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Pope Francis calls for a new moral compass

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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Pope Francis talks during a special audience with nuns of Rome's diocese in Paul VI hall at the Vatican May 16, 2015. (Credit: Reuters/Tony Gentile)

In Pope Francis‘ recent “Apostolic Exhortation” (Evangelii Gaudium), he calls for a “new political and economic mindset which will help break down the wall of separation between the economy and the common good of society.” Essentially, the Pope wants to see business leaders pave the way for greater equality in all walks of life, but especially in the economic sector. However, as Paul Laudicina describes in his recent article “What the Pope Didn’t Say…,” “for many, doing the ‘right’ thing is not the business of business.” Laudicina argues that for Pope Francis’ goal of a more moral business culture to be realized, business leaders must be shown that it is not only moral to enact the necessary changes but also logical and profitable.

Laudicina goes on to describe how now it should be easier than ever to see moral business practices implemented. The growth of technology and the way the world has shrunk as a result have increased the need for profitable businesses to do well by both their shareholders and the global community. Companies that garner the label of being socially or environmentally irresponsible face the very real chance of seeing their value decline substantially, even if the tactics that led to such a reputation were profitable.

Essentially, the social conscience is becoming such that it’s simply not possible to have sustainable growth unless it is built on a moral foundation. The question now is who gets to determine what qualifies as a moral foundation. It’s possible that definition will come from the political and economic world leaders. Surely they will continue to carry at least some ability to enact real change over the coming years. However, in today’s culture, there seems to be an ever declining level of trust in such leaders and that dubiousness is often warranted.

Perhaps morality will be defined by the intellectual elite, those whose dedicate their lives to examining the depths of moral virtue and the way it has been defined in the past in order to help guide us to the appropriate view for the present. While such information is helpful, it can easily become detached from the practical necessities of the real world and, consequently, sound good while accomplishing little.

More and more it’s seeming like morality is defined by Hollywood and public figures that, whether via social media or their philanthropic efforts, have captured the attention of the masses. When wielded responsibly, that influence can accomplish great things. However, it fails as a moral foundation because its usefulness, like all the other options listed above, is directly tied to the degree to which it is accepted by the masses. But any foundation that is as fickle as popular opinion cannot be trusted to stand up against the challenges that will invariably come against it.

Would any of us say that the slavery in pre-twentieth century America or the treatment of Jews by the Germans in years around World War II, were morally defensible? Yet both were supported, at least in some areas, by popular opinion. While those are extreme examples, they demonstrate that we need something better, a foundation that is beyond us because one thing that our history has shown time and time again is that we, as humans, can’t be trusted to consistently determine what is right.

Thankfully, we don’t have to be. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used a parable to give us his take on what is the most appropriate moral foundation for our lives (Matthew 7:24-27). He tells of two houses, one built on bedrock and the other on sand. When the storms come the latter falls while the one that was given a firm foundation is able to endure. While Jesus’ meaning can be difficult to interpret with some parables, his teaching here is clear: the only foundation that is capable of withstanding the trials of this life and the one on which our understanding of morality should be built is his teachings.

That’s why Islam holds Jesus to be one of its greatest prophets even if they deny his deity. That’s why America’s founding fathers, many of whom were deists with little concept of a personal God, constructed so much of the moral and political fabric of the United States on biblical principles. And it’s why so many of the moral beliefs most commonly advocated today, such as equality and taking care of the poor, can trace their roots back to scripture, even if those roots are not always recognized.

Ultimately, our history shows that we need a moral code that is not of our own making. God has provided just such a foundation but, for it to be properly utilized, it must be interpreted with his help. Christians and non-Christians alike have strayed from Christ’s teachings when they forget that fact. But God calls us to return to him and to his teachings today. That is our best hope for the present and our only hope for eternity. Have you responded to that call yet today?