Pope Francis’ ‘Economic Examination of Conscience’

The Holy Father on faith and the marketplace.

(photo: CNA/Stephen Driscoll)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has castigated the idolatry of money that plagues many societies today and called for solidarity with the poor and financial reform along ethical lines.

Speaking May 16 on receiving the credentials of the new ambassadors to the Holy See of Kyrgyzstan, Antigua and Barbuda, Luxembourg and Botswana, the Pope called for an examination of today’s society’s relationship with money.

Humanity, he said, is facing “something of a turning point.” He praised achievements in health, education and communications, but noted that most people in the world today face insecurity and, with it, “dire consequences.”

“Fear and desperation grip the hearts of many people, even in the so-called rich countries,” the Holy Father said. “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.”

The Pope, who as archbishop of Buenos Aires lived through Argentina’s economic collapse in the early 2000s, said that, in his opinion, one cause of this malaise is “our relationship with money and our acceptance of its power over ourselves and our society.”

The origins of today’s financial crisis, he reminded the diplomats, is “a profound human crisis — in the denial of the primacy of human beings.”

Man has created new idols, he continued, adding that “the worship of 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 said the worldwide financial crisis highlights this distortion and a “gravely deficient human perspective” that reduces man to his needs and a “throwaway culture” of consumption. Solidarity, especially with the poor, is then considered “counterproductive,” he said, and observed that the income of a minority is rising exponentially while that of the majority is crumbling.


‘A Rejection of Ethics’

This imbalance, the Pope argued, results from ideologies which “uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation,” denying the right of control to states whose duty is to provide for the common good.” He said a “new, invisible and at times virtual tyranny” is established, imposing its own laws and rules.

“Moreover,” Francis added, “indebtedness and credit distance countries from their real economy and citizens from their real buying power.” He also highlighted “widespread corruption and selfish fiscal evasion” that have spread worldwide.

“The will to power and of possession has become limitless,” he said.

Behind this attitude, the Pope said, “is a rejection of ethics, a rejection of God,” because “ethics, like solidarity, is a nuisance.”

Ethics and solidarity are seen as a threat because they reject manipulation and the subjection of people, he observed.

But he stressed that ethics create a balanced social order that is more humane, and he quoted St. John Chrysostom in his homily on Lazarus: “Not to share one’s goods with the poor is to rob them and to deprive them of life. It is not our goods that we possess, but theirs.“

He called on government leaders to enact financial reform along ethical lines so that everyone would benefit, and he encouraged them to face this challenge with “determination and farsightedness.”

“Money has to serve, not to rule!” the Pope said, adding that “the Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike,” but that he has a duty, in Christ’s name, to “remind the rich to help the poor, to respect them, to promote them.”

“The Pope,” he said, “appeals for disinterested solidarity and for a return to person-centered ethics in the world of finance and economics.”

The common good, he concluded, should not be “simply an extra,” but that those in power should be “truly at the service of the common good of their peoples.”


Economic Examination of Conscience

Kishore Jayabalan, Rome director of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, said the Pope’s concerns “are important ones and worthy of our attention” but not policy prescriptions.

Rather, they are a “type of economic examination of conscience.”

“If we look at money as wealth itself, we can very easily place it above everything else,” he said. “But if we look at money as a representation of wealth, as a measure by which we can judge whether we are using our resources well, it need not be an idol, but a useful instrument. The same goes for finance and the allocation of capital needed for new ventures and progress.”

Jayabalan said that alternatives to money — a barter or subsistence economy — “tend to provide even less liberty and security for the poor.” And he said it is “also worth remembering that the market economy views human beings not only as consumers, but also producers, without whom there would be much less to consume and enjoy.”

The financial crisis, he said, is as much a problem of “collusion between politicians, bankers and insurers” as it is of unregulated greed.

“The Pope’s home country of Argentina is a good example of what happens when the rich and powerful make all the decisions — corruption, less competition, a shrinking middle class and no opportunities for the poor, which are the exact opposite of what proponents of the market economy had in mind.“

John Tabor, deputy director of Good Works, a U.K. Church initiative uniting professionals and entrepreneurs to serve the common good, read the Pope’s words as a need for “balance” between personal faith and market success.

“The one does not exclude the other,” he said. “The marketplace can and does derive a fuller sense of perspective from engaging with value systems such as Catholic social teaching, which sees the dignity of the individual as well as the common good as not only desirable but achievable.”

And he tied the Pope’s address to an earlier homily he gave this week, in which he warned Christians not to isolate themselves from a sense of community and a sense of the Church, but, rather, to make his or her life a gift.

“Genuine economic and market success can be found in conjunction with living out Christian values and not in isolation,” Tabor said. “A rediscovery of order, stability and balance, grounded in an understanding and awareness of ourselves and those around us, can and does lead to a happier, more fulfilled and indeed productive society.”

“Everything is gift,” Tabor said, “and it is in that giving that the potential of each can be realized for the common good.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.