As Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, now known as Francis, assumes leadership for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, we won’t presume to tell him how to think on matters religious. But for the sake of world markets, we hope the new pope will act in the best tradition of Catholic economic thought.
Ideally, that means recognizing the value of free markets and free economies, and realizing that work and trade endow humans with not just wealth but also dignity and freedom. It also means understanding the dangers posed by excessive inequality, the outsize burdens that technological advances and environmental degradation will impose on the poor, and the responsibility of the rich to help the underprivileged navigate a turbulent economic transition.
Most important, as more and more economic activity — from finance to manufacturing to medicine — is done by algorithms and robots, we hope the new pope will be able to communicate the church’s longstanding assertion that economics, to be moral, must be grounded in concern for the individual.
Since Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical “Rerum Novarum” in 1891, Catholic social teaching has focused on ways to impose moral order on economic activity and to mitigate the worst effects of unrestrained commerce on the poor. The concern for the individual — and especially for those left behind — has been perhaps its most insistent theme.
Pope John Paul II’s landmark “Centesimus Annus” in 1991 extended this concern with the individual into the “complex network of relationships” that make up modern economies. He argued that a just society “is not directed against the market, but demands that the market be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the state so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied.”
Pope Benedict XVI’s contribution to this tradition, “Caritas in Veritate,” was cryptic in some respects, but he was quite clear that “Every economic decision has a moral consequence” and that “The market is not, and must not become, the place where the strong subdue the weak.”