No socialist: Pope Francis matters to the City of London

Philip Booth
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THE protodeacon of the Catholic Church proclaimed on Wednesday, “I announce to you a great joy – we have a pope!”. The election of Pope Francis, an Argentinian, is certainly of great importance to the world’s 1.2bn Catholics. But does it matter to the City?

Certainly, the thinking of the Church influences the intellectual climate in which economic ideas are debated. Recently, the Church has been at the forefront of promoting the importance of ethics in financial markets. Indeed, the Catholic Church in England and Wales has been pursuing some interesting practical initiatives in the City. On a wider scale, whether the Church warms to, or is hostile to, a market economy and globalisation can make a difference to the debates about those issues.

But what does the new pope think? The BBC and other commentators have noted that the pope is a proponent of “social justice”. To the BBC this would mean that he is a proponent of socialism. However, the fact that Pope Francis cares deeply about the poor does not necessarily mean that he believes in a big state. In fact, he believes that government should create the conditions in which the poor can flourish. This is quite different from the social democrat view that sees the state as having a huge role in redistributing income and controlling the lives of the people.

It does appear, however, that Pope Francis has been a critic of globalisation, often focusing on its costs rather than on its benefits. And his typically Argentinian views on the Falkland Islands bring a strangely nationalistic aspect to his political mix. If the state is there to serve the people and not the other way round – a strong principle of Catholic social teaching – then surely the right of the people to determine the government under which they live is non-negotiable.

It is likely, though, that the new pope will be more interested in preaching the gospel than talking about economics. He also has a full in-tray when it comes to matters of Vatican governance. Pope Francis may, therefore, be reluctant to spend much time developing new thinking on economic matters.

However, this is a double-edged sword. Pope Benedict was of the same view and, when the former pope did communicate his thinking about social and economic matters, he had profound and original things to say that transcended secular debates. But, if the pope is silent, the Justice and Peace Commission tends to speak up. This is a Church body that called for a worldwide bailout fund for megabanks, and that keeps talking about widening inequality at a time when the world’s poor are getting better off at a rate never seen before – largely due to globalisation.

But proper reform of the Curia might mean proper reform of the Justice and Peace Commission: and that would be a relief.

The Catholic Church prays at mass for the world to be brought the fullness of charity through Christ. The Anglican Church often seems to see its mission as bringing the UK to the fullness of socialism. This is an important distinction which we can expect the new pope to maintain.

Philip Booth is editorial and programme director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.