Praying for reform of the financial world26 Apr 2021
Pope Francis knows that all human reform, including that of the financial world, depends on a conversion of heart and mind.
At first sight Pope Francis’ intention for May – that those in charge of finance will work with governments to regulate the financial sphere and protect citizens from its dangers – might seem unusually roundabout. We might expect him simply to pray that governments will sort out the world of finance and make it serve people. Hold a royal commission and do what it recommends! Instead, he prays for a conversation between those responsible for finance – the bankers, public servants, policy makers to make rules that will protect people. That may seem to be a very cautious and slow way to proceed.
Yet in Australia we can see that it makes sense. We have had a Royal Commission into Banks, one part of the world of finance, which disclosed massive greed, unethical and sometimes illegal behaviour all designed to increase profits at the expense of those who trusted the banks to care for their interests. The Royal Commission made many recommendations. The Government promised to accept them all but has backed off from most of them. Some experts in the field now anticipate that in time we shall need for another Royal Commission in the future to deal with the same behaviour.
Perhaps the reason for the Pope’s indirect approach lies in his insight that the reform of the financial world, like all human reform, depends on a conversion of heart and mind. The root failings of banks, insurance companies, hedge funds, stock exchanges and other financial institutions have lain in human greed and not in technology. They have been dominated by a desire for individual and corporate profit without any consideration of the good of the whole society. They have particularly neglected the most vulnerable people whom they have made victims of the financial systems they devise.
Pope Francis has often described how destructive have been the financial ideologies and assumptions that have guided governments in recent years. He believes that their evil lies in identifying human growth with economic growth, and leaving economic growth to an unfettered market. Human beings are then seen as individuals competing for economic gain. Out of their participation in the market, so it is believed, the whole society will benefit. In this framework profit is seen as an untainted good, and the sole business of governments and regulators is to allow the economy to function without interference.
The consequences of this self-serving vision of society are seen not only in the corrosion of decency by greed, but in gross inequality of wealth and so of political power, the further impoverishment of nations and their poor, and in the debt in which nations and individuals are trapped. Inequality, too, eventually stifles economies as the anxiety of ordinary citizens about economic survival paralyses economic growth. Pope Francis has also pointed out how the greed that is licensed by this economic ideology contributes to the despoilation of the environment and to global warming.
The conversion required is to a vision of human beings that sees them as precious in themselves and not merely because of their competitive contribution to economic growth. The economy is only one set of relationships necessary to build a healthy society. The alternative view is to adopt a view of social justice that attends to all the relationships that are involved in human flourishing. These include personal relationships, those between groups, those with institutions like schools and workplaces, those involved in the economy, and those with the environment. All these relationships must serve the good of the whole society, and especially of the most vulnerable.
If Pope Francis asks for a roundabout approach to the economy, it is because governments, bureaucracies, regulators and voters must subordinate the economy to the human growth of all people in society and not just to the wealthy. That requires a shared conversion.