Business,” that she is planning to focus on promoting human dignity and serving the common good. Defining and living out the purpose of a business could have a transformative effect on business and society, she noted.

Sister Helen said, “Since the 2009 crisis, a general sense of dissatisfaction with the way business — and especially the financial sector — works has developed, and many have identified a loss of trust in business at the root of this.”

“If this is so,” she noted, “tougher government regulation — while there might be loopholes that needed addressing — is not going to put things right (and, if done badly, could make things worse). If we are to rebuild trust between business and the rest of society, business needs to have a purpose that genuinely contributes to society’s good.”

Sister Helen will talk about how a fairly new initiative from the United Kingdom, called “Blueprint for Better Business” is dealing with this issue by starting from the idea of the human person and the common good in Catholic Social Thought. “We will discuss some examples to highlight what difference this approach can make in practice,” she said.

The Jubilee of Mercy, she noted, is “a great opportunity for us to think through more deeply what mercy could mean in a business context.”

She said in the last Jubilee Year, 2000, Pope John Paul II made strenuous efforts to convince creditor countries to forgive the unsustainable debts that many poor countries had contracted, many of them during the oil shocks of the 1970s, which they had never been able to pay off.

In the Old Testament, the Jubilee Year was a time when people who had lost everything could start again; they would be allowed to return to their ancestral lands, which they had lost because of economic crises like failed crops or pestilence.

“In some ways, we could see the idea of mercy in business as an extension of the role of ‘gratuitousness’ and ‘gift’ in the economy, about which Benedict XVI wrote in ‘Caritas in Veritate,’” she noted. “For now, let’s just say one thing: the idea of mercy implies that there is a proper and right way of doing things and that someone has not done that, maybe through their own fault or maybe through no fault of their own. When business people reach out to others in need of the kind of mercy they can give — perhaps by giving poor customers longer to pay their bills, or showing patience and support to employees who are performing badly rather than just letting them go — it does not mean that people shouldn’t pay their bills on time, or that failing employees should be able to keep their jobs come what may.”

“There is the common good to think about too — if everyone paid late, or if employees in general stopped pulling their weight, then the whole economic system would start to break down,” she said. “Again, however, with a bigger vision of what business is for, we can find ways of showing mercy that strengthen the economic system rather than weakening it. I hope that we will have time during the talk to discuss this — although we don’t have all day for it!”

“I think we are entering a stage in history where building a business on the basis of Catholic Social Teaching is not only a good and right thing to do but also constitutes a significant competitive advantage,” Sister Helen said. “The way CST thinks about the human person is a more advanced form of what is being said in all the business schools now about how we need to involve our people more in decision-making, create the possibility for them to grown in mastery rather than just give them financial incentives to do better and so on.”

The whole idea of “shared value” as it is presented by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer from Harvard Business School is a kind of simplified version of the way CST thinks about the common good. “So I would really encourage Catholic business people in the U.S. to study CST and to start thinking practically about how it could be put into practice in their own businesses,” she said. “The tools developed by the ‘Blueprint for Better Business’ can also be helpful in that.”

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