Beyond his words, Benedict’s actions as pope were consistent with a moral economic framework (his grievous lapses elsewhere notwithstanding). He argued correctly that the roots of the financial crisis were human greed and malfeasance, not a flaw per se in the structure of capitalism. He also exuded a consistent concern that climate change — born of unbridled consumption by rich nations — will overwhelmingly affect the poor, and he sought to turn Vatican City into the world’s only carbon-neutral state.
Francis I will have to grapple with the same issues, and plenty more. The temptations of unrestrained capitalism will surely reawaken as the financial crisis ebbs. Environmental degradation will probably accelerate. And the poor will always be with us. Perhaps the greatest challenge for a putative steward of moral economics in the next few decades, however, will be technology.
The coming revolution in robotics and automation, as we’ve argued, could cause immense disruption for the world’s workers, including wage stagnation, increased unemployment, growing inequality, and the painful alienation that comes with finding your skills obsolete or your job replaced by a machine. Imposing an ethical framework on this new world will require the kind of flexible thinking that hasn’t always come naturally to the Vatican. Serious work by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the moral implications of artificial intelligence, drones and other worrisome phenomena of the digital age would be an excellent start.
Of course, good economics should start at home. The next pope has his work cut out for him there, too. The Vatican bureaucracy has by many accounts grown too sprawling to effectively manage, and many dioceses are still reeling from the financial fallout of sexual-abuse lawsuits. Benedict made progress toward reforming the Institute for Works of Religion, better known as the Vatican bank, by replacing its president, creating a financial-intelligence unit and agreeing to some outside scrutiny. But the idiosyncratic institution still has a ways to go before it will be comfortably within international banking norms on transparency and money laundering.