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The Challenge to Catholic Social Thought Posed by Pope Francis: His Strong Moral Messages to Business.

THE CATHOLIC INTELLECTUA L TRADITION is broader than the Catholic social tradition because the latter strives to enact the social dimension and implications of the gospel, whereas the Catholic intellectual tradition consists in an ongoing conversation between faith and reason in all fields of life. (1) Certainly, on a practical level, every Christian intellectual also has to be social-minded in the sense of finding the means to live out charity in a real and tangible way. There is thus no true Catholic intellectual tradition if separated from the corresponding social tradition. (2) However, it is just as true that every good deed originates in good ideas: orthopraxis requires orthodoxy and vice versa. (3) The Catholic social tradition thus needs the Catholic intellectual tradition in general, and Catholic social thought and Catholic social teaching in particular as theoretical foundations. (4)

Catholic social thought should make visible that Christian Revelation and the Church's magisterium are compatible with personal, intelligent, serious--and thus attractive--reasoning that is capable of participating in contemporary political, cultural, and social discourses. In this endeavor a Catholic intellectual must not strive to create a segregated and parallel "Christian" world, into which he or she can withdraw from the evils of this world. Such a refuge would be an illusory castle in the clouds made out of dreams, or worse, a ghetto. A Catholic intellectual interested and engaged in the service of society seeks a dialogue between faith and reason that renders the Christian version of natural social ethics plausible in the really existing world, especially for his or her contemporaries who perhaps are not believers. Many of our fellow citizens have no access to the sources of Christian wisdom--the self-communication of God in his Word--and could rediscover them through an attractive explanation of the consequences of charity for practical application in everyday life. (5)

Both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have contributed to this aim, in different ways and styles.

Even though he manifestly is no professor of economics, Pope Francis is making an important cultural impact on the world, and also on that of business. He has frequently addressed G7 and other summits, as well as the World Economic Forum through envoys and messages. In them he has praised business as a noble vocation, while simultaneously scourging exclusion, inequity, and other negative aspects of our present economic system. His main stress is on the common good, and in particular the creation of jobs and employment.

In his economic messages, generally speaking, he has been hailed as a supporter of the left. Conservatives are disappointed, even though they may love and appreciate his person and gestures of mercy and compassion. At the very least, they find his teachings difficult, and many turn away, especially from those concerning business and the economy. Francis has spoken of building not walls but bridges as part of what it is to be Christian, but aspects of his message seem to be constructing only a wall between the Holy Father and groups of the faithful.

In this article, I hope to break through this wall, showing that the pope's writings contain moral messages that are important for the role of business in society in particular, and for Catholic social thought in general. (6) The pope raises his voice as a prophet in order to denounce injustice and the suffering of the poor. When pointing at an evil he does not offer an exhaustive analysis but wishes to provoke public awareness, debate, and action. I will analyze his message by making three general considerations that characterize Francis's social teachings as a whole and three special challenges for business. The three general considerations explain the novelty of Francis's contributions to Catholic social teaching, and also some of its provocative nature. I would like to interpret him from his own spiritual and cultural experiences and traditions.

1. Francis the Jesuit--The Social Dimension of Faith

As a young Jesuit Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio was shaped by the renewal of the Society of Jesus under its General Fr. Pedro Arrupe. One of the capstones of this renewal was the intrinsic connection between faith and love to the poor. Especially the Fourth Decree of the 32nd General Congregation formulated his convictions: "The mission of the Society of Jesus today is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement. For reconciliation with God demands the reconciliation of people with one another." (7)

This renewal split the Jesuits, some of whom even chose the path of violence. (8) Bergoglio opposed this extremism and endorsed the "theology of the people," developed by theologians like Lucio Gera, Juan Carlos Scannone, and others. (9) This method grants an important role to the "holy faithful people of God" (el pueblo santo fiel de Dios), in which the poor take a prominent position, even though it excludes no one who contributes to the common good of all. Different from mainstream liberation theology, it always kept clear of Marxism and understands itself as closely linked to the traditional social teaching of the Church. Its focus is on evangelization, and it gives an important practical role to the preferential option for the poor as enactment of Christian charity without adopting the hermeneutical implications of the option for the poor typical of liberation theology. Such a firm commitment to the poor is not new in the Catholic tradition of Anglo-Saxon countries. Bishops such as Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, who was an important contributor to the first social encyclical Rerum Novarum, continuously struggled to keep the Church on the side "of the poor people," and of workers and laborers especially. (10)

Charity (love of neighbor) and love of God are intrinsically and inseparably linked. However, both have their specific manifestations, and one must not absorb the other. Love of God is shown in the liturgy, in fidelity to the doctrine of the Faith, and in prayer and personal piety. However, all this would be false "salvific individualism" if we were to separate it from love to those in need. On the other hand, love of neighbor is not enough to love God, the gospel's paramount commandment: charity is a necessary but not sufficient condition for our love of God. (11) These theological distinctions are not theoretical alone, as we notice by their sociological repercussions in our own time. Despite the appeals to unity among Catholics, political division tends to continue into the Church, splitting the faithful into "conservative" and "social justice" Catholics. Such a division is a curse for intellectual discourse based on an error that Catholic social thought must avoid. They are dichotomies that emerge as the consequence of false absolutizations on both sides.

As regards business, Francis's recipe against poverty is more on the lines of the "social market economy" or the "social economy" of European tradition than the mixed capitalist economy in the United States. (12) Nevertheless, he has a lot to say to the United States as well. He advocates for the inclusion of the poor into the market economy, not for government handouts. (13) He demands subjective poverty of all (a personal choice of renunciation and inner detachment) by calling the opulent societies to moderation, temperance, and sharing. This is obviously not new in Catholicism, but Francis has added a special spin: in order to be poor in the sense of the Christian virtue of inner detachment, we need to touch the miserable. (14)

Business plays an important role in this: "Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good." (15)

Francis thus identifies the common good mainly with the creation of jobs. Some of his specific policies to achieve this aim ("small is beautiful," "slow down growth," "beware of technology," etc.), are economically debatable. I think the best way for the Church to help create employment is to spread the ideal of virtuous and principled entrepreneurship as opposed to rent seeking. This is an approach that the pope personally shares (he is actually promoting the canonization of an Argentine businessman who "was rich but holy"). However, I think the more the hierarchy and priests refrain from giving specific technical solutions the better, since such pronouncements tend toward sacralizing and dogmatizing, or at least bestowing an authority to solutions that are contingent and left to the responsibility of the laity. It is interesting to note that this was precisely one of Paul VI's concerns about the Fourth Decree of the 32nd Jesuit General Congregation: leaving beyond all doubt that evangelization and promotion of justice were intimately linked, Paul admonished the Society of Jesus, in words that are of universal application, that the importance of earthly affairs was not to be overrated. The whole gospel in its entirety was to be proclaimed. The Society of Jesus was especially affected by this judgment: its aim is principally spiritual and supernatural. Every other aim is secondary in comparison with it. As a religious and not a secular institute, the task of the Jesuits is to counsel and advise but not to replace the laity in the promotion of justice. This is true for all priests and members of religious orders. It is the duty of the lay faithful to be active in politics and the shaping of society. (16) This sense of freedom and responsibility for the lay faithful recommends the wisdom of opting for the poor without opting for a specific economic system or model, while operating in and endorsing the framework of the U.S. economy. (17)

The widespread and correct perception that Francis is not an enthusiastic supporter of capitalism, I think, has to do with his Latin American background.

2. Francis the South American: The Latin American Context

The same words mean diverse things in different cultural contexts. This is particularly true for political and economic terms. Capitalism in Argentina, for instance, has been experienced as crony capitalism, not as truly free markets; liberalism and free markets as free reign to robber barons who plunder the nation's wealth. It is no wonder then that these expressions carry negative connotations. Cultural transfer by means of written texts is only possible through adaptive or explicative transformation. Literal translation is not enough. Thus, in order to understand the pope correctly and to grasp his powerful call to conversion, we need to transfer his words culturally. Of course, this goes both ways: we may expect the same effort on the pope's side to understand us. He seems to lack the experience of positive inclusive institutions as they exist (or have existed) in the United States and in the developed democratic societies of the West. His is a prophet's voice that denounces injustice. Just as a patient who screams with pain might not get his own diagnosis right, although the pain is authentic, a prophet must leave the remedy to the problems he identifies to the specialists. The pope's moral message of inclusion of the poor, struggle against unjust inequality and rent seeking, just treatment of employees, and so on should make us reflect. We must do everything to maintain inclusive institutions, and avoid extractive ones.

The decisive difference between a positive and a negative experience with capitalism and liberalism seems to be whether a society is structured by inclusive or extractive institutions. Following the terminology of Acemoglu and Robinson, inclusive institutions guarantee property rights, create incentives, encourage human initiative, and unleash creativity. Fair and free competition plays an important role in this process: it lowers interest rates, and channels profits not towards elites but in a diffused way throughout society, thus redistributing wealth in a noncoercive way. This broad distribution of rights, in consequence, grants equal and easy access to finance and loans. (18) Such inclusive economic institutions create an inclusive market that comes close to a level playing field with equal opportunities. Inclusive economic institutions pave the way for technology and education. Diffused education and technological progress, fired by invention and patent rights, presuppose inclusive institutions. Without them a society stagnates, and cannot afford widespread education. However, before there can be inclusive economic institutions there must be inclusive political ones. Political institutions are inclusive when, on the one hand, they centralize power sufficiently to enforce law, and on the other hand limit power effectively through the rule of law and a system of checks and balances in which no one power can dominate the others. If one of these elements is missing, political institutions become extractive, and, in consequence, the economic institutions become extractive too. Extractive economic institutions "are designed to extract incomes and wealth from one subset of society to benefit a different subset." (19) They hinder the creation of wealth and its spread throughout society, reserving it for an elite that lives off the rest of the population. (20) Many people in Latin America have experienced extractive institutions in which political power and economic wealth are tied together in a zero-sum game. There is no growth; what little income there is, is siphoned off to the cronies.

3. Francis and the New Hermeneutics

After the Second Vatican Council, John Paul II and Benedict XVI were confronted with major doctrinal difficulties and a need for reorientation in teaching. It is not unusual in Church history to find a situation of confusion and polarization after major decisions and landmark dogmatic definitions of the councils. Suffice it to mention the Christological struggles after the First Council of Nicaea or the rift in Christianity after the Council of Trent. The "naval battle in the darkness of the storm," which the Church of the fourth century evoked in the mind of St. Basil is the same image that characterizes Benedict's analysis of the situation of the Catholic church after Vatican II. (21) The loss of priestly and religious vocations, hair-raising liturgical experiments, and ambiguities and falsities taught from Catholic university chairs and pulpits certainly required doctrinal and disciplinary clarifications. This, among other achievements, was the ecclesial mission of John Paul and of Benedict. As a result of their common effort the Church now has the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the 1983 Code of Canon Law, and the analogous codification of canons for the Oriental Churches. The papal encyclicals, the frequent trips and numerous speeches of John Paul, as well as the teaching and the liturgical impulses of Benedict, have blazed the trail of the Church after Vatican II with such clarity that it is really plainly visible to anyone who is prepared to look. Both John Paul and Benedict applied what the latter has defined as the "hermeneutics of reform." It means "renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church" and implies the "combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels." (22) It means continuity in the perennial principles of faith and Catholic morality, and discontinuity in their application when required by the historical circumstances. Thus the "hermeneutics of reform" is neither hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture (which accepts no connection with pre-existing realities) nor hermeneutics of continuity (which denies historical discontinuity of any kind) but a combination of both. Such a hermeneutics of reform is frequently needed in the case of the Church's social teaching. Economic, political, cultural, and social circumstances change quickly, and the Church has difficulty keeping pace with the proclamation of the criteria and directives of action that result from the application of its principles to this kaleidoscopic reality. The Pastoral Constitution of the Second Vatican Council Gaudium et Spes explained the necessary approach, according to which some formulations of the social teaching of the Church are of a transitory nature. Therefore, "interpreters must bear in mind... the changeable circumstances which the subject matter, by its very nature, involves." (23)

After the clarifying work of John Paul and Benedict, Francis seems to have more of a pastoral concern than a doctrinal or teaching concern. Of course, there will always be the need for doctrinal clarity and vigilance: pastoral activity is impossible without leading souls to truth. However, Francis is not so much concerned with doctrinal questions but has returned to the original intention of Vatican II and its pastoral approach, which was willed by Pope St. John XXIII and summarized by Blessed Pope Paul VI during its concluding session in the following way: "The old story of the Samaritan has been the model of the spirituality of the council. A feeling of boundless sympathy has permeated the whole of it." In a "deliberately optimistic" stance, the council, so Paul VI said, had proposed "our own new type of humanism": a Christian humanism that honors and serves humanity without divorcing man from God. To the contrary, "a knowledge of God is a prerequisite for a knowledge of man as he really is, in all his fullness." This is the council's anthropological turn: "our humanism becomes Christianity, our Christianity becomes centered on God; in such sort that we may say, to put it differently: a knowledge of man is a prerequisite for a knowledge of God." (24)

Francis also frequently refers to Christian humanism in his statements. (25)

We can say that Francis uses a "pastoral hermeneutics" or a "hermeneutics of evangelization." (26) In other words, after the confusion and the polarizations of the postconciliar period, Francis seems to say that we can now finally get to work on what Vatican II was actually all about. It is not so much about doctrinal and dogmatic decisions but about going out to bring the faith to the men and women of our time. A pope is free to choose his own style and his own priorities, his own hermeneutics. Nowhere is it decreed that encyclicals must always be of a doctrinal or pedagogical character. Therefore, we as interpreters of his texts must adapt to this change. We would get his teaching wrong if we understood them as academic texts or teaching material. Francis wants to move hearts, not to make theories. In his social encyclical on ecology Laudato Si', for instance, Francis repeats one of his favorite sentences: "realities are more important than ideas," (27) and in Evangelii Gaudium he expresses his fear that the document might be used for academic discussions rather than as a stimulus for action. (28)

I sum up the specific messages of Pope Francis to business in another three points. They illustrate that Francis on many points is traditional in the sense that he gives standard formulations a new spin and luster. It is typical of a living tradition that teachings develop in changing historical circumstances. Such a development is a sign that the teachings are true and living ideas.


One of the strong moral messages of Francis to Western economies is his attack on consumerism. This certainly is an important message of Christianity and of all recent popes. Francis, however, centers his appeals against materialism around consumerism, the illness of an empty soul, that brings "desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience." (29) Francis defines consumerism as the "self-centered culture of instant gratification": (30) it takes the waiting out of wanting according to the slogan "Put it on, not off!" Consumerism is not the same as consumption. The pope is not at all opposed to economic growth and consumption as such. Actually, his vision of an "ecology of daily life" portrays the dreams of so many people of a dignified life in a middle-class society. (31) Consumerism, however, takes consumption beyond its reasonable and moral limits by buying new things just out of the urge of acquisitiveness, replacing gadgets, machines, and other items that still serve their purposes well only for the kick of possessing something new. Consumerism reduces investment, thrift, and savings, thus undermining the basis of a good capitalist economy. It is an evil that certainly stimulates production in the short run but soaks up resources through waste and weakens moral stamina and resilience in our society. In contrast, "Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little." (32)

It is worth recalling the old adage falsely attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville but nevertheless wise:
I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious
harbors and her ample rivers--and it was not there... in her fertile
fields and boundless forests and it was not there... in her rich
mines and her vast world commerce--and it was not there... in her
democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution--and it was not
there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her
pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her
genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America
ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great. (33)

Consumerism is especially harmful to moral goodness when it reduces sexuality to mere pleasure to be consumed on a whim, without heeding family ties and procreation. This destroys the family built on the stable foundation of fertile matrimony between man and woman, and thus the basic unit of cohesion in society. When applied to human life and human relationships, consumerism turns the other into an object to be used and enjoyed for as long as it suits one's fancy, and then discarded. Francis has expressed this conviction in the context of the right to life, combining his economic concerns with the inviolability of the human person. He often repeats his warning against a "throw-away" culture:
We know that human life is sacred and inviolable. Every civil right
rests on the recognition of the first and fundamental right, that of
life, which is not subordinate to any condition, be it quantitative,
economic or, least of all, ideological. "Just as the commandment 'Thou
shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of
human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy
of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills... Human beings are
themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We
have created a 'throw away' culture which is now spreading." And in
this way life, too, ends up being thrown away. (34)


In order to be truly free the market needs a legal framework, ethical norms and virtues, and a culture that promotes human dignity. Only an ethical market deserves to bear the name "free market" because true freedom requires an aim and sense for its reasonable exercise. A person in a desert without knowledge of where to go in order to find the next oasis is free in the sense of being unconstrained. However, one would hardly call wandering lost in the desert real freedom. Only when the path is clear, are we free to walk on it or not. Ethics is not an optional addition to business for those who have a weak conscience, like a sauce one can pour over the roast or not according to one's taste; it is an integral part of the economy. Among the virtues and norms that build up our markets, justice and charity are those virtues that refer to others and are therefore foremost among the others. Justice and charity transform mere power and force into good authority that empowers others and enables transformative leadership. They preserve peace and harmony in our societies. The motives of our decisions must go beyond mere utility and pleasure. The business of business is not just business, only just business is business. Francis puts it in these words: "It is the duty of all men and women to build peace following the example of Jesus Christ, through these two paths: promoting and exercising justice with truth and love; everyone contributing, according to his means, to integral human development following the logic of solidarity." (35)

The mission of the Church and of Catholic social teaching is not the imposition of some foreign doctrine on others or on society as a whole. It is not Catholic indoctrination of people of other religions or moral traditions. In a long and sometimes painful process, the universal Church has learned, also from the American tradition of religious liberty, that she cannot impose her teaching with the help of government and legal coercion but can freely propose her message of faith and meaning in society. Her mission can be compared to a lighthouse on the shore or to a control tower at an airport. In themselves some of these buildings can be quite attractive, especially when a lighthouse is perched on a cliff or braves the onslaught of the waves, covered with the froth of the ocean. In nice weather, we can admire them for their beauty or simply ignore them as any other building. However, when it gets dark and the sea is stormy, the lighthouse shows us the way into the harbor and saves our lives. It helps us exercise our freedom for our own good. Only a madman would accuse the control tower or the lighthouse of limiting his freedom.

Catholic social teaching is an appeal to see how our actions affect others--especially the poor and marginalized, to judge with principles that bring to business the full integral development for which it is responsible, and to act with a renewed energy to bring forth God's equity and justice in the concrete place of business. Political, social, and economic injustice, wherever it appears, calls Christians to action, to compassion, and solidarity. This is especially true for Christians with the privileges and responsibilities of leadership. Businesses should produce goods that are truly good, services that truly serve, and produce wealth that truly creates value. These three goods show that businesses are multidimensional realities. They should not be reduced to a single objective such as the maximization of profit. Rather, these three goods of business need to be ordered in such a way that they are shared in common with multiple stakeholders. It is precisely in this ordering that business can participate in the common good. (36)

Francis has given this traditional teaching of the Church an additional color and a new spin in his encyclical on ecology through the concept of "integral ecology." (37) It is an understanding of the way we should protect the environment and exercise our stewardship over the natural resources of creation that integrates the different aspects of life in society, aware of the fact that all aspects and fields of action are interrelated. Francis calls for an "economic ecology" (38) and a "social ecology," (39) implying that "every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective." (40) The pope envisages a win-win situation in which ecology and society are not considered as costs but as investments and opportunities for sustainable business in the long run. The source of an "integral ecology" is the commitment of all to the common good. In this field too it is important not to think in exclusive dichotomies but to discover alternatives to our usual practices. There is always a solution. In India, for instance, some years ago hungry elephants were marauding the fields of the poor farmers. In order to protect their crops the villagers resorted to killing the elephants until they discovered a simple remedy: a thread drenched in chili around the fields was enough to chase the elephants away. The smell of chili seems to be so unbearable to these giants of creation that they come nowhere near it. (41) In a similar way, we can find modes in which business, the just demands of persons and families, and ecology are not seen as opposed and mutually exclusive but cooperate and blend toward a holistically good system.


A pure market does not work. A pure market is not the same thing as a free market. The free market is not simply the most effective way in which the economy organizes itself, but the form of organization most in keeping with human dignity. Only in freedom can individuals develop their creative potential and express their preferences of consumption and occupation; only in freedom can people associate in businesses they themselves found and own. Only a free market is an ethical market. But the reverse is also true: only an ethical market is a free market. The free market is not just an economic fact but a cultural achievement. In order to be free a market needs a legal framework, virtues, and a culture of creativity, work, and enterprise. Ethics is an integral part of the economy that structures it from within. Without a shared core of moral values there is no real trust, and without trust society lacks what is most important for a functioning economy: social capital. (42) Trust is a prerequisite for economic exchange, for credit, payment on term, and any form of cooperation. To establish trust within a society it is not enough for its members to be able to foresee the behavior of others. Foreseeing that I will be cheated grants me reliable knowledge of the future, and I adapt to this knowledge, but it does not create trust. It makes me cautious, withdrawn and careful. In order to mutually trust each other, both sides must keep their promises, and fulfill their duties, in a word, be morally reliable. Widespread trust is a result of a longstanding record of such loyal behavior. The government also plays an important role in the creation of trust. The enforcement of just laws and the protection of private property and individual freedoms ensure the fulfillment of contracts and the redress for tort, thus stimulating exchange. Besides, in all major developed countries of the world, the state offers a social safety net to protect people who cannot work due to illness, age, or involuntary unemployment. With such a safety net, if it is well designed, more people dare to move freely in the heights of life and enterprise, without--maintaining the metaphor--fear of falling in case of an accident. However, it is not at all easy to find the right balance between providing a safety net and creating a social system that discourages individual effort. In Europe, and also in the United States, with the best of intentions, we have created "handout" systems that induce "learned helplessness" and steal the joy of deserved personal success. (43)

Francis is against such a solution, as has been stated above. So why does he lash out against "pure markets," and what are they? What makes Francis furious is when people are treated as mere soulless objects that can be sacrificed callously to the idol of profit by a large anonymous mechanism. He expresses this in words that might not get it completely right economically but nevertheless convey a forceful and just moral message: "As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world's problems or, for that matter, to any problems." (44) We have too often absolutized the market, to which God appears as an "unmanageable" threat, (45) and the poor and the environment become nothing more than a nuisance to the "interests of a deified market." (46) Francis's solution is that by serving the poor we will be set free from this idolatry. Certainly this is nothing new in the tradition of Catholic social thought. The new spin that Francis adds to the discussion on markets, I think, is his accent on relationality. With this expression, we refer to the notion that the human person is essentially not only an individual substance but is also constituted by his or her being in relation to others. Relation, in the Aristotelian categories, is an accidental, that is, something that is nonessential and only exists in something else, like color or size. However, when applied to the human person, relation is much more than this, because we are created in the image of the triune God. We are also persons because we exist in relationship to others. Sociability and relation not only do not diminish our personhood, because sharing with others and accommodating to their needs do not merely negatively limit our own wishes for expansion and personal growth, but also constitute our being human. Being human means being part of a mesh of human relations. This notion serves to rethink the way we conceive society. (47) In the light of the Christian faith, Vatican II formulated this idea in its pastoral constitution:
Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, "that all may be
one... as we are one" opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He
implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons,
and the unity of God's sons in truth and charity. This likeness
reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed
for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of
himself. (48)

Benedict elaborated further: "The Trinity is absolute unity insofar as the three divine Persons are pure relationality... . In particular, in the light of the revealed mystery of the Trinity, we understand that true openness does not mean loss of individual identity but profound interpenetration.... The Christian revelation of the unity of the human race presupposes a metaphysical interpretation of the 'humanum' in which relationality is an essential element." (49)

Finally, Francis frequently repeats the idea that "everything is related." (50) He underscores our relationship to one other, to God, and to the whole of creation, in which we are constituted as persons, and his vision culminates in a trinitarian reading of the universe:
The divine Persons are subsistent relations, and the world, created
according to the divine model, is a web of relationships. Creatures
tend towards God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to
tend towards other things, so that throughout the universe we can find
any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships. This
leads us not only to marvel at the manifold connections existing among
creatures, but also to discover a key to our own fulfillment. The
human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the
extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from
themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all
creatures. In this way, they make their own that Trinitarian dynamism
which God imprinted in them when they were created. Everything is
interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that
global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity. (51)

The danger in such a vision is that it is too grandiose and thus becomes vague and unpractical, something that Francis fears. Applied to the economy, however, the idea of relationality has many concrete consequences. This is not the place to analyze this question in detail because Pope Francis does not do so either. (52) However, his predecessor Benedict had made suggestions along these same lines, which can help to understand what we are talking about. Francis explicitly refers to the foregoing teaching and builds on it. (53) Benedict framed business exchange as a space of human relationship, and not only of material transactions. If there is a climate of mutual trust, the market is the "economic institution that permits encounter between persons, inasmuch as they are economic subjects." (54) The economy, in such a vision, is not simply a mechanism of the homo oeconomicus, following the harsh logic of profit maximization at all costs. In fact, it is not a mechanical apparatus at all. It is a network of human relation ships, which is certainly governed by self-interest rightly understood, impartiality in seeking the economic advantage of the owners of the company, and justice in contracts. These governing principles are necessary but not sufficient, for a truly humane economy is always open to and enhanced by the human dimension of business, which includes the possibility of generating honest friendship of benevolence amid business dealings that are predominated by utilitarian friendship: usually, business friendships last as long as there is a mutual monetary advantage in the relationship. As soon as the advantage ceases, the utilitarian friendship ends with it. Business people who are open to relationships will be capable of true friendship over and beyond their own material advantage. Relationality enriches business with a human sense of fraternity that Benedict called "gratuitousness," "logic of gift," and "reciprocity." (55) He formulated his message as a challenge, not as a detailed directive for action, because the concepts are intellectually challenging: their implications for business are not immediately obvious; quite to the contrary, they seem impossible. However, gratuitousness and gift do not imply giving things away for free. That really would not be possible in business. Making a gift is not identical to giving a present. The "logic of gift" and "gratuitousness" express that the human person has no price but dignity, and must therefore be at the center of all economic activity as its foundation and aim. Our business relationships can be of very different character: exploitative, domineering, unjust, inimical, and so on; or, to the contrary, empowering, helpful, just, friendly, and the like. The way we enter into the market is a consequence of a choice we make in our interior: Who do we want to be? What kind of person am I choosing to become through my business activities? If we decide to respect others in their dignity, even to love them as brothers and sisters, then we have made the gift Benedict is talking about: we have gratuitously decided to renounce power of dominion of others and instead to serve them. This implies a long-term, sustainable vision of business, and rejects short-term greed without considering the human costs. It also affects the way we conceive competition.

Francis regrets that "today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless." (56) Thus, following his predecessor in this, Francis proposes a new approach to competition as an essential element of the free economy. Fair competition always and everywhere lowers prices and thus makes goods and services available to the poor. It also stimulates creativity, the drive to be faster than the competitors in offering new and better products. Initially, when a product is introduced, its price may be high because the inventor retains his or her patent and has a monopoly position, but as soon as competitors enter the market, prices decrease and the product is made widely available. What at the outset was a luxury only the rich could afford, such as cars, refrigerators, cell phones, and so on, ends up being the normal standard of life for the vast majority, thanks to competition. These goods now define Western culture in its technological dimension. Competition is certainly tough because an ineffective business will fail; another will take its place in the market. It is hard for the entrepreneur and the investor to lose money and have spent efforts in vain; however, even St. Bernardino of Siena (d. 1444) said that in the interest of the common good inefficient businesses must be allowed to fail, in order to ensure the best use of resources. (57)

On the other hand, competition has limits. There are two ways to succeed over someone else: either really being the best, or cheating and ruining the competitor's reputation. Cheating hurts the consumer; denigrating others is destructive and unfair competition. The social teaching of the Church calls for a form of competition that is constructive of the common good, not destructive. It is up to each individual entrepreneur and manager to find ways of engaging in fair competition, but the government also has an important task of surveillance in order to enforce the rules of fair play.

Besides, even in competition one should not forget that we are all brothers and sisters. Fraternity (we could also call it social charity, solidarity, or love) is the social principle that spreads a constructive competitive environment rather than a destructive one. In the Bible there are two pairs of brothers that exemplify the two forms of competition in a paradigmatic way. In both cases, the brothers were competitors: Jacob and Esau, and Cain and Abel. In the first case, Jacob wins the competition for the birthright: it is he and not his brother who receives the blessing of his father. Certainly, Esau is unworthy of it, selling it to him for a plate of lentils. Nevertheless, Jacob achieves his father's blessing cunningly, using all available means, but he does not kill his brother. Jacob lets Esau live, gives him great gifts and good pasture. In the other case, in contrast, one of the competitors, Cain, fails to live up to fraternity, and kills his brother Abel. That is an example of destructive, fratricidal competition. In business one can push others out of the market honestly by offering better products and services, but one should never forget that the other is also a brother or sister, not a thing or a commodity.

Without trying to return to organizational forms of the past or sharing the nostalgic attitude of distributism and other romantic movements of social reform, the guilds and fraternities of the past might also contain a useful lesson for today. (58) The craftsmen of the same genre of production (tailors, carpenters, blacksmiths, and so on) united in a brotherhood. They remained competitors, but in the case of illness or death or other such circumstances they helped one another and their families. Thankfully, in the Western world many similar institutions have been created in modernity, oftentimes unknowingly applying the social wisdom of Christian fraternity.

G. K. Chesterton famously wrote that what was wrong in the world was that we did not ask what was right. He applied the insight to the organization of the economy, and consequently wished to rebuild the system from its end, the human person. (59) I think these words summarize Francis's moral challenge to business well, and it is not coincidence that many of his speeches have a distributist flavor. In any case, placing the human person at the center of economic dealings is of such universal appeal that it will not fail to produce a stimulating effect on Catholic social thought, and promote the conversation between human reason and the Christian faith that is alive through works of charity.


(1.) See the excellent reflections by Francis George, A Godly Humanism: Clarifying the Hope That Lies Within (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2015) , 13-17.

(2.) This was one the core messages of Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, especially in its second part.

(3.) See Clemens Sedmak, A Church of the Poor: Pope Francis and the Transformation of Orthodoxy (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2016).

(4.) For these distinctions see Johan Verstraeten, "Re-thinking Catholic Social Thought as Tradition" in Catholic Social Thought: Twilight or Renaissance?, ed. J. S. Boswell, F. P. McHugh, and J. Verstraeten (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2000), 59-77.

(5.) See George, Godly Humanism, 76-100.

(6.) This article is a condensed extract from my book, The Business Francis Means: Understanding the Pope's Message on the Economy (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2017).

(7.) Decree 4 of the 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, December 2-March 7, 1975,

(8.) Even though it is sometimes too passionate and even biased, see for a critical appraisal of the Society of Jesus and Fr. Arrupe Ricardo de la Cierva, Jesuitas, Iglesia y Marxismo 1965-1985 : La teologia de la liberacion desenmascarada (Madrid: Plaza & Janes, 1986), 419-94. A more balanced vision is given by Urbano Valero, El proyecto de renovacion de la Compania de Jesus (1965-2007) (Bilbao--Santander: Mensajero--Sal Terrae, 2011).

(9.) See Juan Carlos Scannone, Quando il popolo diventa teologo: Protagonisti e percorsi della teologia del pueblo (Bologna: EMI, 2016); Juan Carlos Scannone, Teologia de la liberacion y doctrina social de la iglesia (Madrid: Cristiandad and Buenos Aires: Guadalupe, 1987); Virginia Raquel Azcuy and Carlos Galli and Marcelo Gonzalez (eds.), Escritos teologico-pastorales de Lucio Gera, vol. 1: Del preconcilio a la conferencia de puebla (1956-1981) (Buenos Aires: Agape Libros--Facultad de Teologia UCA, 2006); vol 2: De la conferencia de puebla a nuestros dias (1982-2007) (Buenos Aires: Agape Libros--Facultad de Teologia UCA, 2007). For his close links with Francis see also Alberto Methol Ferre and Alver Metalli, Il papa e il filosofo (Siena: Cantagalli, 2014).

(10.) As one of the members of the Catholic hierarchy who had prepared the ground for the first social encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891, Gibbons unwaveringly defended the rights of workers against exploitation and inhuman working conditions, and supported their petitions for just wages, insurance, and a reduction of daily working hours. At the same time he opposed attempts to nationalize industries like the railroads and the telegraph companies as public utilities in the hands of government. Public ownership of such companies would concentrate too much power in the hands of the government, and thus undermine the constitutional system of checks and balances. See for example John Tracy Ellis, The Life of James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, 1834-1921(Westminster: Christian Classics, 1987), 486-546.

(11.) This was the important theological debate between Karl Rahner, who postulated the identity of charity and love of God, and Hans Urs von Balthasar who upheld the priority of the categorical acts of love of God. See Karl Rahner, "Uber die Einheit von Nachsten- und Gottesliebe," in Samtliche Werke, vol. 12 (Freiburg--Basel--Wien: Herder, 2005), 76-91; Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cordula oder der Ernstfall (Einsiedeln--Trier: Johannes-Verlag, 1967).

(12.) See Francis's speech at the conferral of the Charlemagne Prize, May 6, 2016;

(13.) See Francis, apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 202.

(14.) "A theoretical poverty is no use to us. Poverty is learned by touching the flesh of the poor Christ, in the humble, in the poor, in the sick and in children" (Francis, Speech, August 5, 2013). We learn poverty "with the humble, the poor, the sick and all those who are on the existential outskirts of life" (Ibid.).

(15.) Francis, Encyclical Laudato Si', 129.

(16.) The text of the document is to be found in de la Cierva, Jesuitas, 461f.

(17.) See Dennis P. McCann, "Option for the Poor: Rethinking a Catholic Tradition," The Preferential Option for the Poor, ed. Richard John Neuhaus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 35-52.

(18.) See Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (New York: Crown Business, 2012), 7-36.

(19.) Ibid., 76.

(20.) Ibid., 76-82.

(21.) Benedict XVI quoted this passage from St. Basil in his Christmas address to the Roman Curia, Vatican City, December 22, 2005,

(22.) Ibid.

(23.) Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, Part 1, n. 1.

(24.) Pope Paul VI, "Address During the Last General Meeting of the Second Vatican Council."

(25.) See for example, Francis, Laudato Si', 141 and 181; and his "Meeting with the Participants in the Fifth Convention of the Italian Church," Florence, November 10, 2015,

(26.) See the interesting considerations in Mariano Delgado and Michael Sievernich, "Zur Rezeption und Interpretation des Konzils der Metaphern," in Die gro[beta]en Metaphern des Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils: Ihre Bedeutung fur heute, ed. Mariano Delgado and Michael Sievernich (Freiburg: Herder, 2013), 15-32, particularly 29-31.

(27.) Francis, Encyclical Laudato Si', 110, 201.

(28.) Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 201: "I fear that these words too may give rise to commentary or discussion with no real practical effect. That being said, I trust in the openness and readiness of all Christians, and I ask you to seek, as a community, creative ways of accepting this renewed call."

(29.) Francis, Evangelii Gaudium.

(30.) Francis, Laudato Si', 162.

(31.) Ibid., 147-54.

(32.) Ibid., 222.

(33.) For the tale of how this passage became attributed to Tocqueville, see John Pitney's article, "The Tocqueville Fraud,"

(34.) Francis, "Address to the Italian Pro-Life movement," Vatican City, April 11, 2014, The pope quotes his own Evangelii Gaudium, 53.

(35.) Francis, "Address to the Participants in a Conference Sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Pacem in Terris," Vatican City, October 3, 2013,

(36.) See Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, The Vocation of the Business Leader, 2012, 2-3; see also Francis, Letter to H. E. Mr. David Cameron, British Prime Minister, on the Occasion of the G8 Meeting, June 15, 2013,

(37.) See Francis, Laudato Si', 137-201.

(38.) Ibid., 141.

(39.) Ibid., 142.

(40.) Ibid., 93. 41 This story appeared in several news outlets, see for example Shib Shankar Chatterjee, "Thread Barrier and World's Hottest Chilli to Keep Asian Elephants At Bay," News Blaze, November 16, 2010,

(42.) See Francis Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 7-26.

(43.) See Arthur C. Brooks, The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise (New York: Basic Books, 2012), 30ff.

(44.) Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 202.

(45.) Ibid., 57.

(46.) Ibid., 56.

(47.) See Pierpaolo Donati, Teoria relazionale della societa: I concetti di base, (Milano: FrancoAngeli, 2009, 7th ed.); in English Relational Sociology. A New Paradigm for the Social Sciences (London: Routledge, 2011); by the same author, La matrice teologica della societa (Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino, 2010).

(48.) Gaudium et Spes, 24, quoting John 17:21-22.

(49.) Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 54ff.

(50.) See Francis, Laudato Si', 92, 120, 137, 138, 142.

(51.) Ibid., 240.

(52.) For this see Pierpaolo Donati, "Beyond the Market/State Binary Code: The Common Good as a Relational Good," in Free Markets and the Culture of Common Good, ed. Martin Schlag and Juan Andres Mercado (Heidelberg: Springer, 2012), 61-81; by the same author, "Azione morale, riflessivita e soggetto relazionale," Annales Theologici 26, no. 2 (2012): 275-304.

(53.) See Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 51.

(54.) Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 35.

(55.) Ibid., 36: "The great challenge before us... is to demonstrate, in thinking and behavior, not only that traditional principles of social ethics like transparency, honesty and responsibility cannot be ignored or attenuated, but also that in commercial relationships the principle of gratuitousness and the logic of gift as an expression of fraternity can and must find their place within normal economic activity."

(56.) Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 53.

(57.) See his "Sermo 43," in Quadragesimale de Evangelio aeterno, in S. Bernardini Senensis, Opera omnia, Quadragesimale de Evangelio aeterno, vol. IV (Quaracchi: Collegio S. Bonaventurae, 1956), 379, where he rejects loans with interest in order to save a pauper: it only increases the economic weight he has to bear.

(58.) See for instance Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State, 3rd ed. (London: Constable, 1927),


(59.) See Gilbert K. Chesterton, What's Wrong With the World (Leipzig: Tauchnitz, 1910) , 13 and 268-73.
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Author:Schlag, Martin
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
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Date:Jan 1, 2018
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