Bruce Duncan.

Pope Francis at UN General Assembly 2015. Rick Bajornas UN. flickr cc.

Pope Francis has been relentless in his critique, indeed denunciation, of abuses in the international economy which are responsible for the Global Financial Crisis and its continuing unresolved consequences, especially growing inequality which he sees in Italy and much of Europe, destabilising governments and encouraging extreme nationalist movements.

He blames growing inequality and poverty in large part on major financial and transnational corporations and powerful special interests that cloak their policies in an ideology that free markets will operate most efficiently with minimal regulation, thus giving little weight to moral issues of distribution or social consequences.

Francis at times speaks very strongly, in harsh terms. Before he was elected Pope, Cardinal Bergoglio had supervised the writing of the final report of The Aparecida Document following the meeting of the bishops of Latin America in May 2007. It embodied the key concerns of Bergoglio about neoliberalism, the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, increasing inequality and marginalisation of the poor, and concern about global warming and the environment. Presciently it warned about the dangers in financial speculation, including in public bonds, currencies and derivatives.

It was no wonder that Pope Francis was able to quickly to issue The Joy of the Gospel in November 2013, since it expanded on the Aparecida Document with which he was so familiar. In Joy of the Gospel, he protests against “an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills”. “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.” (JG 53). “We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf… has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money” (JG 55).

In his full encyclical, Laudato Si’ in June 2015, Francis linked concern for the environment closely with the critique of “the ideology of the market”, though he does not use the word neoliberalism. He wrote that the financial crisis had exposed the corruption at the heart of the international financial system. (LS 56). He recognised that powerful special interests were making the rules in their own self-interest without considering the social impact and resulting inequality. (LS 109). He said the world could not solve its problems without “a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.” (LS 105).

Critics of Pope Francis

Some criticise Pope Francis for his outspoken views on economic policies, saying that economics is not his business, that he is mistaken in his economic critiques, and that he should refrain from entering political debates.

Francis replies that the Church does not claim to be an expert in the technical aspects of economics but insists that economics needs a moral compass to ensure it promotes the genuine wellbeing of all human beings and increasingly of the environment.

Moreover, Francis insists that feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty and caring for the sick are indeed the core business of the Church since, as St Matthew in his gospel stresses, God identifies intensely with all those in distress or trouble, and will judge us precisely on our response to the poor and homeless, not just those at our door in this age of instant communications, but people in dire need even far away.

World Bank. Jutta Benzenberg. flickr cc.

For this reason, Pope Francis is strongly committed to supporting the SDGs. He sees the 17 major Goals as a golden moment, marshaling the best efforts of the entire global community to further eradicate hunger and severe poverty, protect the environment, and improve wellbeing for everyone in health, education, employment, family life, cultural integrity and life opportunity.

Here he is following closely in the footsteps of Popes John Paul II and Benedict, who endorsed the UN Millennium Development Goals in many statements (2000-15). These MDGs were reformulated in 2015 as the Sustainable Development Goals and broadened to 17 goals, placing much more responsibility on developed countries to address global warming and its consequences, and develop more equitable and inclusive economic systems globally.

It is not widely known that Pope Francis worked closely with key architects of the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Jeffrey Sachs, who coordinated the design of the earlier Millennium Development Goals and in 2016 was appointed University Professor at Columbia; and Professor Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia, former senior vice-president and chief economist at the World Bank. It is no accident that after Pope Francis addressed the UN General Assembly on 25 September 2015, almost immediately the delegates from 193 countries went to vote for the 2030 Development Agenda of the SDGs.

Does Pope Francis know what he’s talking about?

Some critics, particularly associated with various right-wing US think tanks, have argued that Pope Francis has a distorted view of economics because of his experience of corruption in Argentina that caused that country to default on its sovereign debt in 2001 and fall into a deep economic crisis. Yes, Bergoglio with the other bishops condemned the corruption but more so the economic and financial systems that brought on the crisis, “the extreme liberalism wielded by a tyrannical market”, as well as the harsh policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund that caused further immense hardship.

Two things need to be said here. First, Francis is not speaking just out of the Argentine experience, but echoing the economic critiques of his predecessors, and giving them much higher global profile. Pope John Paul II said that Leo XIII’s 1891 rejection of “unbridled capitalism” in his social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, was still relevant. John Paul in his 1991 Centesimus Annus endorsed free markets, but insisted they be adequately regulated to ensure social justice and a fair distribution of wealth and resources (CA, 35).

John Paul was annoyed that right wing writers connected with massively funded think tanks in the USA gave a spin to Centesimus Annus, downplaying or ignoring notions of social and distributive justice to imply that the Pope was endorsing versions of US capitalism extolling in an unqualified way individual freedoms, free enterprise and private property. This confused many US Catholics and severely blunted the Church’s efforts to promote commitment to social justice and fairer economic policies.

Greatly disturbed by this misleading interpretation of his thinking, John Paul II sharpened his critique of neoliberal forms of capitalism. In Cuba in 1998 he attacked “a certain capitalist neoliberalism that subordinates the human person to blind market forces”. And in his 1999 letter, Ecclesia in America, he again attacked “neoliberalism for overemphasising the role of profit and the free market while unjustly oppressing the poor. In words later adopted by Pope Francis, John Paul in April 2003 warned against “the idolatry of the market” and the “civilisation of consumption”.

In his exhortation Pastores Gregis in October 2003 John Paul depicted growing inequality in exceptionally strong language as a “war of the powerful against the weak”.

“How can we keep silent when confronted by the enduring drama of hunger and extreme poverty, in an age when humanity, more than ever, has the capacity for a just sharing of resources? The war of the powerful against the weak has, more than ever before, created profound divisions between rich and poor.”

You can see that the papal critique of what we now call neoliberalism is of long standing and is not peculiar to Pope Francis.

Secondly – about the competence of the Pope’s views – Francis speaks on the advice of experts. Like his recent predecessors, Pope Francis is being advised by some of the world’s leading economists and scientists, in personal meetings and conferences, as well as via international institutions. Much of their input identifies the central problem as the economic ideology of neoliberalism, an ideology which in the view of Stiglitz serves to screen “thinly veiled special interests”.

UN Photo/ Marco Dormino, flickr cc.

As Stiglitz wrote in his 2015 book, The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and what we can do about them, the fundamental problem in neoliberalism was “a belief that markets are self-adjusting and that the role of government should be minimal”. He warned that “Trickle –down economics is a myth” and that neoliberalism was based on a naïve reading of economics that assumed perfect competition and markets. He lamented the increasing inequality: “the top 1 percent of the world now owned half the world’s wealth”, and in the USA, full time male workers on median wages earned less than in 1968, nearly 50 years earlier.

Stiglitz argued that the financial sector had “a long-established proclivity for exploitation…. Whether it’s in the form of market manipulation, insider trading, abusive credit card practices, monopolistic anticompetitive practices, discriminatory and predatory lending… the list is endless.” As our Royal Commission in Australia has been finding, Australia is not immune to such abuses. Stiglitz concluded: “We are not embracing a politics of envy if we reverse a politics of greed.”

Many other leading economists broadly support Stiglitz’s critique, Amartya Sen, Nouriel Roubini, Robert Shiller, Adair Turner, Robert Reich, Robert Skidelsky and Tomas Sedlacek to name some.

Others advising Pope Francis include the Vatican’s internal organisations like the diplomatic corps in the Secretariat of State and the staff of the Pontifical Commission Justice and Peace, now part of the expanded Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. The Vatican has also been advised by networks of eminent scholars around the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (some 40 members of which since 1960 have been Nobel laureates) and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, of which Joseph Stiglitz has been a member since 2003. They gather for regular conferences on key matters, and these consultations are usually published. Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo has been chancellor of both these bodies. A close associate of Pope Francis, Sorondo regards Stiglitz as his favourite economist.

Appeal to business & economists

Yet Francis repeatedly calls for dialogue between business and community groups to ensure outcomes are fair and sustainable. In the words of Laudato Si’, business is a “noble vocation”, producing goods and services that people need (LS, 129).

Even in the last few weeks, Francis addressed the members of the Centesimus Annus – Pro Pontifice Foundation on 26 May. He lamented that the current crisis in the global economic system was related “to a mentality of egoism and exclusion” that created a culture of waste blind and indifferent to the fate of the vulnerable. He encouraged the participants to persevere in efforts to build “a global culture of economic justice, equality and inclusion.”

In line with warming relations with the Orthodox world, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople gave a major address at the conference. He played a significant role in the preparation of Laudato Si’.

Susan Melkisethian, flickr

Pope Francis also approved a 10,000-word document jointly written by the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Oeconomicae et pecuniariae questiones. Released on 17 May, it reiterated the message of Laudato Si’, calling for an urgent dialogue between politics and economics in favour of human life and wellbeing. “Money must serve, not rule!” (#6). Directed to an economically literate audience, it went into more detail about damaging and unfair financial practices, and urged everyone as consumers to be “sentinels” by voting with their wallets to buy only products that are environmentally responsible and safe, and are free of exploitative labour practices.

After speaking to a conference in the Vatican on energy on 9 June, Francis met participants who included the top executives from BP, Exxon Mobil, Eni, Equinor and the investment firm, BlackRock, as well as the US Energy Secretary under President Obama.  Francis appealed for their professional expertise to avert “disastrous climate change” by promoting renewable energy, and to help eliminate poverty and hunger, as called for by the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

He said it was a mistake to think that “unlimited faith in markets and technology” could solve our social and ecological problems; “the demand for continuous economic growth has led to severe ecological and social consequences”. He appealed for business leadership to help address this “challenge of epochal proportions”.

As Bill McKibben commented in The Guardian, the Pope had “called the bluff” about the lack of urgent substantial action to curtail greenhouse gas emissions. He quoted Pope Francis that it was “worrying” that companies were continuing to “search for new fossil fuel reserves, whereas the Paris agreement clearly urged keeping most fossil fuels underground.”

Clearly this is a vital conversation since the business sector has the expertise and resources to help chart a new course for a more sustainable and inclusive global community.


Pope Francis has been determined to oppose and expose the ideology promoted by powerful special interest groups by his highlighting economic inequality as a moral crisis for these reasons:

  • First, the extent of poverty and gross inequality are undermining the human life and wellbeing of hundreds of millions of people, as well as undermining ecological sustainability.
  • Secondly, such dehumanising inequality is not the result of inevitable economic laws, but is allowed to continue in considerable part from decisions in the rich world that neglect opportunities like those indicated in the SDGs.
  • Thirdly, such grinding poverty and inequality are unnecessary. The world has the resources and expertise to lift everyone out of hunger and the worst forms of poverty, conceivably within our lifetime, if we have the will. The extent of poverty and hunger is considerably determined by political factors.

Pope Francis considers these overlapping problems of poverty and inequality, global warming and environmental sustainability as an unprecedented moral emergency as we face truly catastrophic threats to whole populations and our planet’s life support systems.  Never before has this call to all of us to protect the common good been so dramatic and immediate.

This is the text of an address at a conference, “Cardinal Bo. The First Five Years: A seminar celebrating Pope Francis’s pastoral vision of Mercy, Justice, Love & Care for the Earth”, Newman College Melbourne on 15 June 2018. Bruce Duncan CSsR lectures in history and social ethics at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne.




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