The Pope as Economist

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The Pope as Economist

Cornucopia_(PSF)The press continues its love affair with Pope Francis.  While I think there is more continuity between his predecessors and Francis than the press and many non-Catholics believe, there is no doubt that his personal style and emphasis on the Catholic social justice tradition has captured the attention of the world in good ways for the Church and especially good ways for the Benedictine Catholicism we embrace at Saint John’s.  (A St. Thomas grad recently told me he thought Pope Francis had “a Benedictine sensibility.”)

A New York Times article* examines a recently released papal document, called “Evangelii Gaudium” (the Joy of the Gospel).  The teachings cover a range of issues, but economics and social justice are at the heart of Pope Francis’ concerns.

The Pope’s prescription for the church is inextricably tied up with his analysis of what is wrong with the world. He devotes many pages to denouncing the “dictatorship” of a global economic system and a free market that perpetuates inequality and “devours” what is fragile, including human beings and the environment.

“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” he wrote, in the folksy language that has already marked his as a memorable papacy.

Popes have long been interested in economics, the global system and social justice, from Rerum Novarum issued by Leo XIII in the 19th century to  Gaudium et Spes; from Vatican II through Laborem Exercens and Centesimus Annus, both written by John Paul II on the 90th and 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum.  These teachings exhibit a consistent call to protect the poor and the rights of workers and to address the “excesses” (a word used by Pope Benedict) of the capitalist system.  Pope Francis very much shares these concerns and is linked to this history.

But there is another consistency in these teachings that Francis maintains.  The way to achieve economic social justice is to call upon the faithful and others who care about the poor and dispossessed to be more generous and charitable, for individuals to accept their responsibility for their brothers and sisters, completely in keeping with Matthew 25:31-46—“what you did for the least of my brothers…”  To an economist, this exhortation raises two challenges:

  • First, how realistic is it to expect the typical self-interested human being with their own needs, concerns and fallibility to take up the charge?  Would that we were all as humble and self-effacing as Pope Francis.
  • Second, and far more important, even if we were all as selfless as Pope Francis, it would still not be enough to make a significant dent in the suffering of the world.  With over 1.2 billion people currently living on less than $1.25 a day, the usual definition of extreme poverty, the world needs something to supplement personal charity.

Fortunately we have help at hand.  It is the very market-based, capitalist global economic system that Popes have consistently criticized.  It is a system that certainly has many flaws and has generated inequality, but it is also the most powerful engine for reducing poverty that the world has ever known.

According to the World Bank, 21 percent of people in the developing world lived at or below $1.25 a day in 2010. That’s down from 43 percent in 1990 and 52 percent in 1981.  That totals about 700 million people lifted from extreme poverty in a generation.

This is the result of the embrace of markets and international trade by less developed countries around the world, especially China, and the demand from richer countries for the goods they produce ( think happy Black Friday!).

So on this Thanksgiving it is absolutely appropriate, especially for those of us living in the richest country in the history world, to reflect on our many blessings and take up the challenge that Pope Francis and his predecessors offer, to address the real needs of the least of our brothers and sisters.  But, with all due respect to the exciting new Pope, I would also encourage us to remember the words of that great moral philosopher Adam Smith:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

While we can hope for charity and generosity in others and cultivate it in ourselves, we should not ignore the power of markets and self-interest to make the world a more just place.

Happy Thanksgiving from Collegeville.

*The NYT article in question also quotes Saint John’s alum John Thavis ’73.

By |November 27th, 2013|Categories: Economics, Uncategorized|1 Comment

About the Author:

Michael Hemesath
Michael Hemesath is the 13th president of Saint John's University. A 1981 SJU graduate, Hemesath is the first layperson appointed to a full presidential term at SJU. You can find him on Twitter [at] PrezHemesath.

One Comment

  1. Alan Christenson December 4, 2013 at 8:18 pm - Reply

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for the wonderful blog! I was recently introduced to it by a fellow SJU alumnus. It’s good to read your thoughts on a number of issues, especially those directly related to CSB and SJU.

    I just started reading your blog yesterday and feel the need to comment on your words regarding Pope Francis’ recent comments on economic justice. I was a little bit surprised to read from you the same statement I often hear when listening to Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levine, specifically “[capitalism] it is also the most powerful engine for reducing poverty that the world has ever known.” It is a statement often recited by conservative radio talk show hosts, and while true, it is also true that unfettered free market capitalism has also been the most powerful engine for upward transfer of wealth the world has ever known.

    While the decline in “extreme poverty” worldwide is commendable, I wonder why you didn’t share the other statistic about world poverty also shared in that same World Bank Poverty Overview. I quote from the same source: “Progress has been slower at higher poverty lines. In all, 2.4 billion people lived on less than US $2 a day in 2010, the average poverty line in developing countries and another common measurement of deep deprivation. That is a modest decline from 2.59 billion in 1981.”

    These two numbers mean that while overall poverty numbers have been reduced since 1981, more than 3.4 billion people around the world still live in a state of poverty that most of us in the United States would consider crushing.

    All that aside, from the standpoint of a Catholic who is very impressed by Pope Francis’ expansion of the Church’s message on social issues, I don’t believe Pope Francis is challenging us with just with moving people from “extreme poverty” into “poverty”. I have to believe that he is challenging all Catholics, and non-Catholics for that matter, to consider more closely what is “right” in their (my) dealings with others rather than simply what is right for them (me). I must acknowledge that when I am in a position to do well I can also do more good, but how I get to the position of doing “well” is something that should be of concern to me as a Catholic and a person.

    Bringing this back to the idea of free market capitalism, at its best, it is definitely an engine for reducing poverty, but at its worst (where it seems to be most of the time) it is much more focused on maximizing profits at the top while reducing costs (read: wages) at the bottom.

    Given your background I am well aware that I am sticking my head in the lion’s mouth with this (extensive) comment, but most of the SJU Alumni that will be reading this blog don’t have PhDs in Economics.

    Thank you for all of the wonderful work you’re doing at SJU, and I hope to have the opportunity to meet you again sometime in the future.

    Alan Christenson

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