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Pope Francis has an unsettling message for corporate America

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist
Pope Francis has an unsettling message for corporate America

You have to wonder if John Boehner knew what he was getting into.

Boehner, the Republican House Speaker, is a lifelong Catholic who says he’s been trying for 20 years to get a pope to address Congress. He finally succeeded. On Sept. 24, Francis will be the first pontiff ever to speak before a joint session of Congress. He’ll speak in English rather than his native Spanish. And he’ll most likely say a lot of things objectionable to the Republicans who hold majorities in both branches of Congress, and to many champions of American-style capitalism.

Francis has decried western policies that have generated “a “new idolatry of money,” as he wrote in a lengthy papal “exhortation” in 2013. “The earnings of a minority are growing exponentially,” he wrote, producing “a new tyranny.” He also attacked “trickle-down theories” such as cutting taxes on the wealthy to stimulate growth, which many business leaders support. Such tax-cut plans are also favored by Jeb Bush, Donald Trump and other Republican presidential candidates.

Meanwhile, if you do a web search for “Pope Francis socialist,” you’ll find lots of nervous chatter about the pontiff endorsing a “noxious ideology” and fomenting “a revolt that will overthrow American capitalism.” Even the usually understated Economist magazine called the pope an “ultra-radical” who seems to be a devotee of Vladimir Lenin. If Francis were a U.S. presidential candidate, he’d be to the left of Bernie Sanders.

That’s the knee-jerk interpretation of a few of Francis’s more colorful passages, anyway. But closer scrutiny of Francis’s writings and statements reveals a subtle appreciation for capitalism mixed with criticism of the way its spoils have been deployed. “It’s a mistake to read his comments as left-right dialogue,” says Charles Clark, an economics and finance professor at St. John’s University. “It’s all about looking at business as being a vocation. He feels it’s a legitimate way of serving others and serving God.”

Amid his attention-getting criticism of capitalistic excess, for instance, Francis has called business a “noble profession” and acknowledged that the free market has generated tremendous wealth that can be used for good, if only the owners of wealth would see it that way. “We must recognize the fundamental role that modern business activity has had in … stimulating and developing the immense resources of human intelligence,” Francis wrote to the head of the World Economic Forum before its annual glitzfest in Switzerland in 2014.

Though Francis may seem like an outspoken reformer making a fresh case for socioeconomic justice, he’s actually drawing on many centuries of Catholic teaching. “The message in the Bible is that wealth comes from God, and we are called to develop it,” says Clark. “But always remember where that wealth comes from.”

So what, exactly, does Francis want conscientious capitalists to do? For starters, he’s much less critical of capitalism in principle than he is of crony capitalism, the distribution of wealth by privilege and connection rather than by merit. On that, many Americans agree. Plus, Francis’s most direct experience with capitalism comes from his native Argentina, where corruption is far worse than in the economies of the United States or Europe (not including Russia). Still, he clearly favors laws and policies that benefit the disadvantaged, from aid to the poor to programs that offer education and opportunity where it might not otherwise be available. Don't expect applause from Congressional conservatives.

A 2012 Vatican document titled “Vocation of the Business Leader” lays out more tangible guidelines for ways to make free-market capitalism compatible with social justice. Though the report was published under Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, Francis refers to its principles often and seems to fully endorse its tenets.

The paper says a good business is one that “actively seeks ways to serve genuine human needs within their competence and thus advance the common good.” Sackcloth seems to be optional, since there’s no prohibition on earning a profit or enjoying prosperity. Here are a few of the basic principles the paper highlights for running an upstanding business:

- Produce goods or services that have a useful purpose.

- Look for opportunities to serve the underprivileged.

- Respect the dignity of your workers.

- Help employees find ways to capitalize on their own talents.

- Use natural and other resources carefully.

- Allocate the benefits of the business in a fair and just manner.

Those precepts might be clear conceptually, but subject to vastly different interpretations in the real world of shareholder demands, stock downgrades and political grandstanding. Walmart may feel it’s doing a good job of balancing its corporate responsibility to shareholders with its obligations to employees, for example, but workers marching for raises and improved work conditions obviously disagree.

Still, America has always grappled with these kinds of tensions, all the way back to when model entrepreneur Benjamin Franklin proclaimed the virtues of “doing well by doing good.” In that regard, Pope Francis will be in pretty good company.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.

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