ROME – At the level of crass public imagery, Pope Francis is generally seen as a critic of capitalism and hostile to both big business and a free-market economy. Saturday, however, was one of those days that explodes stereotypes, as Francis made it clear that he actually has a fairly romantic notion of what business at its best is all about.

The occasion was a visit to the Italian port city of Genoa, from which, as the pontiff recalled, his own family once set sail for a new life in Argentina. Francis made a stop at the notorious Ilva steel plant, known for high levels of pollution, deadly workplace accidents, and management corruption scandals.

Workers in hard hats lustily cheered the pope, repeatedly chanting “Francesco, Francesco!” as he greeted them and as he spoke.

At the plant, Francis took a series of questions from businessmen, workers and unemployed persons, and the resulting dialogue was perhaps the closest thing we’ve gotten to date to an overview of how this pope views business activity.

“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.”

Despite his alleged skepticism of the for-profit sector, Francis professed deep admiration for entrepreneurs and business owners.

“There can’t be a good economy without good businessmen, without their capacity to create and to produce,” he said.

In effect, Francis made four business management points on Saturday.

  • Exploiting and mistreating workers isn’t just morally and spiritually wrong, it’s economically self-defeating.
  • The concept of a “meritocracy” that’s at the heart of some self-congratulating capitalism rhetoric is false.
  • There’s a difference between entrepreneurship and “speculation,” with the former being noble and the latter dangerous and unethical.
  • Successful businesses are essential to democracy.

On the first point, the pontiff argued that when corporate culture places an undue emphasis on competition, it sows the seeds of its own demise.

“Many of the new values of the great companies and financial systems aren’t consistent with human dignity and Christian humanism,” he said. “The accent on competition, beyond being an anthropological and Christian error, is an economic error because it forgets that a company is above all about cooperation.

“When it’s a system of individual incentives that puts workers into competition among themselves, you can obtain some advantages, but it ends up ruining the trust that’s the soul of any organization,” the pope argued. “When a crisis comes, the company falls apart. It implodes, because there’s no longer any accord.”

Note that’s not primarily a moral argument against an excessively competitive conception of things, but a business one.

The pope then tried to debunk the idea that the distribution of wealth in the post-modern world is primarily the result of a ‘meritocracy’ in action.

“That fascinates us because it uses a good word, ‘merit,’ but it uses it in an ideological way,” he said. “Exploiting the good faith of many, it provides ethical legitimacy to inequality.

“The new capitalism, through the idea of ‘meritocracy,’ gives moral cover to inequality,” Francis said. “It sees the talents of people not as a gift but a ‘merit,’ determining a system of advantages and disadvantages.”

He argued that the ideology of a ‘meritocracy’ also colors the way we see the poor.

“A second consequences [of a ‘meritocracy’] is a change in the culture of poverty,” he said. “The poor person is considered to not have merit, and therefore to be guilty. They’re dishonored. That’s the old logic of the friends of Job, who wanted to convince him he was guilty.

“That’s not the logic,” Francis said, “of the Gospel or of life.”

The pope also drew a sharp distinction between business activity, which he obviously esteems in part because it provides employment and a sense of dignity to workers, and what he called “speculation,” by which he appeared to mean an exclusively profit-driven mindset indifferent to the needs and aspirations of the people involved.

“I remember a man [who came to me once] who was crying, and he came to request a grace,” he said. “He told me, ‘I’m at my limits and I have to declare bankruptcy, so I have to let go 60 workers and I don’t want to, it feels like firing myself.’

“That was a good businessman,” the pope said. “He praised and prayed for his people, because they were his family. He was attached to them.

“An illness of the economy is the progressive transformation of businessmen into speculators,” Francis said. “A speculator is a figure similar to what Jesus in the gospels called “money-changers” as opposed to pastors. He doesn’t love his company or his workers, but they’re solely a means for making profits. He fires people, relocates the company, because it’s instrumentalized and eats up people and products.”

Finally, the pope drew a link between the business sector and the health of a democracy.

“When work is weakened, it’s democracy that enters into crisis,” he said. “There’s a social compact.”

He seemed even to question the idea of what the British would call a ‘nanny state’ with this remark: “A monthly check from the state that allows you to keep the family afloat doesn’t solve the problem. It has to be resolved with work for everyone.”

Granted, none of this makes Pope Francis an apologist for neo-conservative, laissez-faire capitalism. He’s basically a Latin American populist whose sympathies are always going to be with labor over management, and who’s got a strong skeptical streak about the moral fiber of huge corporate operations.

Nevertheless, it also confirms that Pope Francis is not hostile on principle to business life or the pursuit of profit, and that what he’s after isn’t imploding capitalism but making it sustainable over the long haul – because, in his view, respecting human dignity is also good business practice.

In other words, it was Francis as CEO we heard on Saturday as much as Francis as pope. Given public perceptions of the pontiff, it may have been a revelation that he does speak the language of entrepreneurs and corporate managers after all.