26 October 2016
Pope Francis, whose embrace of the poor is a cornerstone of is papacy, has a unique opportunity to bring his message to the bastion of capitalism. Photo: Reuters
Pope Francis, whose embrace of the poor is a cornerstone of is papacy, has a unique opportunity to bring his message to the bastion of capitalism. Photo: Reuters

Could Pope Francis tell the US greed is not good?

Pope Francis is visiting the United States this week for the first time.

While disagreements on divorce, abortion and other issues of the faith are expected to be brought up, one of the main highlights of his visit is to confront what he and many clergy from Latin America call “savage capitalism”.

It goes by many names but unbridled capitalism, consumerism and the free market are held responsible by Pope Francis for many ills such as the trampling of the environment and workers rights.

Coming from that part of the world where many Latin American clergy came face to face with brutal military dictatorships that often partnered with companies in mining and other extractive industries, the Pontiff has lent this bias towards the Catholic church administration in the Vatican, most recently with his public pronouncements and his latest encyclical on the environment, Laudato si (Praised be).

Many of the formerly disenfranchised Catholic clergy such as the late Archbishop Oscar Romero and even some in the Liberation Theology movement, have been somewhat accepted back into favor, although not crossing the line into communist ideology.

Now Pope Francis, a man coming from just south of the United States but from a polar opposite viewpoint, arrives at the center of the free market world.

When he addresses a joint session of the US Congress on Sept. 24, he will come face to face with American senators and congressmen from both parties who may share his Catholic faith but not his message, particularly on capitalism.

A lot of them, especially those in the Tea Party and extreme right, have been raised on the message made popular in the 1987 film Wall Street.

When Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, tells the character of a young Charlie Sheen “Greed is good”, he laid the framework for future abuses that included the spectacular near-collapse of the system a few years ago due to the subprime mortgage crisis and other ills that have befallen business everywhere.

Similar overtones have echoed from Ayn Rand’s novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, where niceties and altruistic values such as caring for the environment and people’s welfare have been set aside in the pursuit of the almighty dollar.

But when problems that affect us all — climate change, employee and community welfare — that made many around the world emulate the Occupy Wall Street movement, ring in day in and day out, one wonders whether capitalism needs to adapt from what Adam Smith described in The Wealth of Nations, and the unbridled free market that Chicago School economists like the late Milton Friedman posited.

In releasing Laudato si, Pope Francis argues for man’s inherent responsibility to care for the environment, often abused by many such as sweatshops and businesses whose single purpose is pure profit.

Perhaps it is time for the evolution of capitalism.

Not to renounce it or profit, but to simply recognize that it is to be had not at the expense of people and the environment.

There is a term for this — sustainable business, or as British sustainability guru John Elkington put it, “profit, people and planet”.

Simply put, it is to recognize the power of business to effect social change without doing away with the need to make a profit.

As we await the impact of Pope Francis’s US visit, let us hope that it will lead to a reexamination of the role of business in society.

Perhaps the catchall phrase should be “Greed is not good”.

This Pontiff may be the man to bring that message to the lion’s lair.

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Consultant on low-carbon technology and publisher of Asian Spectator technology blog

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