As Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina assumes leadership for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, he’ll have plenty of counsel. But for the sake of world markets, we hope the new pope will act in the best tradition of Catholic economic thought. Since Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891, the Church’s social teaching has focused intently on ways to impose moral order on economic activity and mitigate the effects of unrestrained commerce on the poor. Concern for the individual—especially for those left behind—has been perhaps its most insistent theme. Pope John Paul II, in his landmark Centesimus Annus in 1991, extended this concern into the “complex network of relationships” making up modern economies. He argued that a just society “is not directed against the market, but demands that the market be appropriately controlled … to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied.”
His lapses elsewhere notwithstanding, Pope Benedict XVI continued that moral economic framework. He argued correctly that the roots of the financial crisis were human greed and malfeasance, not a flaw in the structure of capitalism. And he was consistent in his concern that climate change—born of unbridled consumption by rich nations—will overwhelmingly affect the poor, even seeking to turn Vatican City into the world’s only carbon-neutral state.
Pope Francis must grapple with the same issues, plus a new one that’s perhaps the greatest challenge for a putative steward of moral economics in the next few decades: technology. The coming revolution in robotics and automation could cause immense disruption for the world’s workers. Imposing an ethical framework on this new world will require the kind of supple thinking that hasn’t always come naturally to the Vatican. But serious work by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the moral implications of artificial intelligence, drones, and other worrisome phenomena would be an excellent start.
Good economics, one might argue, 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 manage effectively, and many dioceses are still reeling from the financial fallout of sexual-abuse lawsuits. Benedict has gone some way toward reforming the Vatican bank by replacing its president, creating a financial-intelligence unit, and agreeing to some outside scrutiny. The idiosyncratic institution has a ways to go before it will be comfortably within international banking norms on transparency.
Even so, the Vatican must remain a powerful voice in the world for anchoring economics to morality. That voice should serve as a reminder—to the faithful and others—that markets, in the end, are collections of people. And that an economic system untethered by ethical concern for those left behind will be unstable, dangerous, and ultimately counterproductive.