Pope Francis, Economics, and Poverty

Comments made by Cardinal Bergoglio in 2010 shed light on his understanding of capitalism, work, and the poor

“The free-will actions of human beings, in addition to our own individual responsibility, have far-reaching consequences: they generate structures that endure over time and create a climate in which certain values can either occupy a central place in public life or be marginalized from the reigning culture. And this too falls under the moral sphere.”— Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, 2010.1

“What happens is that the unemployed, in their hours of solitude, feel miserable because they are not ‘earning their living.’ That is why it is very important that governments of all countries, through the relevant ministries and departments, cultivate a culture of work, not of charity…. They have to cultivate sources of work because, and I never tire of repeating, this, work confers dignity.” — Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, 2010.2


The two major criticisms concerning the perceived economic thought of the current pope are these: 1) that he does not understand how normal capitalism functions with its relation to the poor, and 2) that he habitually relies on the state for solutions, when the modern state is usually a major part of the problem. In a homily in the Chapel of Santa Marta (November 5), however, Pope Francis talked of state officials who lose their dignity by taking bribes. On November 11, the Pope spoke of the man who “puts one hand in his pocket that helps the Church, while, with the other hand, he robs the State and the poor.” No doubt, political and bureaucratic corruption in the form of bribes and favoritism is a major cause of poverty and injustices in the world today, not just for the poor. Few say so as bluntly as Pope Francis.

The Pope has spoken of “unbridled capitalism,” which seems strange. Capitalism today is almost totally bridled by extensive state control. We do have a global flow of capital seeking a place to invest. This financial power can be misused and too often is. But it is also one of the great generators of economic growth. “Unbridled capitalism,” if it exists, is much less a problem than the state-controlled capitalism when it comes to impediments for increasing wealth and labor possibilities for the poor. Moreover, as The Economist (June 1) wrote, the world in fact has recently made enormous strides in the world-wide alleviation of poverty, due mostly to capitalism and its imitators. I have not seen any mention of this fact in any of the Pope’s discussion of remaining world poverty. Both political corruption and government controls are more harmful to the poor than so-called “unbridled capitalism.” This fact also needs to be stated.

The Pope often speaks of a “throw-away” society, something like the “consumer” society that John Paul II used to chastise. But just what are the consequences of not throwing useless or outmoded things away or not having the free demand that causes investment and employment? To prohibit a “throw-away society” seems close to mandating a stagnate economy in which what is inefficient or useless is legally kept functioning at higher and higher costs in the name of jobs or ecology. Innovation that would change things is stifled. The sources of growth flee the jurisdictions that prevent its growth. This movement, in fact, explains much of the economic gains of many poorer nations in the world today, particularly in Asia.

The Pope is likewise famous for having remarked that the greatest problems in today’s world are “unemployed youth and loneliness in old age.” Yet, we cannot talk of unemployed youth without talking about what really causes the jobs they need to employ them. Insisting that the government will do the job simply will not suffice, but as we will see below, Pope Bergoglio seems to understand much of this. And it is clear that all old people, rich or poor, experience loneliness. It is not basically an economic problem, as Cicero said long ago. The Pope often says that the elderly should be taken care of by their own families. But the Pope has also pointedly warned of a control of the whole global economic system that seems to him almost diabolical.


With this background, I want to comment on several interesting and surprising remarks that Jorge Bergoglio made about economic affairs in the book of conversations that took place in Argentina while he was still Archbishop there. Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words: Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio, edited by Francisca Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin, is a wide-ranging discussion, not limited to economics. The Pope identifies himself with the cause of the poor. Nothing is wrong with this concern, provided that one also has some concrete insight into what would help most of the poor. Otherwise, we are just ringing our hands.

Pope Francis speaks like a man with a vow of poverty, which he is. An individual person is always free to sell his goods, give them to the poor, and follow Christ. This kind of voluntary poverty is designed as a witness not so much to poverty itself as to the fact that our happiness, be we rich or poor, does not lie in material things. Even here, those who do give up these material things are told that they shall receive a hundred-fold even in this life (Matt 16:29).

The vow of poverty does not imply that material things are intrinsically evil. They are good and can be put to good use; otherwise no virtue would result in giving them up. They can be used wrongly, of course, but in themselves they are good. The whole purpose of civilization is to show why and how this further good use of a good creation can come about. Civilization and culture aim to discover this use and bring it into orderly existence for the good of each and all.

The earth is to serve man as its own primary purpose. Man is given “dominion” over it, which does not mean that he is supposed to let it sit there untouched. Often a correct theology is needed to see this relation, as not all theologies see it. But this order of man to earth can only come about through human intelligence, work, freedom, and organization. God did not, in creation, give us all the solutions. He gave us brains, hands, and imagination to figure it out for ourselves, a much greater manifestation of divine wisdom.

People with vows of poverty can use their freedom to learn and do what they can to help others in a variety of ways. But the essential issue concerns not those with vows of poverty, but the free participation of the vast majority of men, who have no such vow, in a purposeful enterprise for real human goods. By his own labor and mind, man seeks both to earn a living and contribute to the good of others. At the same time, he strives to make the earth itself a more beautiful and abundant dwelling by his presence and work on it.

But the poverty of real want is itself an important thing to identify and to think carefully about. In the beginning, the whole world was poor, dependent solely on what nature by itself brought forth. Agriculture that made the earth more bountiful had to be discovered and put into operation. The Pope wants a “poor Church,” as he has often said. But does he want a poor world? As we will see below, I think not. One of the historic effects of Christianity, as Pope Benedict XVI often said, was to make the world more elegant, more beautiful, and more fruitful. Such a position that wants everyone to be poor in the name of ecology or asceticism would be contrary to the whole dynamism of civilization, even when we recognize vividly that wealth can be dangerous and that we have here no “lasting city.”

The question that we rarely hear asked by religious leaders is this: “Why is not everyone poor?” Is it a bad thing that many are rich and almost all desire a good level of wealth? Do we not wish the poor to become, by comparison, relatively rich? The answer is the only real issue when it comes to the question of helping the poor. Simply giving wealth away, however, causes it to disappear and often corrupts the receiver unless we also know how to increase it and teach others to use the means that produce it.

We know how to help the poor. But not every way will work. Modern economics and politics are mostly clashes over the proper answer to the question: “What helps the poor?” If we choose the wrong way, and many do, the poor will not be helped in spite of our good intentions. We can only help the poor if everyone, rich and poor alike, is gradually becoming richer. The “redistribution” model for alleviating the poor—take from the rich give to the poor—is little more than a slogan for making everyone poor. In the New Testament, even, those who have something to give to the poor—a cloak, some bread, a dwelling—were not poor by the standards of that time. Why not? If they had nothing to give, how could they be chastised for not giving? St. Paul said, “He who will not work, neither let him eat” (2 Thess 3:10). Paul recognized that laziness, freeloading, and bad will are factors in causing and relieving poverty.

The basic approach to poverty is this: “Do not talk of poverty without asking how one becomes not poor” The poor are not poor because the rich are rich. Neither are the poor in that condition because existing property is maldistributed. On the large-scale, the poor are poor because responsible and just free market economies are not in place with institutions mostly free from state take-over but still within a regime of law and private initiative.

We have to grant that some poor will always be with us for a variety of human reasons. Moreover, poverty is almost always a relative thing. The poor in some societies are by comparison fabulously rich by the conditions of another society. The wealthy of yesterday seem poorer by today’s standards. Moreover, the poor must not be treated as if they have no part in this discussion. They are not simply passive victims whose sole need is for someone else to take care of them. Often, they too have crimes and habits that make any effort to improve their lot almost impossible. We talk of the poor as if we want them so that we can take care of them for our sake. The goal should be rather that we are mainly interested in their taking care of themselves, with their own proper work and virtue. The poor do not exist so that good people can feel good about themselves by helping them.


As I cited in the beginning of this essay, Jorge Bergoglio understands the relation between work and a man’s dignity. When sufficient work for everyone is lacking, the Pope points to government’s responsibility, not to the economy or free enterprise to create new jobs. It is true that government has to “cultivate the sources of work” but these source are little discussed. The Latin American tradition, from the time of the Spanish, has had a rather top-down view of the economy. It is this tradition which seems to look first not to an on-going economy but to the state for employment.

Later on, Bergoglio points out that some states, in order to keep jobs and employment, limit hours of work to provide jobs for others. To this practice, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires says something quite correct and, in the best sense, capitalist: “Fewer people working means fewer people consuming. Man intervenes even less in production, but at the same time who will buy the products?”3 These are exactly the right observations. The real problem, Bergoglio remarks, is not leisure time but “the first step is creating the sources of work.”4 This is correct. The question is still: “What does this first step in creating sources of work mean?”

Bergoglio next follows with a comment on leisure. Leisure, he observes, can mean either idleness or gratification. There must be a culture of work and one of gratification. “People who work must take time to relax, to be with their families, enjoy themselves, read, listen to music, and enjoy a sport.”5 He sees working on the Sabbath a sign of eliminating leisure. It dehumanizes.

One might note here that Bergoglio unfortunately never seems to have read Josef Pieper’s seminal book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture.6 Pieper, in the Aristotelian tradition, points out that leisure and recreation are not the same thing. Relaxation means a pause from work to return to work. But the purpose of work is not more work but the higher things. In this sense, work exists for leisure, not the other way around. Bergoglio does not make this distinction and so he tends to propose what is essentially a work society, and not a society that works in order that something more human might exist.7

The Marxist society that reduces everything to work, including the life of the mind, is one to be avoided. This approach does not mean that work is not important, but it does mean that work exists so that what is worked on comes into being. To work for work’s sake is like digging a hole and filling it up again just to be doing something. Work, to be human, must always have a purpose. Pope John Paul II maintained that the worker was more important than the work. This is true, but the worker cannot have what he does or how he does it to be unnecessary or meaningless.

Bergoglio’s treatment of the famous movie Babette’s Feast is worth noting in light of his understanding, as pope, of poverty. He relates his discussion to a more general comment on pain. At times, suffering has been “overemphasized.” The Calvinist community in the film is pictured as closed in a narrow world. They see the “redemption of Christ as a negation of the things of this world.” They are gradually freed of this illusion by realizing the goodness of an excellent dinner. “They were devoted to the grey side of life. They feared love.” Obviously, the Pope is on the side of the blessings of the dinner and its appreciation of things.8

Bergoglio remarks, as he often does, that he too is a “sinner.”9 He does not have all the answers, or even all the questions.10 He understands the difference between ideology and morality. “We are redeemed only by what we accept. If we don’t accept that there are people with different opinions, even opposing opinions that you don’t share, and if you don’t respect them or pray for them, you will never redeem them in your heart. We must not let ideology triumph morality.”11 The poor can be occasion for ideology: “Catholicism’s greatest concern regarding the poor in the sixties was the issue of fertile ground that could give rise to any kind of ideology.”12 His response to this ideology was not to join it but to get in touch with the people and their own lives. “So the more that pastoral agents discover popular piety that more that ideology falls away, because they are close to the people and their problems.”13

Ought the Church not say much about these things? “Denouncing human rights abuses, situation of exploitation or exclusion, or shortages in education, or food, is not being partisan. Catholic social teaching is full of denunciations, yet it is not partisan. When we come out and say things, some accuse us of playing politics. I say to them, yes, we are playing politics in the Gospel sense of the word, but not the partisan sense.”14 The Church has a place in the public forum not just because of its transcendent orientation but because of its understanding about what man is.

Why do people fall away from ethical standards? “I would say that there is a devaluation of the exercise of ethical principles in order to justify a lack of compliance with them.”15 Here again is where ideology comes as a presumed explanation of why it is all right to fall away from moral standards. We need to give reasons especially when we are wrong. The Argentine Archbishop put it in an amusing way: “There is almost always an element of deceit involved in selling someone the Brooklyn Bridge, and this is accepted because ‘everyone does it.’”16 If everyone does it, it still may be wrong.


Bergoglio sees some cultural advance. “The fact is, in general, cultures are progressing in terms of the appeal of a moral conscience. It’s not what’s moral that’s changing. What’s moral doesn’t change. We carry it inside us. Ethical behavior is part of our being. What happens is that we are continually defining it more clearly.”17 But this does not mean that we cannot slide back. When asked what he thought about opposition to abortion as a religious question, he answered: “Well, a pregnant woman isn’t carrying a toothbrush in her stomach, or a tumor. Science has taught us that from the moment of conception, the new being has its entire genetic code. It’s impressive. Therefore, it’s not a religious issue bit. A moral issue with a scientific basis. Because we are in the presence of a human being.”18 This reasonable/scientific approach to our opposition to abortion has been one that Hadley Arkes has been arguing for years. Bergoglio is in full agreement with it.

At first sight, it seems that Bergoglio did not understand the importance of development to poverty. But in the case of Argentina itself, he is quite clear:

I can say that we (Argentinians) have not exploited what we have. On God’s judgment day, we will count ourselves among those who ignored the gifts we were given and did not use them productively, not only in terms of agriculture and raising cattle but in mining as well… Throughout our history, we have not created jobs tied to our natural resources. It cannot be that most jobs in Argentina are found around large cities such as Buenos Aires or Rosaio. It just can’t be.19

Part of this problem, of course, is that modern agriculture is very productive with relatively few laborers. Jobs are tied to machines and the capacity to use them, especially to the presence of the computer. Cities are themselves generators of wealth and jobs.

The Archbishop reflects on Argentina: “God gave us everything; there is not enough food or enough jobs. It is a great injustice and flagrant lack of responsibility to distributing our resources.”20 The fact is that resources are not the real cause of wealth or the means for caring for others. The real source of wealth is the mind—learning how to use the mind and what it can produce. Not everyone wants to learn this or learn it in a productive context. This is why, as E. F. Schmacher used to say, the real problem is not simply economic, but moral and political. Bergoglio senses some of this: “I would say that, deep down, it is a problem of sin. For four years Argentina has been living in a sinful existence because it has not taken responsibility for those who have no food or work. It is everyone’s responsibility….”21 But this responsibility needs to be directed to what works. What is it after all that generates work?

Bergoglio seems quite aware of the complexity of this issue. He does understand that work needs consumption, demand, and inventiveness. “The creative capacity to generate work, and coming out ahead, seems to occur, especially in the worst of cities, when there is nothing left to do.”22 Cities that were once poor are now rich. Asia is becoming full of them. We need visions that work, that are related to reality. Bergoglio graphically put it this way: “Let us not forget that utopias lead to growth. Of course, the danger is not just in falling into the trap of reflecting on the past, of patriotic duty, in being satisfied with what one has received and not looking any further; but also in the non-historical utopia, the one without tradition, the pure fantasy.”23 Traditional utopias can be models of stagnation or of fantasy. We need to imagine, to plan what can be done, and then do it.

One of the remarkable but too little faced issues today is that of the fall in the birth rate in many countries and what this fall does to the economy and way of life. Bergoglio shows himself quite up-to-date on this issue.

Of course I’m concerned (about the falling birthrate). It’s a form of social suicide. By the year 2022, Italy will not have enough revenue in its retirement coffers—that is, the country will not have the funds to pay its pensioners. At the end of 2002, France celebrated the figure of two children per woman. But Italy and Spain have less than one per woman. That means physical and social realities will be replaced; it implies that other cultures and perhaps another civilization will emerge. This will not take the slow form as the barbarian invasions of the year 400 or so, bur the territory left by some will be occupied by others. As a result of the migrations, Europe may undergo changes in its culture. Although, actually, that’s not a new phenomenon. Let’s not forget the extensive Christian communities that inhabited northern Africa for several centuries no longer exist there.24

Few have put this issue better. Unfortunately, Bergoglio did not state exactly what took over in Africa so that Christian communities no longer much exist there.

The Argentine Archbishop was cautious about what goes on internationally. “But globalization is an ambiguous reality.”25 Yet, he made a surprisingly strong statement about where we ought to be going: “That is what gives rise to a common ethic and openness toward a destiny of abundance that defines man as a spiritual being.”26 The phrase “an abundance that defines man as a spiritual being” is memorable. We are not defined by our tight, negative existence, but by bringing forth that abundance that has been there for men to discover since they first appeared on this planet.

Finally, Bergoglio gives us his understanding of what, in his mind, a nation is. He does not refer, say, to Maritain’s famous discussion of nation, state, society, and community in his Man in the State. Rather he gives a common sense reflection. He does not indicate that a nation comes from common blood lines, which is what the word “nation” means, while “state” is the modern post-Machiavellian word, in contrast to Aristotle’s polity. Here is Bergoglio’s analysis:

What is it that makes a bunch of people a nation? First of all, there is a natural law and then a heritage. Second, there is a psychological factor: man becomes man (each individual or the species as it evolved) through communication, interaction, love for this fellow being. Through words and trough love. And third, these biological and psychological evolutionary factors become real and really come into play, in our free will behavior, in the desire to bond with others in a certain way, to build our lives with our neighbors in a range of shared practices and preferences.27

One cannot help but seeing here his love of Argentina.

But now the Argentine Archbishop remains a man, who, like John Paul II and Benedict, does not forget his homeland. Yet he finds himself a world figure. In the end, the papal economics of this Pope, I think, show many signs of a practical wisdom that will serve us in good stead. Not everything is clear, as he himself often reminds us. Most economists themselves, in fact, admit that that “the dismal science” really has a bad record about “predicting” what will happen. The Pope, as an economist, is in good company. But that is the point. In pointing to jobs, innovation, and the poor, he is reminding us of what it is all for, what it is about. He wants us to know that it is not just about economics, even for the poor.


1 Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words: Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio, edited by Francisca Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin (New York: Putnam, [2010] 2013), 238.

2 Ibid, 18.

3 Ibid, 18.

4 Ibid. 19.

5 Ibid, 19-20.

6 Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Foreword by James V. Schall (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, [1946] 2010).

7 See Joseph Hebert, “Be Still and See: Leisure, Labor, and Human Dignity in Josef Pieper and Blessed John Paul II,” Logos 16 (Spring 2013), 144-59.

8 Bergoglio, ibid, 26.

9 Ibid, 46.

10 Ibid, 48.

11 Ibid, 88-89.

12 Ibid, 93.

13 Ibid, 94.

14 Ibid, 94-95.

15 Ibid, 100.

16 Ibid, 100-101.

17 Ibid, 101.

18 Ibid, 109-10.

19 Ibid, 127.

20 Ibid, 128.

21 Ibid, 129

22 Ibid, 133.

23 Ibid, 142.

24 Ibid, 225-26.

25 Ibid, 211.

26 Ibid, 240-41.

27 Ibid. 241.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).