One key to understanding the Church’s teaching on the economy is to ask—as Francis does in Fratelli Tutti—whether we “include or exclude those lying wounded along the roadside” (FT 69). This is, of course, a reference to the parable of the Good Samaritan, the framework upon which Pope Francis built his latest encyclical. He instructs us, “Each day we have to decide whether to be Good Samaritans or indifferent bystanders” (FT 69).
This simple call to action could be dismissed as naïve, a motivational quote to print on a poster and pin to the wall of a cubicle. The reality is that this is a challenge so profound that it is difficult to imagine an economy that “serves not rules,” as Francis is fond of saying. What does such an economy look like? What would it mean to have an economic system that is oriented toward the common good of all people, one that prioritizes the poor and suffering, and in which no one is excluded or exploited?
Perhaps it is easier to think of the question in the reverse. What would such an economy not look like? An economy that does not prioritize the common good of all people produces radical inequality; such economies exploit workers or forces them to work in horrible conditions; such economies require parents to work two or three jobs in order to provide for the basic needs of their children with no rest even on Sunday. Many of us live in unjust economies, even if we are not suffering ourselves. We must ask ourselves, what is our role in perpetuating these economic conditions? To answer that question honestly is the first step toward an inclusive capitalism.
At the root of the problem, as Francis suggests, is a “profit-based economic model” (22). The Church does not condemn profit, but profit cannot be considered the only (or even the primary) factor in assessing the quality of a business. As St. John Paul II put succinctly in Centesimus Annus,
In fact, the purpose of a business firm is not simply to make a profit, but is to be found in its very existence as a community of persons who in various ways are endeavouring to satisfy their basic needs, and who form a particular group at the service of the whole of society. Profit is a regulator of the life of a business, but it is not the only one; other human and moral factors must also be considered which, in the long term, are at least equally important for the life of a business. (35)
Francis stresses that fraternity lies at the heart of the very purpose of businesses and urges us to consider new economic models that purposefully advance the integral development of all. Without explicit grounding in its role in service of the common good, a business will inevitably lose its way, ethically if not always financially. For Francis, it is not enough to conceive of an economy that only asks, “Will it work?” or “Will it make us money?” Instead, we must always ask: “Will it work also for the poor?” or “Will it make the world better?” With this approach, we can be assured that business activities remain legitimate and will allow business owners, employees, and stakeholders to live integrally—that is, in a way that respects human dignity.
Francis also condemns perspectives that prioritize wealth in the abstract over the real conditions of the poor. Some argue that the growth of aggregate wealth in a community will benefit the poor eventually, if not in the short-term. Such theories are often vague and naively hopeful; they are rarely part of an intentional plan to advance the common good, with the kinds of benchmarks and monitoring necessary to provide accountability. As Francis writes, “Neoliberalism simply reproduces itself by resorting to the magic theories of ‘spillover’ or ‘trickle’ – without using the name – as the only solution to societal problems” (FT 168).
To Francis’s point, we often see statistics cited showing how good the poor have it, or that the poor have never been wealthier. These arguments betray misplaced priorities, which revolve around the idea that wealth, income, or profit, in itself, is the aim of a legitimate economy. In response, Francis reminds us of the phenomenon in many developed countries where wealth may increase but poverty increases along with it. Francis argues that poverty cannot be measured according to “criteria from the past.” He writes, “Poverty must always be understood and gauged in the context of the actual opportunities available in each concrete historical period” (FT 21). If the poor are wealthier than in a previous time, and their standard of living is higher, but they still lack the ability to provide for their families through dignified labor, can we really say that we have made much progress? Clearly, there is a need to reorient economies around the lived experience of those valued least in society.
Despite the profound challenges facing us, Francis rejects any paternalism, which would permanently subject the poor to financial assistance. Certainly, financial help is necessary in the face of pressing needs, but, citing Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio, he reminds us that the Church also teaches, “In God’s plan, each individual is called to promote his or her own development” (FT 123). Sadly, many individuals today lack the freedom to pursue their own development. Often the reasons for this are “political,” in that they involve deep seated issues of systemic injustice and inequality. On this point, he reminds us of the critical importance of employment. Francis has been adamant—in Fratelli Tutti, Laudato Si’, and in many other writings and speeches—that jobs that pay a living wage and honor the dignity of the human person are essential. He writes,
In a genuinely developed society, work is an essential dimension of social life, for it is not only a means of earning one’s daily bread, but also of personal growth, the building of healthy relationships, self-expression and the exchange of gifts. Work gives us a sense of shared responsibility for the development of the world, and ultimately, for our life as a people. (162)
The dream of the Catholic Church is that families can be supported through dignified work. This is consistently thwarted by “profit-based” economic models that repeatedly subject at least some workers to systems of oppression and lock many others out of a sustainable wage. Finally, Francis argues that it is primarily the role of politicians to move us toward a more just economy, because the problems we face require long-term planning. This often conflicts with the priorities of businesspeople and consumers, who inevitably prioritize short-term profits and benefits. In recent centuries, the Church has consistently taught that states have a role in protecting the welfare and dignity of the poor, but must do so in a way that respects their inherent dignity and freedom to pursue their own development.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a perennial challenge to all Christians, and Pope Francis is asking us to put ourselves into the story. Perhaps at times we are the priest, sometimes we might be the innkeeper. Often, we ourselves are the traveler who has been assaulted, robbed, and discarded at the roadside. The parable invites us to radically re-envision human relations. By the grace of God, it is possible to overcome suspicion and fear. With God’s help, we can help to build up structures of justice and build “inns” where people can recover. First and foremost, however, we must stop for our brothers and sisters when others continue on their way. In our fast moving world, busy as we are, “stopping” may be the hardest thing for us to do. Let us never again pass another person by.