A Reflection on Ethics and Social Justice

"A Reflection on Business Ethics in the Light of Catholic Social Teaching,
with Special Reference to Pope Benedict XVI’s Latest Encyclical,
Caritas in Veritate

An address by the Most Rev. Salvatore Cordileone, Bishop of Oakland to Catholics@Work in San Ramon, CA on September 8, 2009


It is well known that the tradition of Catholic social teaching began with the Encyclical Letter of Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, in 1891.  However, it is not as if Pope Leo invented something entirely new, from scratch; rather, like any great new development of thought, Catholic social teaching has drawn out what was already contained virtually in Sacred Scripture and the Church’s Tradition, brought it more into the light and developed it by applying it to the specific circumstances of the time.

General Principles

So, just what were the circumstances of the time Leo XIII issued that first document of Catholic social teaching?  Remember, at that moment of history the industrial revolution was in full swing; the plight of workers had become critical - the demand of their labor had become urgent, but protections were not yet in place to safeguard their rights.  Remember also that at this time the political philosophies of Marxism and socialism were very much on the rise, as a response to this situation by promising a society of justice and equality.  The problem with these philosophies, though, is that they base everything on the material: their concept of the human person is devoid of any sense of the spiritual or transcendent; instead, social justice is brought about by conflict, the warfare of the classes which results in revolution leading to a classless society.

The 20th century, which we have just left, tragically witnessed the horrendous consequences of these systems.  With extraordinary foresight, Pope Leo XIII gave a Christian response to these circumstances of his time.  Yes, his Encyclical’s central theme was the just ordering of society, but according to criteria that correspond fully to the nature of the human person: he therefore listed the errors that gave rise to social ills, excluded socialism as a remedy and expounded with precision and in contemporary terms “‘the Catholic doctrine on work, the right to property, the principle of collaboration instead of class struggle as the fundamental means for social change, the rights of the weak, the dignity of the poor and the obligations of the rich, the perfecting of justice through charity, [and] the right to form professional associations [labor unions]’” (”Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” n. 89).  The burning issue of the day was the labor issue, and the Encyclical Rerum Novarum dealt with the issue “using a methodology that would become ‘a lasting paradigm‘ for successive developments in the Church’s social doctrine” (ibid., n. 90).

In the over 100 years since that landmark Encyclical, Catholic social teaching has developed a number of general principles and underlying values which apply as well to all of the other issues of social justice which have emerged in this time.  The starting point, though, with any aspect of social teaching, or of public or personal morality, for that matter, is at the beginning: God’s creation of the human being.

The foundational passage in Sacred Scripture is Genesis 1:26, which tells us that God created the man and woman “in His image and likeness.”  God, moreover, created them in order to share in His nature, and so the vocation of every human person is that of divine beatitude.  Indeed, as the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, reminds us, the human person is “the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake,” and human persons can fully discover their true self only in giving of themselves (n. 24, par. 2).

This being created in the image of God gives the human person an inherent dignity.  Indeed, the phrase “the dignity of the human person” and other similar expressions pervade the documents on Catholic social teaching.  Because of the origin and destiny of human beings - which is already written in the human heart and is made evident in Scripture - Catholic thought sees the human person as primarily a spiritual being, that is, one who is much more than merely the sum total of bodily functions and psychological and emotional needs, but rather one who is oriented toward a transcendent end, which is nothing less than God Himself.  This means, then, that all human life is sacred and worthy of respect, in every stage and in every condition, and this is why the Church does not shy away from her duty to defend and speak out on behalf of human life and dignity wherever they may be in a position of vulnerability.

The first foundational value of Catholic social teaching, then, is the inherent dignity of the human person, along with its corollary principles of the spiritual, transcendent nature of the human person and the sanctity of human life.  This dignity also means that every human person is endowed with certain rights and obligations which must be played out in society.  If people “can fully discover their true self only in giving of themselves,” it means that God has created us to live in society.  The human person, as well as being primarily a spiritual being, is also a social being.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines a society as “a group of persons bound together organically by a principle of unity that goes beyond each one of them”; it is “an assembly that is at once visible and spiritual, [and] endures through time: it gathers up the past and prepares for the future” (n. 1880).  The Catechism goes so far as to declare society to be “essential to the fulfillment of the human vocation,” (n. 1886; emphasis added), and, citing Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical Centessimus Annus, affirms that to “attain this aim, respect must be accorded to the just hierarchy of values, which ‘subordinates physical and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones’ [CA 36, par. 2].”  The human person, then, needs to live and participate in society, it is a requirement of human nature; it is through economic, political and cultural exchange with others, and in mutual service and fraternal dialogue that people develop their potential and respond to their vocation (cf. GS 25, par. 1).

This second foundational value, the social nature of the human person, leads us to a number of principles equally pivotal for our consideration.  First of all, a logical consequence of this understanding of the human person is that the good of each individual is necessarily related to the common good, which in turn can be defined only in reference to the human person.  That is to say, the human person - as Gaudium et Spes instructs us - “is and ought to be the beginning, the subject and the end of all social institutions” (n. 25, par. 1).

Gaudium et Spes gives us the foundational definition of the common good as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (n. 26, par. 1).  According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, moreover, the common good: (1) “presupposes respect for the person as such” (n. 1907); (2) “requires the social well-being and development of the group itself” (n. 1908; cf. GS 26, par. 2); and (3) “requires peace, that is, the stability and security of a just order” (n. 1909).

The word “globalization” was not in use at the time of the Second Vatican Council, but the Council Fathers articulated the reality with great foresight in the following statement from the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: “Because of the closer bonds of human interdependence and their spread over the whole world, we are today witnessing a widening of the role of the common good” (GS, n. 26, par. 1).  The globalization which has occurred in the four decades since this statement has made the world more interdependent than ever before.  This brings us to the next foundational value, that of solidarity, which Pope John Paul II, in his Encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis calls the “correlative response” to this phenomenon of interdependence, a response which is a moral and social attitude taking the form of the virtue of solidarity (n. 38).  He goes on to describe the virtue of solidarity in the following way: “This then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”

He tells us, then, that interdependence must be “transformed into solidarity, based upon the principle that the goods of creation are meant for all” (n. 39).  This applies both on the level of individuals and of nations; moreover, it is not a matter of the powerful who give and the poor who receive, but rather everyone has a role and responsibility toward others.  When properly realized, solidarity results in everyone giving and everyone receiving.

The realization of this vision, of true solidarity, presents an ever-greater challenge in our age, for in order to achieve it we must overcome an exaggerated individualistic mentality.  It is a curious irony that the moment of history in which the world is more interdependent than ever before is precisely the one in which individualism is flourishing more than ever before.  It seems that we are interdependent but disconnected.  The Second Vatican Council also warned us about this, when it stated (GS 30, par. 1):

The pace of change is so far-reaching and rapid nowadays that no one can allow himself to close his eyes to the course of events or indifferently ignore them and wallow in the luxury of a merely individualistic morality.  The best way to fulfill one’s obligations of justice and love is to contribute to the common good according to one’s means and the needs of others ….”

Clearly, the principle that the common good of society can only be defined in reference to the human person does not mean that each individual is left to devise his or her own morality and value system.  Indeed, if such were the case, society would be impossible.

There has to be, then, a balance between the individual good and the common good, since the two are interrelated.  This brings us to one of the most constant and characteristic directives of the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with that first great Encyclical, Rerum Novarum: the principle of subsidiarity.  This can be defined as the principle according to which “all societies of a superior order must adopt attitudes of help (‘subsiduum’) - therefore of support, promotion, development - with respect to lower-order societies” (”Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching,” n. 186).  “In this way, intermediate social entities can properly perform the functions that fall to them without being required to hand them over unjustly to other social entities of a higher level, by which they would end up being absorbed and substituted, in the end seeing themselves denied their dignity and essential place [in society]” (ibid.).  This means, then, that the state (nation), a “social entity of a higher level,” must offer the assistance which “lesser social entities,” such as (especially) the family, need to fulfill the functions proper to them, while at the same time the state must not do anything to restrict those lesser social entities from doing so.

The principle of subsidiarity, then, “protects people from abuses by higher level social authority and calls on these same authorities to help individuals and intermediate groups to fulfill their duties….  Experience shows that the denial of subsidiarity, or its limitation in the name of an alleged democratization or equality of all members of society [the state arrogating to itself the prerogatives properly belonging to individuals, families and other smaller communities], limits and sometimes even destroys the spirit of freedom and initiative” (”Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching,” n. 187).  On the other hand, sometimes “circumstances may make it advisable that the state step in to supply certain functions,” for example, “to stimulate the economy because it is impossible for civil society to support initiatives on its own,” or when social imbalance or injustice is so serious that “only the intervention of the public authority can create conditions of greater equality, justice and peace”; however, because this would be an extraordinary measure, it should continue only as long as absolutely necessary, and the primacy of the human dignity of each individual must always prevail (ibid, n. 188).

To sum up these foundational values, then: the beginning point is God’s creation of the human being in His image and likeness.  This endows the human person with an inherent and inviolable dignity and a transcendent, spiritual nature which, as a consequence, calls for respecting the sanctity of all human life, especially the most vulnerable.  God also created the human person as a social being; while the ultimate vocation of every human being is that of divine beatitude, it is within the relationships of human society that people respond to this vocation.  The interdependence of people within a society and of nations within the international community calls for a solidarity which transcends individual wants and concerns and creates a world in which all see themselves as responsible to others and in which everyone has something to give and to receive.  At the same time, the balance between the good of the individual and of smaller communities on the one hand, and the common good on the other, must be worked out according to the principle of subsidiarity, in which higher level societies assist individuals and intermediate level societies in exercising their rights and fulfilling their duties while not absorbing such prerogatives which, in justice, belong to them.

The general principles of Catholic social teaching will obviously take on all kinds of specific application to a whole myriad of issues, including everything from culture of life issues to economic justice.  The labor issue was the hot topic at the time of Pope Leo XIII; we have a number of others in our own time as well.  Issues of economic justice certainly are to be included among these.  No matter what the issue, though, when a society veers off into the direction of injustice, it is inevitably because of a mistaken notion of the human person.  All of the foundational values which I have just presented reflect a characteristically Christian understanding of the human person; or, as Pope John Paul II would call it, the personalistic view.  That is, the human person is to be valued as a good in and of itself simply because of human dignity, and not treated as a means to an end.  Unfortunately, though, more and more we see a completely contrary view of the human person prevailing in society today: the utilitarian view.  That is, the human person is not an intrinsic good, but rather has value only insofar as the person can be useful in some way.  This would view persons as no more than units of consumption and production, which can be dispensed with when they no longer consume or, especially, produce; the person is used as a means to some ulterior (and, necessarily, less valuable) end.

Application in Light of Charity in Truth

It will not be surprising that all of these values and principles which I have just articulated are woven all throughout Pope Benedict XVI’s recent Encyclical on the economy, Charity in Truth.  But before referencing any particular one, it is necessary to bear in mind the very premise of the Encyclical, already clear at the outset from its title.  Charity must be connected with truth, and that truth has to do with the correct understanding of the human person.  That truth, moreover, exists in the objective reality of nature, it is not left up to each individual to decide for himself or herself, as if, “I have my truth, and you have your truth.”  Reason helps us to discern and recognize the truth, which then must be received by an act of the will.  Truth is to be received, it is a gift.  Charity rooted in objective truth is, as he calls it, a “grace”:  “Charity is love received and given.  It is ‘grace’” (n. 5).

Therefore, as he says, “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality” (n. 3).  It is, ultimately, dehumanizing: the powerful give not because the need of the giver to give exceeds the need of the receiver to receive, but instead for some ulterior end, whether it be simply to assuage a troubled conscience or, worst of all, to keep the weak dependent on the powerful who can thereby rest secure in their position of power.  This, then, defeats authentic development, which can only come about when such initiatives respect the truth about the human person.  As he says: “The risk for our time is that the de facto charity, illumined by the light of reason and faith, is it possible to pursue development goals that possess a more humane and humanizing value” (n. 9; emphasis original). interdependence of people and nations is not matched by ethical interaction of consciences and minds that would give rise to truly human development.  Only in charity, illumined by the light of reason and faith, is it possible to pursue development goals that possess a more humane and humanizing value” (n. 9; emphasis original).

The consistent application of this truth to current social issues may leave those who see the world through a purely political lens scratching their heads; in the Catholic mind, though, it is the only logical conclusion.  So, for example, early on in the Encyclical Pope Benedict references Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical Humanae Vitae on the transmission of human life and responsible parenthood, and Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae on the sanctity of human life, as foundational to the entire discussion.  We see people not as an asset or a liability depending on their condition, but as a gift, a resource, indeed the greatest resource regardless of their condition, as an intrinsic good.

Sex and marriage are, indeed, foundational to everything, because people come about through the sexual union of man and woman.  The Pope cites Evangelium Vitae at this point when he says, “The Church forcefully maintains this link between life ethics and social ethics, fully aware that ‘a society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized’” (n. 15).

The Pope even uses the phrase “openness to life,” so pivotal in Humanae Vitae’s discussion of the responsible transmission of human life in marriage, in reference to authentic economic and social development.  He says, “Morally responsible openness to life represents a rich social and economic resource. Populous nations have been able to emerge from poverty thanks not least to the size of their population and the talents of their people.  On the other hand, formerly prosperous nations are presently passing through a phase of uncertainty and in some cases decline, precisely because of their falling birth rates; this has become a crucial problem for highly affluent societies” (n. 44; emphasis original).  He concludes: “In view of this, States are called to enact policies promoting the centrality and the integrity of the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman, the primary vital cell of society, and to assume responsibility for its economic and fiscal needs, while respecting its essentially relational character” (n. 44; emphasis original).

It was another Encyclical of Pope Paul VI, though, which inspired Pope Benedict’s writing of Charity in Truth, namely, Populorum Progressio, on the integral develop of people.  He acknowledges that Pope Paul had already recognized in 1967 that “the social question has become a radically anthropological question” (n. 75; emphasis original).  Here again we have the truth about the human person, which will have application on a broad range of issues the Holy Father references: marriage and right to life issues (as I’ve already mentioned), bioethical issues, the universal right to food and access to water, energy, the environment, technology, tourism and migration, finance, worker justice issues, and so forth.

With regard to the global economy, the principles of Catholic social teaching would urge against a completely unregulated free market economy.  Freedom is essential to prosperity, but certain controls have to be in place so that economic activity may affirm the truth of the human person and help build up the common good.  The irony is that, while communism is by definition an ideology based on materialism, its counterpart at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, capitalism, likewise runs the risk of allowing the powerful few to oppress the poor masses when it is unfettered by ethical constraints.   This, curiously enough, results from the same anthropological mistake that communism is based on, even though with capitalism it does not necessarily have to be that way since capitalism is not by definition based on materialism.  As the Holy Father says: “Economic activity cannot solve all the social problems through the simple application of commercial logic.  This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good” (n. 36; emphasis original).  He further explains that “if the market is governed solely by the principle of the equivalence in value of exchanged goods, it cannot produce the social cohesion that it requires in order to function well.  Without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfill its proper economic function (n. 35; emphasis original).  In other words, the market cannot, by itself, attain its true end of authentic human development; it needs something more, at the level of the moral and the spiritual.

Another mistake we must avoid is thinking that we have to choose between ethics and prosperity, as if doing the right thing will necessarily impede development.  Quite the contrary.  This is a consequence of the virtue of solidarity.  As he says, “It is important … to emphasize that solidarity with poor countries in the process of development can point towards a solution of the current global crisis, as politicians and directors of international institutions have begun to sense in recent times.  Through support for economically poor countries by means of financial plans inspired by solidarity - so that these countries can take steps to satisfy their own citizens’ demand for consumer goods and for development - not only can true economic growth be generated, but a contribution can be made towards sustaining the productive capacities of rich countries that risk being compromised by the crisis” (n. 27).  He goes on to explain that the virtue of solidarity must go hand in hand with the principle of subsidiarity: “The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need” (n. 58; emphasis original).

Specific Application to Faith Life in the Work Place

After considering the principles of Catholic social teaching in general, and then reflecting on how these apply to the issues we are currently facing in this global economic crisis in light of Charity in Truth, we can now bring the discussion down even more specifically to the question of ethics in the workplace of one’s business.  For this I will rely on the insights given in a presentation by Dr. Robert Kennedy in 1999 entitled, “‘God’s Project’: A Catholic Vision of Business.” Although delivered ten years ago, the points he makes are still valid today. 

It won’t come as a surprise that, according to Dr. Kennedy, most authors in the field of business ethics “tend to see business as an amoral (not to say immoral) activity,” in which - they all agree - “the overriding purpose … is to create a profit and that, at the end of the day, this is the unavoidable measure of business success.”  That, of course, is not our measure of success, which is borne out by what he asserts is the result of such an approach: “Instead of subordinating business activities to genuine human goods …, we instrumentalize ethics (the study of genuine human goods) and make it serve as a tool for the acquisition of money, the instrumental good par excellence.”

This is where Catholic social teaching has a unique contribution to make, for through it, we understand the fundamental principles and we subordinate everything to that, we see the broader picture, and we make the connections.  As Dr. Kennedy puts it: “We have what I believe to be a more practical account of the moral life to offer, as well as centuries of reflection on concrete problems in commerce.  Furthermore, while these theories and reflections have been well integrated with our faith commitments, they, like the Catholic social tradition itself, are not so doctrinally specific that they are inaccessible to persons of other faiths, or no faith at all” (emphasis added).

This is a very important point to keep in mind, as it indicates how we, from our Catholic perspective, have a unique and very necessary contribution to make to our national life at this particular moment in history.  I mentioned how people who see things from only a political perspective would be perplexed by our Catholic perspective: they would see irreconcilable differences between those who, for example, defend the sanctity of life and traditional marriage, and those who promote care for the environment and economic justice.  While we do recognize a hierarchy of values here, we also see how all of these issues are interconnected and all are necessary for a healthy society.  One does not need Catholic faith to understand this, but our Catholic Tradition makes it a lot easier, and we have to help the people of our nation get there - and that includes many of our own people.  So, what do we do?

As most of you probably know, I was an active promoter of Proposition 8 from very early on in the process.  I knew it was controversial, and I knew it would probably lead some people to stereotyping me politically.  But I also understood how foundational marriage is to everything.  Children need to be connected to their parents, especially to their fathers, and marriage is the only mechanism society has found to do that.  It should be abundantly clear that so much of the social ill that we are experiencing today is because this is not happening.  So I did not let controversy or the risk of being stereotyped slow me down.

Yes, just about everyone by now knows that about me.  What people don’t know about me is that I was part of an inter-faith coalition that met with the District Attorney of San Diego to urge her to place a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.  People also don’t know that I was part of a year-long ecumenical discussion group which reflected theologically on local issues, and - living in a border city - most of our discussion centered on the plight and rights of immigrants.  Most (perhaps all) of those pastors opposed me on the Prop 8 issue, some even actively so.  Yet, we still respect each other.  Again, there is a hierarchy of values, but we Catholics do not fit perfectly into any convenient political pigeonhole.

What, then, do we do?  Certainly not stay out of the political process.  On the contrary!  It will take faith to transform our nation, so this is no time for us Catholics to waver or be lukewarm in our faith.  Our nation needs us!  We must then, return to and solidify what most defines us as Catholics, and bring that into the public forum.

I started out this talk by explaining that the genesis of Catholic social teaching was not so much the invention of some brand new school of thought as it was a development of the truths which the Church has always believed, drawing out more into the open what is already contained in the sources of revelation (Scripture and Tradition), shedding light on them and further developing them within the context of particular historical circumstances.  So let us not lose our focus: the definitive moment of revelation is the mystery of the Incarnation, God becoming man in the person of His Son Jesus Christ, to rescue us from sin and death and win for us eternal life and the true freedom of living as God’s sons and daughters.  In the Incarnation we see already all the principles of Catholic social teaching: God did not remain aloof, He in His own world and we in ours.  The Incarnation is the ultimate act of solidarity: God, Who has no need of our love, enters into our world by sharing in our human nature in every way except sin, with all of its pains and hardships, joys and sorrows; he interacted in the relationships of human societies at every level.  Moreover, not only did God endow us with an inalienable dignity by creating us in His image and likeness, but, after we tarnished that image by original sin, He went even further by dignifying our nature in becoming one of us, so that we could have a share in His divine nature.

And there is more: from the truths of our Catholic faith we know that the Son of God willed that his Incarnation not remain an isolated historical event, but rather a mystery which would continue to be present through the Church at every moment until he returns at the end of time.  That is why, the night before he died, he gave us the gift of the Eucharist.  When we celebrate his death and Resurrection in memory of him, he makes himself substantially present under the appearance of bread and wine: God continues His ultimate act of solidarity, entering into our world to be present with us, and even entering into our very bodies so that our life and His may become one.  But the mystery we celebrate in his memory and receive in a ritual we must live out every day of our lives.  In other words, Jesus embodied those principles we associate with Catholic social teaching; therefore, if we dare to receive his Body, we in turn must embody those principles by the way we live.

A Call to Action

All of this should make clear that the ultimate end of Catholic social teaching is not simply a more prosperous or even more just society, even though this would result if it were to be faithfully adhered to.  But as noble and worthy as these goals are, they are really only a means to the ultimate end: to bring people to God, to help them attain their human vocation of divine beatitude.  As members of the Church and people of the Eucharist, we have a role and responsibility to play in this.  The needs of the world in which we are living at this moment of history are urgent, many and great, but so are the opportunities.  We must, then, remain firmly rooted in our Catholic faith, and translate that faith into action in the contemporary circumstances of our day-to-day lives.

You, as leaders in the business world, have a particular role to play in this.  I would therefore like to offer some suggestions - really, they are earnest requests - for some very concrete practices you can follow to help realize this mission of the Church in our diocese [and in dioceses across the nation].

1) None of this will ever happen without prayer.  In times of trial and hostility, the Church has always relied on the rosary for her defense.  I would therefore ask you, if you are not doing so already, to pray the rosary every day, and - because we are a Eucharist-centered people - to pray it at least one day a week, if at all possible, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

2) There can be no renewal in the sacrament of the Eucharist without a renewal in the sacrament which helps us prepare to receive the Eucharist worthily.  I would therefore ask you, if you are not doing so already, to avail yourselves of the sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a month.  Regular, frequent sacramental Confession is indispensable to helping us put our faith in to practice without compromise.

3) In your professional lives, keep these principles in mind and follow them in your business dealings and workplace policies with increased attentiveness.

4) In your faith lives, be involved in ministries of your parish, and especially take advantage of the opportunity to educate your fellow parishioners about these issues. As I mentioned, very many of our own people do not understand this Catholic perspective, and we have an urgent need to help them do so.

Most of all, God has to be at the center of our lives, and at the center of the public square in our society.  Only in relation to God can each individual, and society as a whole, realize all that God has created us for.  Returning to Charity in Truth, we can conclude our reflections with the following quote from Pope Benedict:

“… development requires a transcendent vision of the person, it needs God: without him, development is either denied, or entrusted exclusively to man, who falls into the trap of thinking he can bring about his own salvation, and ends up promoting a dehumanized form of development.  Only through an encounter with God are we able to see in the other something more than just another creature, to recognize the divine image in the other, thus truly coming to discover him or her and to mature in a love that ‘becomes concern and care for the other’” [n. 11].

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