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The Pope’s first economic message is in his choice of name

Francis, both yesterday
and today

 Francesco, ieri e oggi  DCM-010
05 November 2022

The first economic word of Pope Bergoglio’s pontificate was written on the evening of March 13, 2013, when he chose his name. Francis is many messages in one, but it is also a message to the economy. The first school of economics in the Middle Ages flourished under the Franciscans, and the lesser Franciscans founded the first European people’s banks, the Monti di Pietà, where hundreds of credit institutions came into being between 1458 (Ascoli) and the Council of Trent. Francis of Assisi is not only poverty; he is also wealth, albeit seen from the paradoxical and prophetic perspective of the Gospel.

Pope Francis immediately attached great importance to economics in his pontificate. It is no coincidence that in 2019 he was the first pope to launch a worldwide movement of young economists and entrepreneurs, which had its very important moment with everyone present again on September 22-24, 2022 in Assisi.

Here, we retrace the essential stages of Pope Francis’ vision of poverty through three of his most directly social encyclicals.

First a premise, linked to the name Francis. In this pope’s vision of poverty, there is much of the “Poor Man of Assisi”. St Francis began his revolution, which was also economic, by choosing only the Gospel as his form of life only, in fact, the innovation of Franciscanism lies in this limiting adverb. We no longer have the categories to understand what the poverty of Francis and then of Clare was. Unlike that of the monasteries, it was an individual poverty and a communitarian poverty, which stated that individuals and monasteries should not possess any goods. As Hugh of Digne liked to say, the only right Franciscans had was the right to own nothing, to live sine proprio without any personal goods. Francis and his friars and nuns attempted something unthinkable that still leaves us breathless today: they returned to the streets, they took up the inheritance of the first name of Christians, “those of the way”; from wealth, they became poor beggars among the poor. Francis passed through the eye not because he enlarged the orifice of the needle but because he reduced the “camel” until it became very thin. “Blessed are the poor” became their desired and yearned-for happiness; “O wealth unknown! O veritable good! Giles bares his feet, and bares his feet Sylvester behind the bridegroom, so doth please the bride!” (Paradiso, XI, 84). Only Dante could encapsulate the paradise of Francis in a single verse.

In the wake of his election, Francis wrote Evangelii Gaudium (EG, 2013), his first theological document, which is a sort of map of his pontificate that spoke about the economy directly. Pope Francis reads 21st century capitalism as an economy of the exclusion of the poor, who are not only “the last”, they are the discarded, the invisible who are not last because they do not even participate in the race. “Today we must say no to an economy of exclusion and iniquity. This economy kills”.

Finally, there is a strong message from Evangelii Gaudium to the economy; time is superior to space. Our system of development and growth is all crushed in the here and now, and thus risks breaking the bond that unites generations. Today, by prioritizing time would mean using the earth's non-renewable resources in the knowledge that we have inherited them from our fathers and that we must bequeath them to our children. Putting time back at the centre then means judging economic policy choices from the perspective of a child, or girl, being born today in an African or Asian village. If time is superior to space, then women must have a different place in civil and economic life. Woman, as the birthplace of life, is the image par excellence of a time superior to space. In an infinitesimal space, the most important process, that of life, begins in time

Laudato si’ is Pope Francis’ encyclical that has had the greatest impact on public opinion throughout the world. In its essence, it is a great concrete discourse on the common good. Today, especially in the West, we fail to see the ethical question of the world precisely because we lack the important category of the common good - and thus also the closely related category of the commons, which are relegated to the last pages of economics textbooks, still all centre on “private goods” - the great absentee of our consumer and financial civilization. In addition, when a society reduces the commons, it is impoverishing the poorest.

Yet our age has known and continues to experience firsthand what common evils are; for example, world wars, the danger of atomic weapons, pandemics, and globalised terrorism. We have learnt what it means to be a body too when bombs fell and still fall on the houses of the rich and on those of the poor, when homicidal suicidal madness killed managers and workers, when the plague (and the virus) - we read the The Betrothed - struck the Griso, Father Cristoforo and don Rodrigo. Nevertheless, from the experience of the common evil we have not learnt the wisdom of the common good.

The third place to look in order to understand Francis’ economy is Fratelli tutti (2020).

Fratelli tutti entrusts the biblical foundation of its discourse almost exclusively to the parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke's Gospel. An important and strong choice, which immediately clarifies that Francis' fraternity, is a universal victim-centered fraternity. Francis chooses to look at the world standing beside the victims, and from there he loves and judges it, ever since he made his first trip to Lampedusa. Even at the cost of neglecting other fundamental dimensions of fraternity, such as reciprocity. A parable does not speak of blood brothers; it never mentions the word fraternity to reveal proximity to us. “Who is my neighbour?” is the scribe’s question that generates one of the most stupendous incipits in all literature: “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho...” The soul of this story lies in the contrast between proximity and closeness. The one who stoops over the victim and becomes his neighbour, the Samaritan, is the least close to the victim among the passers-by on that road, because he is not a Jew and belongs to an excommunicated people. The Levite and the priest, those who were the caregivers in that world, were much closer to that victim and yet they pass by. He who cares for the half-dead man does so not because he was his neighbour but because he decides to become a neighbour. Brothers are born; neighbors become neighbors by choosing to become one. Francis writes, “The parable eloquently presents the basic decision we need to make in order to rebuild our wounded world. In the face of so much pain and suffering, our only course is to imitate the Good Samaritan…The distinctions between Judean and Samaritan, priest and merchant, fade into insignificance. Now there are only two kinds of people: those who care for someone who is hurting and those who pass by; those who bend down to help and those who look the other way and hurry off”.

The neighbour, the brother and sister of the Gospel are not the neighbour. This is an essential dimension of this new and different fraternity.

This encyclical also marks the end of the just war doctrine, which came on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine. A clear and strong word on this piece of Christian doctrine, which clashed too much with the words on peace of Francis and many of his predecessors, had been awaited for years; and it has finally arrived, “Today it is very difficult to sustain the rational criteria matured in other centuries to speak of a possible ‘just war’. Never war again!”.

I conclude with the words on poverty that Pope Francis addressed to the young people at the Economy of Francis event (Assisi, 24 September 2022): “Our civilization has greatly impoverished the word poverty and the poor. Believing in an ‘Economy of Francis” means committing yourself to putting the poor, who today take on new names and new faces, at the centre of your action and thought. From them you look at the economy, from them you look at the world. St Francis did not only love the poor: he also loved poverty. The Franciscan tradition tells us of a “mystical marriage” of Francis with ‘Lady Poverty’. Francis did not go to the lepers of Assisi only to help those poor people out of poverty; he went to the poor because he wanted to become poor like them: therein lies his great prophecy. There is nothing that scandalizes the economy more than the first beatitude: ‘blessed are the poor’, nothing is more scandalous than ‘Lady Poverty’. It is instead from here that we must start, that you entrepreneurs and economists must begin, inhabiting these evangelical paradoxes of Francis”.

Economist, scientific director “Economy of Francis”, professor of Economics at LUMSA