ROME — Pope Francis told businesspeople to prioritize the urgent demands of social justice over increased productivity and profitability, even if it means martyrdom.
Consistent with his generally negative assessment of the market economy, the pontiff told a delegation of young French businesspeople Monday that the requirements of good business practice are often in opposition to the demands of Christian conscience.
“The conflicts of conscience in the daily decisions you have to make are — I imagine — numerous,” the pope said. On the one hand, “the need imposed on you — often for the survival of companies, of the people who work there and of their families — to conquer markets, increase productivity, reduce delays, resort to the artifices of advertising, increasing consumption…; and on the other hand, the increasingly urgent demands of social justice, to guarantee everyone the possibility of earning a decent living.”
“I am thinking of working conditions, wages, job offers and their stability, as well as environmental protection,” Francis continued. “How can we live out these conflicts in serenity and hope, while Christian entrepreneurs are sometimes led to silence their convictions and ideals?”
“May this pilgrimage enlighten your discernment of the choices you must make: it has never been easy to be a Christian and have serious responsibilities,” he said. “The fact of distancing oneself from the world — in what is contrary to God and His will — the fact of wanting to transform this world and save it with Christ, can sometimes lead to martyrdom, as attested by Saint Peter and Saint Paul.”
The pope’s apparent conviction that the requirements of good business are locked in battle with the demands of social justice seems far from the more optimistic appraisal of Saint John Paul II.
In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, John Paul praised the qualities fostered in the business world, declaring that truthfulness, trustworthiness, and hard work are “basic virtues of economic life” and fully compatible with the activity of a good Christian.
Holding up the importance of “disciplined and creative human work” along with “initiative and entrepreneurial ability,” John Paul expressed his vision of extensive working communities transforming man’s natural and human environments.
“Important virtues are involved in this process, such as diligence, industriousness, prudence in undertaking reasonable risks, reliability and fidelity in interpersonal relationships, as well as courage in carrying out decisions which are difficult and painful but necessary, both for the overall working of a business and in meeting possible set-backs,” he insisted.
Despite his often pessimistic view of the economy and business, Pope Francis, too, has occasionally evinced more positive considerations of the market.
In May, 2017, the pope surprised workers and businesspeople in Italy’s port city of Genoa by praising entrepreneurship and underscoring the importance of healthy businesses for the economy.
“There can’t be a good economy without good businessmen, without their capacity to create and to produce,” he said.
The pope acknowledged that the essential value of work and employment is only possible when companies are sound and successful and that only an economically healthy society can keep a democracy afloat.
“The world of work is a human priority,” Francis said, “and it’s also a priority for the pope. There’s always been a friendship between the church and work, starting with Jesus, who was a worker.”
In his 2015 visit to the United States, the pope even praised American capitalism in his address to the U.S. Congress, underscoring the importance of wealth creation for lifting the poor out of poverty.
It is “the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and — one step at a time — to build a better life for their families” who “sustain the life of society,” he said.
The pope’s most remarkable words came when speaking about the ability of the free market to lift people out of poverty.
In the fight against poverty, Francis said, it “goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable.”
“Business is a noble vocation,” the Pope continued, “directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.”