Cardinal Pell: The Free Market Is Here to Stay

Cardinal George Pell speaks at the Voice of the Family’s Rome Life Forum, Many 9, 2015. Credit: Bohumil Petrik/CNA.
Cardinal George Pell speaks at the Voice of the Family’s Rome Life Forum, Many 9, 2015. Credit: Bohumil Petrik/CNA. (photo: CNA)

Cardinal George Pell has told religious and business leaders in Rome that the free market is “here to stay” and “no better” economic model is currently available.

Addressing delegates at a conference on Sunday hosted by The Global Foundation, a sustainable development group, the prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy said market economies must be “evaluated and improved”, but have the “capacity to rejuvenate” after such calamities as the Great Depression and the recent global financial crisis.

“They are not producing the massive alienation that Marx predicted,” he said. “We might have too much sugar in our society, such as consumerism, but we are not being poisoned by deserts of salt.”

The Australian cardinal, who has long supported ethical capitalism, said he likes “to quote Maggie Thatcher who pointed out that if the Good Samaritan had been without capital he could not have paid for the care of the man who was beaten and robbed on the road to Jericho.”

But he also didn’t shy away from the deep problems facing the world economy such as “immense” debts and income disparities, high levels of youth unemployment, and the scourge of human trafficking (he used the occasion to announce the Vatican would be committing itself to “slavery-proofing” its own supply chains).

The cardinal, who stressed his comments were his own but spoken within the Catholic tradition and from an Australian perspective, noted that “we no longer make a distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor” — that is, those responsible for their predicament. But he said it “might be useful to introduce a category distinction between the deserving and undeserving rich,” and cited vast income disparities between some CEOs and their workforce.  

Regarding Pope Francis, who has been criticized for not extolling the free market enough, Cardinal Pell said the Pope’s commitment to social justice is indisputable, but what is “not so widely known” is that the Holy Father ”has made specific and favorable reference to the role of business.”

He pointed out the Pope said in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si that business is a “noble vocation” and during his trip to the United States last September said “the spirit of enterprise” is essential to a “modern, inclusive and sustainable” economy.

Cardinal Pell also highlighted the Church’s often unsung, yet vital, contribution to economics, underlining her constant call that “business should serve society and society needs the Transcendent”. He recalled that Benedictine monasteries were the “first capitalist enterprises in the West”, that Franciscans laid down the “theoretical foundations for banking”, and that medieval and early-modern theologians were crucial in allowing money to become “more than simply a means of exchange” and instead a “major source of fuel for economic growth.”

Looking ahead, Cardinal Pell said it was important to encourage young people to be “effective entrepreneurs”, and supported the “empowerment” and education of women not only so they can contribute to the economy, but so they can fulfill “their roles as wives and mothers of tomorrow’s generations and as primary educators.”

He also stressed the “vital role” of families in building healthy societies and the “beauty” of lasting marriages. “When human capital declines, social fragmentation with its economic consequences can only increase,” he said. “The future belongs to those with children.”

He closed by suggesting clarification of “basic ethical principles” in the economy, and called on societies to “find purpose, trust and hope” to inspire people to be “good, industrious and honest.”

Responding to the cardinal’s speech, Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, said it is “refreshing to hear such clarity of thought from someone so close to the Holy Father” which helps to “clear away so much confusion in many circles on the Church and the free economy.”

Noting that the cardinal pointed out some “obvious things” about the market economy, Acton’s research director, Sam Gregg, said: “There is no better way of getting people out of poverty. The real issue is the ethical and cultural context. Obviously the market is not perfect. But the good that it does is often underestimated by some Catholics."

Among those attending the conference were the IMF's managing director, Christine Lagarde, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and the Vatican's Secretary for Relations With States, Archbishop Paul Gallagher.

Full text of Cardinal Pell’s speech