ROME — In some quarters, there’s a perception that under history’s first pope from the global south, the Catholic Church has become increasingly hostile to capitalism in favor of more socialist-style economic arrangements.

Yet in a recent speech to a Rome summit of business and religious leaders, Francis’ hand-picked economic czar bluntly declared that “no better model is available at the moment” than market economies … and, he insisted, Pope Francis agrees.

Australian Cardinal George Pell, appointed by Francis as the first-ever head of the Holy See’s Secretariat for the Economy, was the keynote speaker at a Jan. 17-18 roundtable organized by the Australian-based Global Foundation in Rome.

Pell insisted the pope’s stance on business is more positive than often portrayed.

“We are all aware of Pope Francis’ commitment to social justice, his option for the poor and those on the peripheries, and his condemnations of exploitation, abuse, and consumerism,” Pell said, arguing that Francis’ favorable references to the role of business are less diffused.

He quoted remarks the pontiff made to the US Congress last fall and his encyclical Laudato Si’, on the protection of the environment, to make his point.

“Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world,” Francis wrote in the encyclical.

In his address, Pell was critical of “new and deepening inequalities,” saying it’s “incongruous” that corporate executives who presided over huge losses nevertheless receive massive bonuses.

Pell said it would be useful to introduce a distinction between the “deserving and underserving rich,” as there once used to be between “deserving and underserving poor.”

“It is sobering to realize that someone around the US poverty level of $11,000 a year is in the top 15 per cent of world income distribution, and that the bottom 20 per cent of the world’s population earns less than $550 a year,” Pell said.

The cardinal also gave an overview of the “Catholic contribution” to business.

“Jesus’ teachings on money, riches, and poverty are fascinating and provocative,” Pell said, adding that Christ clearly said that it’s impossible to serve both God and money.

Yet he added, “Jesus knew that money was good and necessary, and he asked only his special followers, those called to a particular and higher level of witness, to give away their riches and live in poverty.”

“I like to quote Maggie Thatcher, who pointed out that if the Good Samaritan had been without capital, he could not have paid for the care of the man who was beaten and robbed on the
road to Jericho,” Pell said.

“It was also useful that the innkeeper trusted him sufficiently to accept his promise to cover any extra costs when he returned,” Pell told the audience of business and religious leaders.

From the business world, heavyweights such as Christine Legarde, director of the International Monetary Fund; Bertrand Badre, managing director of the World Bank, and Peter Freedman, managing director of the Consumer Goods Forum were among those who brought their expertise to the table.

The Church was represented by arguably the two most important men under Pope Francis: Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, and Pell, along with layman Jean Baptiste de Franssu, president of the Institute for Works of Religion, usually referred to as the Vatican bank.

The full list of participants also included Shaukat Aziz, former prime minister of Pakistan; Metropolitan Emmanuel Adamakis of France, representing Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, considered the first among equals in the Orthodox churches, and a select group of economists, professors, ambassadors, and newspaper editors.

The event was held on the Aventine Hill, one of the original seven hills of Rome, in the villa of the Order of Malta, known for the small keyhole that grants a unique peek-a-boo view of St. Peter’s dome.

Parolin didn’t participate in all the sessions, but he delivered a short address Monday morning, which included the good wishes from Francis for the meeting.

“[I] share with you [Francis’] hope that this roundtable might open up areas of reflection and offer meaningful paths of action,” he told the closed-door gathering. The text of his address was obtained by Crux.

“From the beginning of his pontificate, faced with the many difficulties which afflict the world, the pope has not failed to make clear, with real emphasis, the grave consequences of indifference and of the lack of responsibility,” Parolin said.

“Today’s meeting is thus in tune with the teaching of the pope, who constantly calls for all people to commit themselves, freely and responsibly, to correcting an economy which causes exclusion and inequality,” he said.

According to Francis’ right-hand man, the pope invites the “rich and the poor, the powerful and simple folk, politicians and entrepreneurs” to put the human intelligence at the service of the common good, with a spirit of solidarity and mercy.

On a more practical note, during the two-day event, the heads of the Consumer Goods Forum, which represents 400 of the world’s largest supermarket and retail companies, announced they’d reach an agreement to eradicate the use of forced labor in their supply chains.

At present, there are an estimated 21 million workers worldwide employed in slave-like conditions, coerced to work through violence, intimidation, retention of identity papers, or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.

The Consumer Goods Forum agreement is designed to guarantee that none of the 10 million people directly employed, nor any of the estimated 90 million along the supply chain, fall under this category, which includes forced child labor and human trafficking.