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The Business Francis Means: Understanding the Pope's Message on the Economy.

The Business Francis Means: Understanding the Pope's Message on the Economy

Martin Schlag

Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2017 (210 pages)

Deciphering Francis's message on the economy on any given occasion can be a challenge. The pope may be seeking more prophetic critique or pastoral outreach than offering policy advice or theological nuance. He has his own perspective, yet must communicate through a maze of external audiences who themselves differ in experience or disagree on terms. Remarks made off the cuff or in private become instant sound bites, and material lifted selectively from official documents goes straight to the blogs. In The Business Francis Means, Monsignor Martin Schlag clears away many of these confusions to elucidate the main themes Francis offers. In this, Schlag is an excellent guide. Director of the John A. Ryan Institute at the University of St. Thomas, he has held professorships in Catholic social thought at IESE Business School in Barcelona and Santa Croce University in Rome, where he cofounded and directed the Markets, Culture and Ethics research center, and served as consultant to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

Schlag observes that both John Paul II and Benedict XVI saw themselves as implementing Vatican II, clarifying doctrine and applying it to the modern world. With much settled, Francis shifted to evangelization: how to reach people and converse with them. That requires meeting people where they are immediately, and worrying about clarifications later. The desire to be pastoral, place evangelization first, and accept some vagueness in the moment, can cause a rough ride for a church emphasizing theological clarity and nuance, but Francis says he prefers a church bumped and bruised in efforts to get the word out, to one that is uninjured because it never tried.

That sacrifice of clarity for evangelization applies to much of the way he talks about the social teachings. He wants to connect with people and move them to do as much as they can in love of God and others. That involves translating between people and across cultural barriers. To get at what Francis wants to convey, Schlag first explores his formative influences, particularly the renewal of the Jesuits after 1965 to emphasize justice and inclusion of the poor, and how Francis's Latin American background shapes both his perception of the economy and the ways he speaks about it.

The Jesuit renewal took place under Fr. Pedro Arrupe, with whom Francis shares many qualities. Devout priests with a strong missionary drive, both were deeply affected by "triggering events." For the future pope, it was his service with the poor. For Arrupe. this was celebrating Mass in Hiroshima when the nuclear bomb exploded. He survived the blast, and began providing spiritual and medical care in the city (he was also a physician). Not surprisingly, when Arrupe became head of the Jesuits, he redirected the order to focus on peace, international relations, justice, and the poor.

The new goals overlapped with Cold War battles over economic systems, decolonization, and development. In Latin America that involved both the reality of external and internal economic exploitation, as well as the extreme demands for justice from liberation theology with its heavily Marxist views of capitalism as inherently exploitative, and views of economic liberation coming dangerously close to replacing salvation.

Francis has never been either a Marxist or a proponent of liberation theology. This is particularly clear from his work drafting the final report of the bishops' conference at Aparecida in 2007, which emphasized evangelization, though addressing the real conditions of the poor. Moreover, by then, communism had fallen and its own massive oppression and failure to help the poor had become known. At home, the Church had opted for the poor, but the poor had opted for the Pentecostal and Evangelical churches, often growing spiritually and improving economically as a result.

While Francis shares liberation theologians' deep love of the poor and desire to eliminate oppression, he rejects their economic extremes and theological views. He names his approach a "theology of the people." This opens a rich perspective of "the people" as both the masses/everyone, and of particular groups (e.g., the poor), and broader questions of human community and identity, in which human community requires charity, and cultural identity implies a sense of deeper cultural purpose and inclusiveness. Moreover, this allows the Church to avoid the kind of reductive social science that is blind to the importance of faith in the study of, and contribution to, the world. It is this complexity of a Christian anthropology--with love of God and a love of the poor among all people, and hostility to injustice, laziness, indifference, and consumerism--that infuses Francis's approach, not simply ideological, non-theistic, Marxist social justice.

His background in Argentina matters both for his own views and how he expresses them. Many Latin Americans see capitalism as inherently exploitative, often having experienced the exploitation and corruption directly. Francis recognizes that the free market is beneficial, but that it often has been corrupted by self-serving business people and politicians at the expense of the masses. While some nations benefited from inclusive economic institutions and capitalist systems, others experienced extractive economies in which laissez-faire approaches did not produce broad gains in well-being. Schlag suggests that since numerous terms--liberalism, capitalism, profit, individualism, free market, competition, and the like--involve these differences in experience or opinion, often it is better to qualify the terms (e.g., "fair competition" versus "unbridled competition") to avoid miscommunication. This background helps clarify Francis's exact position as he threads his way through that minefield of differing opinion, experience, and terminology.

Schlag offers seven basic themes Francis has emphasized across his writings on economics. First, faith cannot be simply personal; it must also involve a desire to improve the world. Second, money and wealth are useful but should never become our goals or rulers. He criticizes some contemporary trends in finance in which gain of some against others, rather than true benefit, has come to dominate. Similarly, we must reject consumerism. This is a double warning against the love of consumption and against money accumulated simply for acquisition. He repeatedly castigates corruption as a sin for the injustices it causes and for the corrosion of honesty and effort that go with it.

Francis has also been clear that unjust inequality--inequity, not merely inequality--is the source of much social evil. This is neither a Marxist assumption that every social and individual evil flows only from economic structures, nor a claim that any inequality is bad, nor a denial of human sinfulness. It is a forceful statement that much inequality can be driven by injustice, and that inequality often has consequences.

The economy must include the poor, allowing them to participate in markets, productivity, and creation of wealth. Francis does not want simply welfare or common ownership, but to ensure that the poor are included in the market. We must not be lax in watching out for and seeking to improve the lives of the poor. Human well-being is our goal, not any economic system. We must not be satisfied with simply creating a system to which we naively entrust the care of the poor without vigilance regarding their true condition.

Finally, a recurring theme has been that pure markets alone are not enough. There is some role for government, and markets require moral and cultural frameworks to work well. To that, Benedict and Francis have added relationship. In a reflection of the Trinity, we are made for relationship with others. Since there is no exchange without other people, the economy ought not be seen solely as a place for exchange, but also as a place for relationships with others. Francis directly ties this to the Trinity, "Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity" (143).

Schlag concludes on the centrality of poverty, especially chosen poverty, to Francis's thinking, "we reaffirm the centrality of poverty for grasping the pope's message on the economy and business. Chosen poverty, understood as inner detachment from material possessions and love for the poor, is the key to overcoming our crisis of materialism [i.e., consumerism] and maintaining the spiritual health of the West" (148).

For my part, I would have liked to have seen something on a few major ideas the pope has not addressed so extensively. For starters, the worldview of metaphysical materialism, not merely consumerism or even the economic system, is the ultimate source of many challenges today: in ideas, cultural trends, social theory, policy, and failure to engage the world. Materialist reductionism blinds us to the role of human action, ideas, and institutions--and particularly civil society--in building people and passing on ideas. In the past century that produced an overemphasis on economic factors for individual and social outcomes at the expense of supporting civil society. The more economic factors matter, the less religion, or even being with people, matters. While prophetic critique has a role, carried too far it crowds out time we should devote to exploring how civil society, and our faith, can themselves be important for social outcomes, and it contributes to the reductionism that implies religion and relationship are unimportant.

Overall, however, the book is about the pope's message, not Schlag's or mine. While Schlag often, but judiciously, adds his own wisdom for insight, or suggestions for phraseology, I believe he has faithfully captured and translated the pope's ideas.

--John Larrivee (e-mail:

Mount St. Mary's University. Emmitsburg, Maryland
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Author:Larrivee, John
Publication:Journal of Markets & Morality
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2019
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