New Pope must act in tradition of Catholic economic thought

As Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, now known as Francis, assumes leadership for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, we won't presume to tell him how to think on matters religious. But for the sake of world markets, we hope the new Pope will act in the best tradition of Catholic economic thought.

As Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, now known as Francis, assumes leadership for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, we won't presume to tell him how to think on matters religious. But for the sake of world markets, we hope the new Pope will act in the best tradition of Catholic economic thought.

Ideally, that means recognising the value of free markets and free economies, and realising that work and trade endow humans with not just wealth but also dignity and freedom. It also means understanding the dangers posed by excessive inequality, the outsize burdens that technological advances and environmental degradation will impose on the poor, and the responsibility of the rich to help the underprivileged navigate a turbulent economic transition.

Most important, as more and more economic activity is done by algorithms and robots, we hope the new Pope will be able to communicate the church's longstanding assertion that economics, to be moral, must be grounded in concern for the individual.

Since Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891, Catholic social teaching has focused on ways to impose moral order on economic activity and to mitigate the worst effects of unrestrained commerce.

Pope John Paul II's landmark Centesimus Annus in 1991 extended this concern with the individual into the "complex network of relationships" that make up modern economies.

Pope Benedict XVI's contribution, Caritas in Veritate, was cryptic in some respects, but he was quite clear that "every economic decision has a moral consequence" and that "the market is not, and must not become, the place where the strong subdue the weak".

Beyond his words, Benedict's actions as Pope were consistent with a moral economic framework (his grievous lapses elsewhere notwithstanding). He argued correctly that the roots of the financial crisis were human greed and malfeasance, not a flaw per se in the structure of capitalism. He also exuded a consistent concern that climate change - born of unbridled consumption by rich nations - will overwhelmingly affect the poor, and sought to turn Vatican City into the world's only carbon-neutral state.

Francis I will have to grapple with the same issues, and plenty more. The temptations of unrestrained capitalism will surely reawaken as the financial crisis ebbs. Environmental degradation will probably accelerate. And the poor will always be with us.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for a putative steward of moral economics in the next few decades, however, will be technology.

The coming revolution in robotics and automation could cause immense disruption for the world's workers, including wage stagnation, increased unemployment, growing inequality, and the painful alienation that comes with finding your job replaced by a machine.

Imposing an ethical framework on this new world will require the kind of flexible thinking that hasn't always come naturally to the Vatican. Serious work by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the moral implications of artificial intelligence, drones and other worrisome phenomena of the digital age would be an excellent start. Francis, we wish you luck.

Related Articles