Pope Francis the Economist

The Pope is not interested in validating the right or left on any specific policy, but rather reminding us of more transcendent principles.

Where, exactly, does Pope Francis stand on economic matters? While the Pontiff’s pronouncements are abundant, they are far less systematic and scholarly than they are pastoral in nature. Thus, we are frequently left wondering what economic science, if any, underpins his pastoral teaching on issues such as wealth disparities, development, job creation, and increased solidarity with the poor.  

Is Francis a socialist? Does he trust the free market and its invisible hand to bring about economic flourishing? Neither, really. From a secular standpoint, he actually seems to advocate a little of both. Francis acknowledges the legitimacy of business and entrepreneurship on one hand, but frequently seems to call for more government economic action on the other.

Indeed, sometimes Francis appears to be market-friendly, yet in the same speech or document he follows with a “but” or “so long as.” At other times he can sound like a proponent of government welfare and regulation, while also mentioning the good that private business does in job creation and the role it has in mitigating a culture of dependency. Putting labels aside, Francis is nonetheless quick to talk and write about the economy, especially when it involves human suffering and sin.    

Neither party boss nor CEO

Seem confused? You are not alone.

Whatever his economic leanings are, it would be unwise to “spin” the Bishop of Rome’s economically-related pronouncements to satisfy one’s own worldview. 

Francis, as the supreme pastoral leader of the world’s largest Christian population, is much more interested, like his predecessors, in getting the anthropology and the moral-theological foundation right, rather than presenting any specific policy prescription or political-economic platform.

He is the pope, after all—not a political party boss or the economically enlightened CEO of Roman Catholicism Incorporated. 

As the Holy Father intends not to focus his pastoral attention on any political-economic categories of “left” and “right,” “liberal” and “conservative,” his objective as a spiritual and pastoral leader is to inspire a need for personal conversion and holiness. He is also well aware that public policy prescriptions aiming at the common good of human society will be errant if built on a false anthropology of man and a flawed moral-theological framework.

Contradictory statements on economic matters

A snapshot of Francis’ commentary, including some of very recent date, illustrates just how difficult it is to “frame” him economically.

On December 18, during his remarks to 13 new ambassadors to the Holy See, Francis expressed his joy that the US and Cuba announced plans to renew diplomatic ties and normalize trade relations following a 54-year embargo in effect since the Eisenhower administration. “Today we are happy,” Francis said, “because we have seen how two peoples who were distanced for so many years took a step toward each other yesterday.”

The Holy Father was pleased with the news. After all, he was personally involved in the process. That said, could it be Francis’ silent hope that free trade and more openness between one of the world’s foremost market economies and the evil of communism foster a greater taste for political and economic freedom in Cuba? It’s hard to say, because Francis has not said so; he did not fill in the blanks, as we may have liked him to.

What is fairly certain is that Francis is happy that his encouragement to “encounter” one’s enemies was, at least ostensibly, followed by President Obama and the leader of one of the world’s most oppressive regimes. 

That said, there’s little question that this pope is very hard to read. Take, as another example, Francis’ economic views expressed on November 20, when he spoke at the Second International Conference on Nutrition Day at the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome. Francis spoke with concern about widespread malnutrition and called for recognition of the right of access to food.

He did not speak in Malthusian terms, claiming the planet’s resources are too scarce to feed everyone. Rather he voiced his dismay that, while we now enjoy unprecedented levels of agricultural production, we live in a “paradox of plenty” in which people’s needs are not met optimally. In his view, this is because of a culture of consumer excess and a lack of solidarity: “There is food for everyone, but not everyone can eat, while waste, excessive consumption, and the use of food for other purposes is visible before our very eyes.”

While acknowledging the merits of increased agricultural production in innovative industrialized nations, Francis also appears to fault an impersonal market for widespread hunger: “[It is] painful to see that the struggle against…malnutrition is hindered by ‘market priorities,’ the ‘primacy of profit,’ which have reduced foodstuffs to a commodity like any other, subject to speculation, also of a financial nature.”

Is the Holy Father calling for the UN to promote state-to-state transfers of agricultural surplus, or for a ratcheting-up of government welfare assistance in order resolve what he apparently believes the market cannot do on its own? 

In his second magisterial document, Evangelii Gaudium, Francis acknowledges the “noble vocation” of the entrepreneur. As he said in his message to the World Economic Forum in Davos last January, when praising enterprise for improving education, communications, and health care: “We must recognize the fundamental role that modern business activity has had in bringing about these changes, by stimulating and developing the immense resources of human intelligence.” At the same time, however, Francis insists that “the successes [of the market] which have been achieved, even if they have reduced poverty for a great number of people, often have led to a widespread social exclusion.”

Just when we learn that Francis cautions against robust markets as potentially leading to social exclusion (even if it is not quite clear what he precisely means by “social exclusion”), he exhorts Europe’s leaders—as he did at the Council of Europe on November 25—to rediscover a culture of vitality, openness, and innovation amid an extended crisis of economics as well as personal and political unity. Francis says: “To Europe we can put the question: Where is your vigor? Where is that idealism which inspired and ennobled your history? Where is your spirit of curiosity and enterprise?”

Finally, when speaking to members of the International Federation of Christian Voluntary Workers in anticipation of the December 5 International Volunteer Day, Francis encouraged leaders to be steadfast “witnesses of charity, peacemakers, artisans of justice and solidarity,” but also to remember that the poor and vulnerable they serve “cannot become an opportunity for gain” but should be treated as dignified subjects, capable of autonomous lives. 

Priority of conversion, virtue

There are many more instances of Francis’ prose and preaching that, if not read within a broader context of Catholic social teaching and a concern for pastoral matters, might tempt Vatican-watchers and pundits to pigeonhole the Pope as either right or left, economically speaking.

We can reasonably rule out that the Holy Father represents any particular economic school of thought—especially on either extreme of the socio-political spectrum.

“Francis, obviously, is anything but a Marxist,” said Dr. Oskari Juurikkala in Rome on December 4, upon receiving the Novak Award for excellence in economic and theological scholarship. His comments came while delivering an acceptance speech entitled “A Free-Market Appreciation of Pope Francis.”

“I am not so convinced that the Pope really is so ‘leftist’ at all, and I think he deserves at least an attempt of appropriation by the friends of economic freedom,” he said. According to Juurikkala, “It cannot be denied that his posture on some economic questions has tended to upset those that, in European terminology, are called economic liberals.” Many of those who advocate free markets, the Finnish academic said, “have expressed that the Pope fails to appreciate the benefits of the market economy.”

Professor Robert G. Kennedy, chair of the Department of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, responded to Juurikkala’s lecture on Francis and the free market.

Kennedy said that Juurikkala “wisely situates Pope Francis within the larger Catholic social tradition and acknowledges his debt to that tradition,” but that “this tradition is not synonymous with the economic views of secular thinkers on the left or the right.”

Kennedy explains that Francis’ emphasis is on the critical importance of “personal conversion and the development of authentic individual virtue for the healthy functioning of a market economy.”

Francis’ competence is found in his moral message, a teaching of solidarity that will inform the way in which we think about economics. “Of course, he views them not as isolated technical questions, but as something that also touches upon a Christian pastor of souls,” said Juurikkala.

Father Alejandro Crosthwaite, OP, dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Rome’s Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, agrees: “Pope Francis should not be pegged either as a conservative or a liberal. But we must also remember that Catholic social teaching itself is neither capitalist or socialist, nor a third way between Western individualism and Marxist communitarianism.”

Father Crosthwaite said Catholic social teaching is something altogether different in nature. “It is a set of principles for reflection, criteria for evaluating, and guidelines for action in search of the common good,” he said. “Catholic social teaching does not provide technical solutions to today’s problems, but a vision of the human person…that has as its goal the humanization of the world of economics, politics, culture, and society.”

He says that Pope Francis, when addressing economic matters together with moral issues, is simply “reflecting the nature of Catholic social teaching, nothing more and nothing less.”

Christian virtues gone mad

Juurikkala echoed G.K. Chesterton toward the conclusion of his lecture: “the modern world is full of old Christian virtues gone mad.”

“In some sense this is true of liberal economics, too,” Juurikkala said, explaining that free market economics can lose its way if not grounded in a Judeo-Christian vision of man. 

Therefore, Juurikkala argued in concurrence with other contemporary thinkers that Francis’ contribution to economic thinking is not a “technical” one but “a vision of anthropology, [of] morality and spirituality that also has tangible economic consequences.”

Dr. Samuel Gregg, the Acton Institute’s research director and author of Economic Thinking for the Theologically Minded and Becoming Europe, said many Catholic free market thinkers, like Juurikkala, support Francis’ pastoral efforts to ensure that the poor are not forgotten in a globalized economy. However, he said, “they also wish that the Pope’s comments about strictly economic matters were more carefully worded and better informed by economic evidence.”

That said, according to Gregg, Catholic advocates of the market economy want to ensure that it “remains a place in which human flourishing occurs: an economy in which people can be the protagonists of their own development while simultaneously taking care of those in need, without encouraging either consumerism or the dependency that, alas, seems to be part and parcel of the welfare state.”

In brief, as Father Crosthwaite reminds us in the light of Catholic social teaching:  “It is not only the case of [advancing] ‘personal’ or ‘individual’ virtue in the world of economics, politics, culture, and society; but we’re talking also of a true ‘social’ virtue that fights against the ‘structures of sin’ and builds ‘structures of solidarity.’”

A pope familiar with immense challenges

It may well be that the Pope is focused upon reminding Catholics and people of good will that we cannot forget the basic Christian principles which should inform our individual decisions in the mostly-prudential realm of the economy. To this extent, the Pope is not interested in validating the right or left on any specific policy, but rather reminding us of more transcendent principles.

While there is some truth to this, Juurikkala explained that Francis nevertheless shows sincere interest in practical proposals for poverty alleviation. He is “not totally naïve about the challenges involved.”

Juurikkala said the this can be found in paragraph 204 of Evangelii Gaudium, where Francis wrote: “Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires [many individual] decisions, programs, mechanisms, and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.”

In his analysis of the rule of law, Christian solidarity and the virtuous living that market economies depend on for long-term sustainability, Juurikkala remarked: “Economics is ultimately about man, and Francis does have deep and practical insights into how the human condition is enlightened by the Gospel of Christ. If those insights are true, they should also have a bearing on the way in which we think about economic questions and relationships.”

Not baptizing economics

Juurikkala concluded by saying that, while he offered a market-friendly hermeneutic, he did not argue that the Pope is actually “favorable” to free-market thinking. Yet he still believed that the Pope’s moral, theological, and anthropological convictions can be rendered compatible with sound free-market economics, especially in light of the fact that one does not need to be a libertarian to favor free markets.

Juurikkala stopped well short of saying that uniting Francis’ spirituality and teachings with free-market economics would be a way of “baptizing” such a system.

“It would be too much to say that combining Francis’ spirit with sound economics would be a way of baptizing economics,” he explained. “Economic science is not foreign to Christianity: it has been argued that scientific economic analysis was discovered by the theologians of Salamanca.”

What we do know and learn from Francis is that economics is not a value-neutral discipline. Moreover, market economies require a consistent moral, theological, and anthropological framework. In Juurikkala’s view, “it cannot be consistently defended by a moral relativist, because it depends on certain fundamental rights of individual persons and civil communities.”

Without such a Christian vision, the market economy and its actors are ultimately self-absorbed and self-destructive. The task, Juurikkala said, is to correctly discern and interpret Francis’ pastoral message in a way that is both deeper and more practical, while also putting to work our understanding of economic insights. Such economic reflection should be done mainly by lay people who, after all, have the primary responsibility and, in many instances, the professional competency to make prudential judgments in the realm of economics; furthermore, as the Pope himself insists, their prudence should also be informed by faith, morals, and spiritual maturity.

With Juurikkala, we might admit as much: “Francis’ message and language may sometimes seem to be in tension with ideas dear to free-market advocates, but instead of a contradiction, that can be a positive tension that helps to purify and enrich our economic thinking—just as sound economics is needed to complete the message of Francis.”

The result of this synthesis will not be free-market economics closer to the left or to the right. “It will be free-market economics closer to Christ—and thus even closer to true freedom, lasting freedom, attractive freedom.”

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About Michael Severance 12 Articles
Michael Severance is a former Vatican correspondent and currently manages operations for the Acton Institute’s academic outreach in Rome.