De Re Oeconomica Francisci
The pope says that because free-market economies are imperfect, people need to be good.


John O’Sullivan

What follows below is the official English-language translation of Pope Francis’s address last week to new non-resident ambassadors to the Holy See, interrupted several times by some comments from me. Only the first and final paragraphs of the address, offering formal greetings and promises of cooperation to the ambassadors, have been omitted. The pope’s words are in Roman (naturally) and my comments (except for these two introductory paragraphs) in Italics.

This address has been widely interpreted — not quite accurately, as we shall see — as a general attack on free-market capitalism. One brief introductory point about the nature of the address may be necessary. Like more formal social encyclicals, the pope’s remarks are a blend of moral principles and practical observations. As best I understand these matters, the pope’s statements on moral principles are binding on Catholics; his remarks on social, political, and economic practicalities should be prayerfully considered by Catholics, but they may disagree with them; and constructing policies that reflect the binding moral principles is a matter mainly for the laity. (Other Christians may prudently want to reflect on what the leader of the largest Christian denomination says on such matters, but they are under no obligation to do so.) All that said, here are the pope’s remarks:

Ladies and Gentlemen, our human family is presently experiencing something of a turning point in its own history, if we consider the advances made in various areas. We can only praise the positive achievements which contribute to the authentic welfare of mankind, in fields such as those of health, education and communications. At the same time, we must also acknowledge that the majority of the men and women of our time continue to live daily in situations of insecurity, with dire consequences. Certain pathologies are increasing, with their psychological consequences; fear and desperation grip the hearts of many people, even in the so-called rich countries; the joy of life is diminishing; indecency and violence are on the rise; poverty is becoming more and more evident. People have to struggle to live and, frequently, to live in an undignified way.

Almost everything in this paragraph is an obvious truth. One might object that insecurity is part of the human condition, but given the 2008 financial and euro crises and their aftermaths, the advance of jihadist terrorism after 9/11, and the apparent paralysis of many democratic governments, insecurity is probably more acute today than it was a few years ago and even than under the stability of the Cold War. Thus, fear and desperation grip people’s hearts, indecency and violence are on the rise, and poverty is becoming more evident. These are harsh realities. But there is a glaring omission in this pope’s list — namely, that billions of workers, especially in the Third World, have actually emerged from poverty and entered the world labor market in the last 30 years. They are far more prosperous than at any time in history. World poverty may be more evident because of the advance of communications, but it is also less extensive, and markedly so. This is an astounding and welcome development. And it arises mainly from the reduction of barriers to trade and capital investment known as globalization. This produced great social advances until the financial crisis of 2007–08. The recession since then has aggravated the evils the pope describes, but it has been largely confined to the West. Asia, Africa, Oceania, and even parts of the pope’s native Latin America, notably Brazil, emerged quite quickly from it. Thus, the balance sheet of evil and good as a result of a liberal world free market is more mixed than the pope’s list suggests.

One cause of this situation, in my opinion, is in our relationship with money, and our acceptance of its power over ourselves and our society. Consequently, the financial crisis which we are experiencing makes us forget that its ultimate origin is to be found in a profound human crisis. In the denial of the primacy of human beings! We have created new idols. The worship of the golden calf of old (see Exodus 32:15–34) 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.