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The Last Word - March 2014

Pope Francis and the Economy

It has not yet been a year since the election of Pope Francis as our Holy Father.  Already, in this short time, we have heard a lot from him about justice, poverty and the economy.  Here are a few of the things he has said.   

"Money has to serve, not to rule.”  A major reason behind the increase in social and economic woes worldwide "is in our relationship with money and our acceptance of its power over ourselves and our society."  "We have created new idols" where the "golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.” 

The Holy Father really got the attention of the American press in his recent apostolic exhortation, Evangelii gaudium, when he criticized what has been called “unfettered capitalism.” He said that “trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth by a free market will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world” is an “opinion which has never been confirmed by the facts....Meanwhile the excluded are still waiting.”  At least one radio entertainer, who seems to think of himself as a serious political commentator, pegged the Holy Father’s thinking as “Marxist” in practice.  While such a charge is ludicrous, it does cause us to reflect on the fundamental economic principles of our Church.

The Church’s unanimous teaching regarding possessions is roughly this: 

  • The riches of creation are destined for the entire human race. 
  • The Church recognizes the right to private property.
  • But that right is not absolute.  It is a limited right.  And it does not abolish the universal destination of all goods. 
  • The market economy is a useful tool for achieving economic progress.  And it requires the accumulation of capital.  But profit cannot be the highest or even the sole goal of economic activity. 
  • Wealth must serve the common good and the advancement of all.  It is unjust when it fosters exploitation, exclusion and a widening gap between those who have and those who have not. 
  • It is the right and responsibility of the state to oversee and direct the exercise of human rights in the economic sector. 

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we find some of the boldest statements on this theme of economic justice for all.  St. John Chrysostom puts it most vigorously: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life.  The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”  To this, Pope St. Gregory the Great added: “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours.  More than performing works of charity, we are paying a debt of justice.” 

Pope Francis concludes his reflections on the economy in his apostolic exhortation as follows:

“A financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beings."

- Msgr. Michael Henchal