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Economics according to Pope Francis

Tuesday, 3 December, 2013

Argentina is a remarkable country. It’s rightly famed for its football, tango, populism, asado, wine, landscapes and polo players, but when it comes to the really heavy lifting that marks a civil society, Argentina has been found wanting. It tried barbaric military rule in the 1970s and its weakness for kleptocracy seems to be incurable. All these factors, and more, have to be taken into account when attempting to understand how Jorge Mario Bergoglio views the world. And his views on the world are important because the 76-year-old Jesuit, who was born in Buenos Aires, is now the leader of the world’s largest Christian church and some 1.2 billion people pay close attention to what he says.

What Pope Francis thinks and says was revealed last week when the Vatican released a 224-page document, titled Evangelii Gaudium, which has been described as his vision statement of the kind of community he wants Catholicism to be. He demands an end to business-as-usual and dreams of “a missionary impulse” that can be channelled “for the evangelization of today’s world”, but he balances this radicalism by ruling out the ordination of women to the priesthood, and he stresses that the church’s position on unborn life “cannot be expected to change” because it is “closely linked to the defence of each and every other human right.”

For a change, however, his thoughts on gender or abortion did not capture the headlines. What made the news was the section of the apostolic exhortation in which he condemned what he calls a “crude and naïve trust” in the free market, saying that left to its own devices the market fosters a “throw-away culture” in which some categories of people are seen as disposable. Furthermore, he rejects what he describes as an “invisible and almost virtual” economic “tyranny.”

Really? And what about the tyranny and horror in places such as North Korea, Cuba, Russia and Venezuela — countries where the free market does not rule? Feudalism and Communism have been swept into the dustbin of history and the last man standing is an economic system in which the private possession of the means of production, driven by the profit motive, responds to the needs of the marketplace by balancing supply, demand and price. The well-governed state takes its share through taxation and what it gets from rich Peter it gives to poor Paul. In between, it enacts a never-ending stream of laws to regulate everything from working hours, minimum wages and corporate responsibility.

In poorly-governed, corrupt countries like Argentina, the system does not work very well and maybe it’s his experience of such market mismanagement that has influenced the economics of Pope Francis. His views would have been perfectly accurate 150 years ago, when Dickens was describing the excesses of capitalism, but today’s reality is rather different. Just because Lionel Messi earns €16 million a year, while nurses struggle to survive, does not mean that we should abandon the greatest engine of economic growth in the history of the world. Yes, it needs to be fine-tuned constantly and repairs are sometimes necessary, but when Socrates was asked what he thought of his nagging wife, Xanthippe, he replied, “Compared to whom?”

Pope Francis

Comments (1)

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  1. Henry Barth says:

    Many Jesuits always liked Emmanual Mounier.

    Personalism also implies inter-personalism, as Benedict XVI stresses in 0Caritas in Veritate:” “As a spiritual being, the human creature is defined t”rough interpersonal relations. The more authentically he or she lives these relations, the more his or her own personal identity matures. It is not by isolation that man establishes his worth, but by placing himself in relation with others and with God.”