Alessandro Garofalo / Reuters

Pope Francis’ radical economic vision

His new encyclical on climate change urges wholesale transformation of our capitalist system

June 24, 2015 2:00AM ET

Pope Francis’ new encyclical is making headlines mainly because of the tough line it takes on climate change, and its message to Catholics and others that they must embrace radical green solutions to society’s problems.

But the Pope’s ecological message is only part of his radical political agenda. Just as significant as his environmental message is a parallel progressive economic agenda that fundamentally rejects deregulated free-market capitalism. The Pope has a bracing message for Christians and other “people of good will”: that the time has come to move beyond right-wing economics, and to embrace a different kind of economic system.

Published on June 18, “Laudato Si’” is the third major communication of Francis’ reign, and the most significant development of his teaching thus far. It takes its name from the first line of a hymn by St Francis of Assisi, “Laudato Si’, mi’ Signore” (“Praise be to you, my Lord”), in which St. Francis praises God “through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us”. Subtitled “On Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis uses the encyclical to speak in bleak terms of society’s failures to protect the natural environment, and outlines a ‘human ecology’, in which he urges his readers to treat the tremendous gift of the Earth and the natural environment with much greater reverence and respect.

But the Pope argues that we cannot address the environmental crisis without a transformation of our economic system. He urges a deep reorientation of capitalist economies, offering three lines of critique of the dominant economic system under which we now live.

(1) Inequality

First, Francis attacks the belief “that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth.” Instead he says that there is a pressing need for “a better distribution of wealth,” which will not happen by means of free markets as “the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.” Here Francis builds on the idea, developed in Latin American liberation theology, of “the preferential option for the poor.” Nobody should be indifferent about distributive justice, Francis argues, but instead we should strive to put the interests of the least advantaged first.

(2) Dignity of labor

Second, Francis argues that work’s value transcends its productivity for the economy. Work, says Francis, is “the setting for … rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, giving glory to God.” Indeed, so important is work as a means for the development and expression of our human capacities, that any economic system that leaves people languishing without the chance for meaningful work has failed completely. Thus, Francis argues, quoting his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, “it is essential that ‘we continue to prioritise the goal of access to steady employment for everyone,’ no matter the limited interests of business and dubious economic reasoning.”

To claim eco­nomic freedom while real conditions bar many people from actual access to it is to practise a doublespeak which brings politics into disrepute.

Pope Francis

To put this simply, work may be instrumental for economic growth, but it is much more important in itself as a source of human well-being; hence, governments should ensure that employment levels are kept as high as possible, even if this does not suit “the limited interests of business.” Business exists for people, not people for business.

The same line of reasoning from the dignity of labour leads Francis to hold all workers must receive “a living wage” and adequate leisure time. Even if treating workers with this level of respect is bad for overall economic growth, social justice demands that people are put before profits.

(3) Productive diversity

Third, Francis does not shy away from the question of what the economy would have to look like if it were to promote the interests of the poor and to provide abundant opportunities for meaningful work. It would be an economy “which favours productive diversity and business creativity,” whereby large, bureaucratic corporations would be broken up in favour of an economy of small producers. Here, Francis sees a crucial role for the state in shaping the market: “Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differential production. To ensure economic freedom from which all can effectively benefit, restraints occasionally have to be imposed on those possessing greater resources and financial power.”

This is a call for a fundamental redistribution of wealth and power within the economy, but it is important to note that it is far from being the kind of “Communist” position that Francis’s cruder critics allege. In fact, Francis’s argument is that it is precisely because the exercise of economic freedom is so important for human development that the state has to ensure that this freedom can be enjoyed by all and not just by a plutocratic minority. Far from being a communist, Francis is an advocate of a form of reconfigured, egalitarian capitalism, where the real benefits of a market economy can be claimed by all citizens.

The price of economic freedom

Francis’s message is a stark one, and one which will trouble many, especially those living in the richest countries. His central claim can be put, simply, like this: you cannot in seriousness and good conscience be a Christian (or even “a person of good will”) while defending the kind of right-wing ‘free market’ economics that has held sway on both sides of the Atlantic for the past 35 years. The price of the right-wing idea of economic freedom, in its resulting inequality and indignity, is simply too high to bear.

“To claim eco­nomic freedom while real conditions bar many people from actual access to it, and while possi­bilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practise a doublespeak which brings politics into disrepute,” Pope Francis concludes. Those whom the pontiff calls disreputable might do well to consider the power and precision of his condemnation.

Martin O’Neill is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of York and a co-editor of “Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond” (paperback edition, Wiley-Blackwell, 2014). He is currently a research fellow at the Institute for New Economic Thinking, working on a project about the significance of inequality.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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