Letter from New York: A Big Apple Reading of Pope Francis

Dear Friends of Istituto Acton,

Greetings from snowy New York City, the morning after that spectacle of American excess known as Super Bowl Sunday. The game was blessed with mild weather but provided little excitement, with the Seattle Seahawks easily defeating the Denver Broncos, which means more attention was paid to the halftime entertainment and the annual rollout of new commercials, with 30-second spots going for $4 million. I’ve been here for more than a week, and the throngs of fans added some extra buzz to an already bustling metropolis, with all kinds of exhibits filling Times Square. Perhaps I’ve “gone native” and become too European to be very impressed by it all, however. The game without all the hoopla is plenty for me.

Being a first-hand witness to such extravagance in the “capital of the world” also concentrates one’s mind on Pope Francis’s recent criticisms of the global economy and especially the financial sector. (The surreal experience of hustling through Grand Central Station and seeing Pope Francis on the cover of Rolling Stone also helped.) Virtually all of my Catholic acquaintances who work in finance here have been perplexed by the Pope’s statements and seem to have been voicing their concerns to each other privately for some time now. It could be that Francis’s words have struck a little bit too close to home and have been interpreted more critically because these Catholic/Wall-Street-types themselves are conflicted between their professional livelihoods and their religious and moral beliefs. I think this would be an inaccurate representation of their views.

Most of the people I’ve talked to in New York are very successful when measured by any material standard – and certainly compared to those of us in Rome. But they are also aware that such standards are not the final measure of a life well-lived. They know that they need to be good spouses and parents as well as respectful of the human dignity of their colleagues and clients, even as they are fully cognizant of the fact that so many others in their field claim to have no such qualms or principles. And some know that their wealth and good fortune could disappear as quickly as it arrived. Others seem to be in a constant state of low-to-mid-level anxiety and stress, which would be a good psychological description of the average New Yorker. “Businesspeople here are animals,” was how one transplanted Midwesterner put it to me. But unlike most Europeans, they actually have wealth and success to fret about.

So are they right to be concerned or upset with the Pope’s views on economics? On one hand, Francis’s comments have had the positive effect of getting Catholics in the finance and banking industry to examine their consciences, rectify their intentions, and see how they differ from the less scrupulous in their midst. They can do this without wearing a Catholic label on their chest, since it should also be a good way of performing their professional duties. On the other hand, as practicing Catholics, they are very likely to take the Pope and his comments seriously and respectfully, even if they disagree with his particular analysis of what ails the economy. It’s even more confusing to them when the Pope claims that he’s not speaking technically, as he did in his interview with Andrea Tornielli. Then why address economics at all, some have asked.

The more I speak and hear from them, the more I realize that the Pope is speaking of a different reality than the ones these professionals live with. There are many, everyday moral and ethical challenges that are only heightened when the pressures to increase returns on investments are as intense as they are on Wall Street. But without good people in finance and banking, who would be doing the lending? The even more rapacious and greedy would be left unchecked and everyone would be worse off, morally and economically since everyone in a commercial society requires capital to build businesses, met payroll and buy homes. Take a look at what’s happening in Argentina and Turkey if you want to get a glimpse of a country whose populist leaders view much-needed foreign capital as the problem rather than the solution.

It seems to me that the Pope may indeed desire some kind of structural, systemic reform of the world economy – about which there is much debate among economists – but even more important than this would be a type of existential conversion of practitioners, especially the so-called “lords of financial capital”. This may mean that capitalists look at their investments in ways that reflect the way the Pope looks at the reform of the Roman Curia or even the way he deals with the poor and disabled he meets – as an encounter with an icon or imago Dei. This does not mean that practitioners forget or deny their particular vocation, rather that they live it in ways that are manifestly “authentic” or “sincere”.

I use smart-quotes for the above terms because, as regular readers of this newsletter know, they are the kinds of moral terms that reflect the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his critique of commercial society. For a contrasting view, we could turn to Adam Smith and especially this letter to the Edinburgh Review containing his views on Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality. To simplify grossly, the differences in their moral perspectives are largely the result of different appraisals of popular opinion and hypocrisy. For Smith, behaving respectably in order to make sure others have a good opinion of you and will want to do business with you is a net positive. For Rousseau, it leads to all kinds of perversions and alienation from oneself and others.

Neither Smith nor Rousseau are pillars of Catholic social teaching, but their writings accurately reflect the degree to which business was intentionally designed to become our way of life. Their thought continues to affect the way we also discuss and debate contemporary moral issues. Seeing our issues in terms of what older, more profound thinkers had to say will help those of us trying to make moral and economic sense of the world, even if it doesn’t always lead to a definite policy proposal or outcome. Such are the complexities of living in bastions of global capitalism such as New York, London or Hong Kong, or its outliers, which has come to include places like Rome and other parts of Western Europe. But there needs to be more serious, less platitudinous discussion between the moralists and the technicians if our world wants to be not only richer but more just as well. I think my Wall Street friends are starting, after some consternation, to understand this and hope my Vatican ones do too.

Kishore Jayabalan