WASHINGTON – Sparks flew between a labor leader and a free-market advocate about the best way to fight poverty during a discussion about the economy and families at Georgetown University Wednesday night.

Michael Strain, a deputy director at the American Enterprise Institute, said he hopes Pope Francis acknowledges that capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty in recent decades than any other system. He said Francis would find this “difficult” to admit.

Francis is known for his sharp critiques of capitalism, including condemning a “throwaway culture.”

Strain said that alleviating poverty “requires an economy that supports work.”

But Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, rejected the notion that capitalism is a panacea for economic challenges.

“Work should lift people out of poverty, not trap them in poverty,” he said, “and work is trapping too many people in poverty in today’s system.”

The back-and-forth between the two, including over the merits of a minimum wage and US tax policy, was part of a panel discussion co-sponsored by Crux and the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University entitled, “It’s the economy, synod!

Crux associate editor John L. Allen Jr. opened the session with the observation that the topic may prove to be extremely timely: With the recent papal reform of annulments, Communion for divorced Catholics who remarried outside the Church may not be as prominent a discussion at the Synod of Bishops in Rome in October as it was last year. Rather, the bishops may feel freed up consider other, less hot-button issues affecting family life — such as economic pressures facing families.

The panelists, all of whom spoke passionately on the subject, hoped that will be the case.

Maryann Cusimano Love, a professor at the Catholic University of America, put it in stark terms.

“When Francis says this economy kills, I would add to that, this economy kills families,” she said.

She said that women, especially, remained marginalized from economic prosperity, leading to weakened families here in the United States and abroad.

“Women’s economic empowerment is not a boutique issue or a women’s rights issue,” she said. “If you care about families, you need to give resources to women to care for children.”

“Poverty hurts families,” she said.

One working mother on the panel said she knows firsthand how important economic security is when it comes to family life.

Tarshea Smith was a food services worker at Georgetown about three years ago when she faced a medical emergency, a symptom of her epilepsy. She told her manager she wouldn’t be able to make it to work. As a result, she was disciplined.

She was stunned.

But rather than accept defeat, she launched a quest to organize her fellow workers, and Georgetown eventually recognized the union.

“We won because professors, students, and priests stood with us,” she said.

She said she hopes bishops, and Pope Francis, bring attention to the fact that when parents are forced to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, families suffer.

“Single mothers work two or three jobs, and you’re not able to come home and cook a healthy meal for your kids, or you can’t afford to buy food that’s healthy for your kids,” she said. “Working families are not home with their kids because they can’t afford to be.”

Love, the professor at Catholic University, said the notion of what constitutes a discussion on the family should be broadened.

“We have to put the economy at the service of peoples and families,” she said. “These are family issues.”

The event was moderated by John Carr, the director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, who urged the panelists to find common ground and work to get family economics on the agenda not just of the synod, but also Congress, where Pope Francis will speak Sept. 24 during his visit to the United States.

The discussion was carried live on Crux, and panelists answered questions submitted through Twitter as well as from the audience in attendance.