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Francesco’s Economy of Poverty

Two big problems for the conference on the “Economy of Francesco [1]” held at Assisi last week were solved by the COVID pandemic: 1) no one had to fly there, and 2) the economy had already ground to a halt.

St. Francis of Assisi, you will remember, was the saint who stripped himself bare at an ecclesiastical trial, to show that he was embracing complete poverty and would not follow in the footsteps of his father, a silk merchant.  He went on to found one of the two great “mendicant” orders of the Middle Ages, the other being the Dominicans.  The mendicants (from the Latin for “begging”) were controversial at the time because they did no work and, by design, lived off the contributions of those who were engaged in productive work.

There was an obvious inconsistency in thousands of participants boarding modern airplanes, traveling thousands of miles, to attend a conference where they were to look for ideas about how to model their lives – and “the economy” – on the example of this saint of absolute poverty.  Wouldn’t a series of local conferences at the diocesan level be just as good?  Many readers probably can remember a time when a moderately wealthy father and mother might hope to travel to Assisi once in their life – if somehow, by God’s grace, they could put aside sufficient savings after raising a large family.

The “emissions” which would be caused by the conference in its original, in-person format were clearly an embarrassment to the environmentally-conscious organizing committee [2]. [True, participants were to drink water using only “customized thermal drinking bottles,” to avoid plastics.  And all lunches were to be served in “biodegradable, compostable bags compliant with the EN 13432 standard.”  And only caterers who sourced their food from earthquake-devastated areas or lands once controlled by the mafia would be patronized. (Poor Luigi down the street, who used regular paper bags, was out of luck.)

But how were all those emissions consistent with the “custody of creation”?  The working solution – rendered unnecessary by the migration of the conference to YouTube, was to plant a “Forest of Francesco” (location not yet determined) to offset the emissions.

It’s hard not to see what might be called a “Phariseeism of the environment” at work in the conference.  Consider the application form for businesses [3] that wanted to partner with the event.  Companies were excluded absolutely if they made weapons, distributed tobacco products or pornography, or promoted gambling.  Fair enough. But why no exclusion for using fetal tissue, or promoting contraception and abortion (oops – some featured speakers such as Jeffrey Sachs might need to be disinvited!), or not supporting freedom of religion and of conscience in the workplace?

And then companies were deemed “high risk” (the burden of proof was against partnering) if they were involved in extracting oil and gas, mining, “power generation,” construction of buildings, “cultivation of crops,” “production of wood,” “producers of alcoholic beverages,” and, of course, if their business was “fast food, sugar, and soda beverages.” (Would pizza restaurants and espresso bars be “high risk”?)  The “economy of Francesco” looks very sparse.


The other problem solved by COVID, as I said, was the end of economic growth.  A theme of many speakers was that the economy should be “reset” or “restarted” after COVID, with the aim of having zero annual growth in the GDP going forward, an aspiration expressed in muted form as the first item in its Final Statement [4]: “[we ask that] the great world powers and the great economic and financial institutions slow down their race to let the Earth breathe. COVID has made us all slow down, without having chosen to do so” – not that we would have chosen, if these big players had decided, on our behalf, to slow down.

The Final Statement purports to represent the 2000 “economists, entrepreneurs, and change makers” under 35 years of age who participated in the conference, and through them, all young people of the world.  It’s unclear who formulated it, whether it was voted on, and what the vote was.  It seems like a vestige of the “sensus fidelium” from the 1960s, suffering from the same false logic and lack of realism about young people.

Obviously, one can select a population of young people, as with anyone else, to endorse whatever message one pleases. (The view of my devout 20-year-old son, for instance, a serious engineering student, who firmly believes that nuclear power should replace fossil fuels, is clearly not represented.)

Some of the Statement’s demands are bizarre, problematic, or disturbing: “a worldwide sharing of the most advanced technologies;” independent ethics committees for all large companies with veto power over C-suite decisions; and an end to offshore tax havens, as “money deposited in a tax haven is money stolen from our present and our future.”  Indeed, “a new tax pact [must] be the first response to the post-COVID world.”  Others are pathetic and insipid, but crafted so as to promote greater state control: “States, large companies and international institutions [must] work to provide quality education for every girl and boy in the world.”

It goes without saying – you may have seen it reported elsewhere – that there is hardly any mention of sin, salvation, or Jesus Christ in the conference documents and press releases.  (I’ve seen no such mentions.  But I must say “hardly any” to cover my bases.)  Also, one strains to see even tenuous connections with the tradition of Catholic Social Thought. But how can any young person persevere with solid good intentions, except by following the Lord, with the assistance of the sacraments?  And doesn’t a young person need a solid education in that tradition, and in the tradition of natural law and classical social thought?

St. Francis specifically left the world of business to embrace a poverty that was rich, deep in prayer, and in close discipleship to the Lord. Studying this conference suggests that, in the end, it would offer us simply poverty, and – for young persons – no Savior and Lord.


*Image: Promenade [5] by Marc Chagall, 1917–18 [State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg]. Promenade was painted when Chagall was briefly Commissar for the Arts in Vitebsk, Belarus—then part of the U.S.S.R. He quickly became disillusioned with the poverty and violence of Bolshevik rule and fled to Paris in 1923.

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI. You can follow him on X, @michael_pakaluk