Published: September 25, 2015
In light of Pope Francis’ current visit to the United States, it is important to understand what he has been saying about the global economy, economics in general and what should be done about it.
Despite admitting to reporters that he has “a great allergy to economic things,” the Pope has shown that the theme of his papacy has a lot to do with the “dismal science.” He has quite a few opinions on how the economy should run and what is wrong with how it is being run today. Critics see his views as ultra-radical and dangerous to American capitalism. Pope Francis attacks trickle-down economic theories, like cutting taxes on the wealthy to stimulate economic growth. He has criticized western policies in a 2013 papal exhortation, saying that the West idolizes money and that it is almost tyrannic.
This week, proponents of big business fear the pope will preach about some kind of old-fashioned communism, while liberals fear he will forget to propose policies concerning climate change due to the hype of being in America.
Unfortunately, these knee-jerk reactions to some of Francis’ statements overshadow the subtle appreciation Francis has for the Western capitalist economy. The pope is concerned with how economic policies are being carried out. In 2014, he wrote to the head of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland that he feels, “The fundamental role that modern business activity has had in…stimulating and developing the immense resources of human intelligence” has been forgotten.
With his economic advisors, Francis has laid out ways to make free-market capitalism more compatible with social justice. For the most part, the Pope is calling for things that most Americans agree with. He is calling for the distribution of wealth based on merit instead of connections and privilege. In a 2012 Vatican document titled “Vocation of the Business Leader,” he clearly favors policies that benefit those less fortunate and says that the best businesses are those that “actively seek ways to serve genuine human needs within their competence and thus advance the common good.”
In order to solve the issues that concern the world today, like poverty, climate change and economic inequality, the pope feels that the world needs business and an economic system that are more democratic and cooperative. He thinks the best way for this to happen is from the bottom up. On a large scale, he has turned to grass-roots and social movements to activate change in the economy. On a smaller scale, Francis has described the strongest businesses as those that have an emphasis on collective ownership. Decisions making is not left to the power of a few at the top, but rather are made more democratically by the workers and the customers, the main beneficiaries of economic activity.
Co-op businesses are not new, and in his recent encyclical, “Laudato Si,” Francis recommends them because they are controlled by the people who depend on them most and are not completely focused on maximizing profit.
Many Americans have viewed this suggestion as socialist and see it as a threat to Western capitalism. Others disagree, like the priest-economist John Ryan, who wrote in his 1916 book “Distributive Justice” that, “Co-operation is a golden mean between individualism and socialism. It includes all the good features and excludes all the evil features of both.”
Junior Caitlin Gilby agrees with the pope and says, “There should be more of a concern by businesses in the welfare of society and that it should not only be concerned with the money side of business.” She also thinks that socialism is not the only means through which this can be done, like many Americans assume.
I am currently doing some research with Hong Nguyen, Ph.D., in the Economics Department on corporate social responsibility, and I have reviewed the many comments Francis has made concerning corporations’ obligation to society, and more generally, to the world. The pope’s re-imagination of the economy is very modern and is slowly becoming more accepted.
Nevertheless, it is an exciting time to have the pope visit the U.S.. The University is excited as well and is getting students in the spirit with large banners and card-board cutouts of his likeness. The Pope is likely to say some interesting things about the economy this week in Philadelphia.