Days after a secret meeting in Portugal of over 100 bishops from all over the world, the anti-Francis lobby has ramped up its attack on the Pope’s economic vision with a pro-free market book launch in Madrid.

Driving the news

From January 22-25, the ultraconservative, libertarian Acton Institute brought together 110 prelates from 42 countries in a luxury hotel in Sintra, in greater Lisbon, for an anti-Francis confab under the excuse of the “study, discussion and the exchange of experiences” on the world’s “socio-economic and demographic imbalances and the role of faith in the construction of social justice”, as one participant put it.

Two days later, on January 27, the founder and president of the Acton Institute, the priest Robert Sirico, appeared in Madrid for the re-launch of the Spanish edition of his book Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy.

Go deeper

According to a press release from the think-tank Civismo, which hosted the book presentation, Sirico made the case in Madrid for basing the free market “on adequate and coherent moral foundations”.

The priest also higlighted “the ability of people to take charge of their lives, which allows them to succeed both economically and spiritually”.

“The free market in a free society leads to the flourishing of the human being”, Sirico was quoted as saying in the event.

The Acton founder and president argued that the free market is productive therefore a motor of prosperity, generating employment, offering goods and services at lower prices – thereby raising the standard of living – and fostering residual wealth.

“Free society is a help, not an obstacle to social justice”, Sirico claimed.

But that “social justice”, according to the priest, cannot consist in “impersonal social assistance, but rather that people fulfill their responsibilities in justice with their neighbor, while the State plays a subsidiary role”.

That “social justice” of the free market must take as its prerequisites, Sirico said, not only personal freedom but also objective criteria in respect of good and evil.

“Virtuous people will see the market as a means, not as an end; their moral formation will influence their economic choices and the institutions they build”, the priest explained.

Left alone, a free society will build institutions that “ensure that people have sufficient means to lead a decent life”, Sirico continued, and in which the Catholic Church can make a contribution with its principles around freedom, solidarity and the preferential option for the poor.

“The free market is not the official doctrine of the Church on economic matters”, Sirico admitted, if only because the Church “doesn’t mean to promote any particular” economic doctrine.

“Rather, the free market, well understood, is consistent with the teaching of the Church”, Sirico concluded.

Why it matters

What’s wrong with all that, then?

In the first place, it’s worth remembering that anti-Francis Sirico has accused the Pope of being “imprudent” in his thought on the economy.

Most notably in his 2015 encyclical on care for the Common Home, Laudato si’, which Sirico recognised “poses a major challenge for free-market advocates, those of us who believe that capitalism is a powerful force for caring for the earth and lifting people out of poverty”.

Sirico also accused Francis of “a decided bias against free markets, and suggestions that poverty is the result of a globalized economy”, when in fact, according to the Acton founder and president, “capitalism has spurred the greatest reduction in global poverty in world history”.

Laudato si’ “unwisely concedes too much to the secular environmental agenda, for example, by denigrating fossil fuels”, Sirico said.

That criticism of Sirico’s of Francis’ encyclical was backed up by fellow Acton member and anti-Francis pundit Samuel Gregg, who wrote that Laudato si’, though “well intentioned”, is “deeply flawed”, full of “many conceptual problems and questionable empirical claims” about contemporary economic life.

For the record

Secondly and more importantly, though: is it any coincidence that the bishops’ meet on the economy in Portugal and Sirico’s book launch in Madrid – as well as other anti-Francis manoeuvres – come just two months out from the “Economy of Francesco” event the Pope has convened in Assisi with the aim of building a more “fair, sustainable and inclusive” economy, “with no one left behind”?

In his letter introducing the “Economy of Francesco” conference, Francis made it crystal clear that he seeks “a different kind of economy” from libertarian capitalism: “one that brings life not death, one that is inclusive and not exclusive, humane and not dehumanizing, one that cares for the environment and does not despoil it”.

“Surely there is a need to ‘re-animate’ the economy!”, the Pope exclaimed, adding “we need to correct models of growth incapable of guaranteeing respect for the environment, openness to life, concern for the family, social equality, the dignity of workers and the rights of future generations”.

“Sadly, few have heard the appeal to acknowledge the gravity of the problems and, even more, to set in place a new economic model, the fruit of a culture of communion based on fraternity and equality”, Francis deplored.

Too numerous to mention would be all the times Francis has condemned “the economy that kills”, and his repeated ‘noes’ to “the economy of exclusion”, “the new idolatry of money”, “a financial system which rules rather than serves”, and “the inequality which spawns violence, as in his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world”, Francis observed in that exhortation.

“This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting”.

Sirico and his anti-Francis episcopal and economic cronies should meditate on that papal meditation, and in the meantime leave space for the “Economy of Francesco” event to explore “new ways of understanding the economy and progress, for combating the culture of waste, for giving voice to those who have none and for proposing new styles of life”, as the Pope desires.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.