In a January 11 interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Pope Francis again spoke at length on issues concerning the economy. From his remarks, in clear continuity with his predecessors, we can deduce five practical implications.
The central problem of our economy, according to Pope Francis: “When money, instead of man, is at the center of the system, when money becomes an idol, men and women are reduced to simple instruments of a social and economic system.
When we idolize money, our economy is reduced to a consumerist view of the pursuit of material things, which “feeds on a culture of waste”: waste of time, waste of God’s creation and loss of human life. — because we “work for the food that perishes” instead of “for the food that endures to eternal life” (John 6:27). The pope underlines, in particular, two serious aspects of the culture of waste: “that which leads people to get rid of babies through abortion… [and]to a hidden euthanasia of the elderly, who are abandoned.
What should we do? Pope Francis’ predecessor, Saint John Paul II, wrote in Centesime Annus (The 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum):
“It is therefore necessary to create ways of life in which the search for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others with a view to common growth are the factors that determine the choices of consumption, savings and investment” (36).
The first practical implication is therefore: Strive, however modestly or humbly, to ensure that our work – the products and services we help produce and sell – and our investments serve to promote “truth, beauty, goodness and fellowship with others”, rather than false illusions, ugliness, evil or division.
If redirecting our work and investments in this direction sounds difficult, it is. Indeed, it is impossible without the help of God. The virtue of charity (willing and acting for the good of others) is a theological virtue, one that comes as a grace from God. And so Pope Francis reminds us: “We need, as Benedict XVI reminded us in his encyclical Caritas in Truth (Charity in truth), men and women with arms raised in prayer to God; aware that love and sharing, which generate true development, are not a product of our hands, but a gift to ask for. Our second practical implication is then: Pray to God that the gift of charity transforms our activity of work and investment into acts of service.
Pope Francis said: “We need ethics in the economy, and we also need ethics in politics”. Too often it is interpreted as calling for state solutions to social ills. The Pope is not so naive; he realizes that corruption and greed exist among politicians and officials as well as among businessmen.
The interviewer of La Stampa asked Francis what he thought of his predecessor Pope Pius XI’s ‘strong and prophetic words’ on international money imperialism. His answer: “Pius XI seems extreme only to those who feel struck by his words and struck where it hurts by his prophetic condemnations.
What are these “prophetic condemnations,” and who should be hit with them? In 1931, after the Great Depression, Pius XI wrote in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (The reconstruction of the social order):
“In the first place, it is evident that not only is wealth concentrated in our time, but immense power and despotic economic dictatorship are consolidated in the hands of a few, who often are not owners but only administrators and the managing directors of the companies invested with funds which they administer according to their arbitrary will and pleasure.This dictatorship is exercised with the greatest force by those who, since they hold the money and control it completely, also control credit and govern the lending of money.Therefore they regulate the flow, as it were, of the vital blood, by which the whole economic system lives, and have so firmly in their grasp the soul, as it were, of the economic life that no one can breathe against his will” (105).-106).
What and who are Pius XI, and now Pope Francis, referring to here? It is the collusion between big business and big government that promotes the concentration of wealth: through subsidies that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor, “corporate welfare”, mandates and regulations that favor special interest groups. It is also any effort that focuses more on rent-seeking (capturing the wealth created by others) than on actual wealth creation.
Condemnation falls on all who participate in this kind of activity — especially those who, as Pope Benedict wrote in Caritas in Truth, instead of using finance as an “instrument to enhance wealth creation and development”, using it according to “their own arbitrary will and pleasure”, for personal gain. A third practical implication: In my work, ask, “Am I creating wealth? Or am I engaging in rent-seeking behavior? » (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, “Vocation of the entrepreneur», p. 26).
The interviewer asked Francis if Pope Paul VI’s assertions that private property is not an absolute right are still valid. The pope replied, “Not only are they still valid, but the more time passes, the more I find that they have been proven by experience.”
The social doctrine of the Church has always taught that there are two aspects to private property. The first is that it is legitimate and even “completely necessary for the autonomy of the person and the family” (Gaudium and Spes, 71). The second is the “universal destination of created goods”: God created the world for the good of all, not just for those who are rich; therefore, we must use our private property to serve others. As Pope Leo XIII wrote in Rerum Novarum (Capital and Labor), “When the demands of necessity and propriety have been sufficiently satisfied, it is a duty to give to the poor out of what remains” (36). Pius XI later pointed out that investing one’s wealth in such a way as to enable others to do productive work is also a realization of the universal destination of goods. Our fourth implication is: Make an honest assessment of your family’s financial needs and then use the rest to help others, giving to the poor and investing in ways that enable others to work.
A final theme in the La Stampa the interview could reasonably be regarded as the leitmotif of the pontificate of Francis: concern for the poor. The Holy Father said:
“Jesus tells us what is the ‘protocol’ by which we will be judged. It is the one we read in chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew: I was hungry; I was thirsty; I was in jail; I was sick; I was naked, and you helped me, dressed, visited, cared for. Every time we do this to one of our brothers, we are doing it to Jesus. Caring for our neighbour; for those who are poor, who suffer in body and soul, for those in need. … The gospel message is for all; the Gospel does not condemn the rich, but the idolatry of wealth, the idolatry that makes people indifferent to the call of the poor.
Francis further clarifies: “This concern for the poor is in the Gospel; it is in the Tradition of the Church. It is not an invention of communism, and it should not be made into an ideology, as has sometimes happened in history. The fifth practical implication is clear: Give to the poor of your time, your money and yourself. Again and again.
Pope Francis has a profound and transformative message about how the gospel should permeate our complex modern economy. It is a message on which all those who have a connection with the economy, whether noble or lowly, can act now.
Andrew V. Abela, Ph.D., is the Dean of
School of Business and Economics
The Catholic University of America
and co-author of A catechism for business.