ROME – Historians say that Franciscan lending institutions in the 14th century, the montes pietatis, were a predecessor to modern banking and formed the foundation for today’s economy. Today, a pope named Francis is once again invoking the spirit of the Saint of Assisi, this time in an effort to reform the post-modern economy from the bottom up.
A long-outspoken critic of market capitalism and neoliberalism, Pope Francis offered a clear picture of his vision for global economics in a post-pandemic world in his recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti, which, among other things, criticized nationalist populism and argued in favor of multilateral accords.
In his opening for the document, Francis points to the world’s inability to rally together for a common response to COVID-19, and goes on to repeat frequent criticisms of the current global economy and calls for an entirely new system based on solidarity and which prioritizes the poor and vulnerable.
This vision will be the crux of a largescale 3-day event called “The Economy of Francis,” taking place from Nov. 19-21 online. Originally scheduled to take place in March in Assisi, the event was postponed and converted to a digital discussion due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Around 2,000 young people from 120 different countries all over the world will hear from a slew of experts known for their advocacy in favor of models protecting the environment as well as basic human needs, and which promote cooperation, generativity, and sustainable economic endeavors. There are also some controversial figures set to address the digital gathering, such as Brazilian theologian and former Franciscan priest, Leonardo Boff.
One of the founders of Liberation Theology in Latin America, Boff left the Franciscan order and the priesthood in the 1990s after a years-long throwdown with the Vatican over what they viewed as his Marxist interpretation of Liberation Theology. He is still a well-known left-wing figure in Brazil, and has had a lengthy career teaching ethics, ecology, theology and philosophy a several universities throughout South America and Europe. In the past, he has praised the leadership of Pope Francis, who in December 2018 sent a letter to Boff for his 80th birthday.
Organized by the Vatican department for integral human development, the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, and the city and diocese of Assisi, among others, this week’s summit will draw together students in advanced economics, managers in social enterprises, Nobel Prize winners and representatives from international organizations.
The streaming will be done 4 hours at a time apart from one 24-hour session on Nov. 20. The livestreams themselves will be set in iconic places in Assisi, such as the basilicas of St. Francis and St. Claire; the church of San Damiano, which was rebuilt by St. Francis and his followers; and the Shrine of the Spogliazione, or “undressing,” where St. Francis stripped himself while renouncing his title and inheritance.
Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, who heads the integral human development office, will open the event.
After Turkson, renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs will give the first keynote speech on the topic, “Perfecting Joy: Three proposals to let life flourish.” Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Sachs for nearly 30 years has advised the Vatican under three popes on economic affairs.
Though he is known to be at odds with the Church on issues such as contraception and population control, Sachs has been a key player in crafting tone-setting papal documents such as St. John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus and Pope Francis’s 2015 eco-encyclical, Laudato Si.
Other speakers include globally recognized personalities known for their advocacy for the poor and the environment, and who would more or less be seen as aligning with Pope Francis’s own vision for global economics.
Among the most renown speakers is Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi social entrepreneur, banker, and economist.
Known as the “Banker of the Poor,” Yunus in 2006 was awarded the Nobel peace prize for his efforts in pioneering microcredit and microfinance. His Grameen Bank initiative carries this idea forward, offering loans to entrepreneurs who are too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans, such as farmers or basket weavers.
In a speech for the Thomson Reuters Foundation annual Trust Conference, Yunus said it will take “outrageously bold” thinking to re-shape society post-COVID-19, and outlined three main priority areas: Ending climate change, tackling wealth inequality and making efforts to ensure AI technologies don’t cause mass unemployment.
Indian quantum physicist and Hindu activist Vandana Shiva is also set to address participants. Based in Delhi, she is a board member for the International Forum on Globalization and is known for her anti-globalization advocacy.
Shiva is also a known quantity in the Vatican. Not only have articles from her appeared in, “Woman, Church, World,” the monthly insert of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, but in March 2019 she was among dozens of speakers invited to address a 3-day conference at the Vatican on how different religions can contribute to reading the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.
Also slated to speak at the conference is Kate Raworth, an economist working for both the University Oxford and the University of Cambridge. Raworth is most known for her work on so-called “doughnut economics,” a model she believes balances human needs and planetary boundaries by outlining a solid social foundation and economic ceiling, with humanity living between the two.
Italian economist and President of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences Stefano Zamagni is also among the speakers. One of highest-ranking laymen at the Vatican, Zamagni teaches at the University of Bologna and is known for his emphasis on cooperation.
In an April 14 roundtable with journalists, Zamagni said the coronavirus crisis has revealed the inability of the global community, and of Europe in particular, to handle major crises such as COVID-19 and the 2008 economic meltdown.
Noting that EU member-states share no common policies on foreign affairs, economics, immigration, welfare or debt, he called for a return to the founding principles of EU based on solidarity, and for greater cooperation among member-states.
Other speakers include Mauro Magatti, a sociologist and economist who teaches at the Catholic University of Milano, is known for his insistence on a policy of social generativity, and who shares Pope Francis’s opposition to a neoliberalist economy; and Juan Camilo Cardenas, a professor at the University of the Andes in Colombia who holds a doctoral degree in Environmental and Resource Economics, and whose professional focus is on analyzing and designing institutions which promote individual cooperation and equitable and sustainable to global problems.
Osgoode Hall Law School Professor Jennifer Nedelsky will also speak. An expert in feminist and legal theory, she specializes in research connected to the organization of care and of work.
In May she spoke to one of the prep groups for the “Economy of Francis” event, insisting on the importance of care – for other people and for the environment – as the foundation of a functional society. Arguing that the current societal mindset is too focused on work and production, she insisted more attention be given to caring for the planet and for families, beginning with children and the elderly.
French Sister Cécile Renouard, a member of the Religious of the Assumption with a doctoral degree in political philosophy from ESSEC, where she currently teaches, will also address participants.
Focused primarily on ethics and economics and an ecologically and socially responsible and sustainable development at the corporate level, she has authored numerous books on social justice issues and has challenged economic models based on growth, rather than sustainability and thriving, insisting these do not acknowledge the limited nature of the earth’s resources.
In addition to talks from these and other experts, there will also be 12 working sessions during the online conference dedicated to topics addressed by different preparation groups, including: work and care; management and gift; finance and humanity; agriculture and justice; energy and poverty; profit and vocation; policies for happiness; CO2 of inequality; business and peace; economy and women; businesses in transition; and life and lifestyle.
A follow-up meeting in Assisi is being planned for autumn 2021, with the hope that the coronavirus crisis will have abated by then, and restrictions on travel and social proximity will be more relaxed, allowing participants to gather in person, rather than online.
According to a press release from the Basilica of St. Francis, the pope’s goal in organizing this year’s “Economy of Francis” event with young people as the protagonists is to initiate “a process of global change so that the economy of today and tomorrow is more just, fraternally inclusive, and sustainable, leaving no one behind.”
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