The ACU Ethics Hub is celebrating the 30th anniversary of Ex Corde Ecclesiae with a ‘Masterclass on Any Catholic University’, exploring how various member groups are understood in the Catholic intellectual tradition. In this lesson, Professor Ramsay explores the role of finance staff.


Many of us can feel intimidated by financial discussion and decision-making. This is fully understandable. Inevitably, as the complexity of finance has grown, and the importance attached to financial accountability increased, discussions and decisions have gathered baroque layers of sophistication, often requiring specialist-level skill and knowledge. This can be frustrating, but what is not frustrating is the exercise of financial expertise by finance offices for the sake of the common good of our institutions.

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Money is only a tool, but that is hard to believe, for clearly, money does make the world go around, and money really matters, even to very good people. No one wants to say ‘I live for money’, but so close is the link between money and real goods that we do live for – health, family, leisure, education, home – that money by association becomes largely what we are living for.

“Our income is not used to generate a profit but to serve, first and foremost our stated mission and in particular, the most needy.”

In Catholic universities it is important that the trump-card money often represents in decision-making (‘it’s not in the budget, it’s not happening!’) does not undermine the principles which explain why we care so much about money and what it can do in the first place. The way in which we can ensure this is to be clear in the university that there is an underlying rationale and motivation for the dominance of finance. And this is something Catholic universities should be good at doing – explaining the rationale, and particularly the moral rationale, behind our activities.

Our income is not used to generate a profit but to serve, first and foremost our stated mission and in particular, the most needy. We steward our resources and protect ourselves in order to safeguard the search for truth, including by those otherwise financially unable to take part.

Finance continued…

Financial professionals are genuine experts in servant leadership. They are aware that they possess knowledge that is technical and difficult for many of us. This means we rely upon them, and they allow this to happen. In this sense, finance staff bear extraordinary responsibility in universities: to be accurate and fact-based; to communicate with absolute clarity to people who often lack financial insight; never to presume too much – but never to patronise; to share knowledge and so help educate financially; to lead by advising, that is, to lead through serving.

Good financial professionals tend to show respect for those without their training; others may be less patient with colleagues’ ignorance or their fears of seeming confused or ‘caught out’ in financial uncertainty. Ironically, the relevant principles for finance professionals at university include not just stewardship, honesty, accuracy, openness – the principles we might expect – but also gentleness, humility, patience. In other words, it is also in the ‘softer’ virtues and character qualities that good finance staff specialise.

There is tension in every organisation as finance questions loom and influence major decisions. Catholic universities are not exempt here. We want to do things we cannot afford; we have different views on how the pie should be divided up and shared. The fact that the President or CEO sets strategy and approves major decisions does not stop confrontation and anxiety over financial questions throughout all ranks. What according to the vision of Ex Corde Ecclesiae can the finance team do about that?

First, if the team is deeply honest and known to be so, this is the greatest help they can offer. The CFO should be as much a specialist in truth as is the Professor of Theology; and this means his or her enemies are untruths, ignorance, superstitious fears, mystification. Of course, finance professionals in various industries have failed seriously in these ways in recent times. Catholic universities actively encourage their finance team in truth and truthfulness, honestly and truth-telling. In this area finance plays a leadership role.

Secondly, a commitment to ongoing communication at a level and in a language as close as possible to the language of the person spoken to is enormously helpful in dispelling financial confusion. Numbers experts need to be language experts.

Thirdly, the institutional commitment to the Gospel means a commitment within the university’s mission and strategy to the most needy. This has implications for whom we sponsor, give scholarships to, focus on as we develop courses and areas of strength – but also in general to how the pie is divided.

Fourthly, a deep respect for what the university actually does and what money therefore serves – research and education – will remind staff daily of where they work and why they work, and indeed help with understanding how they should work.

Fifthly, courage, finance teams require courage to speak the truth even in situations where it is difficult to do so. On the other foot, the whole staff should have respect for the finance office. In this complex world we cannot survive and thrive without excellence in financial decision-making and financial support. We are, almost all of us, needy and dependent in this respect. Having the humility to acknowledge that, and the good fortune of a finance team that treats us gently, is a wonderful example of the servant-leadership logic, by which leadership from one team serves another and is recognised in turn for the leadership it offers.

Money is not dirty. Wealth may be, but even then, so close is our wealth to purchase of the real goods we value it is unsurprising we value wealth highly too. But we cannot of course forget that wealth in our institution exists to serve the common good of the institution – ensuring every person is enabled as far as possible to share in every good thing we provide, and ultimately in that search for truth which explains why we were founded.
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