Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. For more information, visit faith.yale.edu.
Sister Helen Alford: You cannot serve both God and Mammon. If you put the economy at the center of human life, you tend to get problems. It's a really important part of human life, but it's not the center of human life. So, this idea that the economy is a good tool but a bad master is I think very important.
Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: I'm Ryan McAnnally-Linz with the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. Shortly after Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis in March 2013, he released an exhortation, a papal document very similar to an encyclical, but addressed to a specifically Christian audience. Evangelii Gaudium, or The Joy of the Gospel, began by articulating what Francis sees as the most pressing challenges for the contemporary church. First on his list is the economy of exclusion. He writes:
“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”
"This kind of economy," he says, "goes hand in hand with a throwaway culture." Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded," he writes.
Today, we're offering the second of a series of episodes on Fratelli Tutti, or Brothers and Sisters All, a papal encyclical that encourages dreaming together of a different world, a world of social friendship, of solidarity among all people of goodwill, and far from the throwaway culture, a world that recognizes the dignity of each and every human person. It's a challenging message of hope to a world that so often pushes us toward despair. If you missed the last episode, we provided an introduction to Fratelli Tutti with social ethicist, Nicole Flores.
In this episode, we dive into the economic implications of Fratelli Tutti. Sister Helen Alford teaches at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas in Rome, and was appointed by Pope Francis to the Pontifical Academy of social sciences, which advises the Pope on pressing social issues. She and I discussed the economic vision of Fratelli Tutti, including concerns about unrestrained free markets, the importance of allowing human life and dignity to frame our economic policy, what behavioral economics tells us about human relationality, and how we can understand the big picture of politics, economics, faith, and flourishing operating in Catholic social thought. Thanks for listening.
Sister Helen, thank you for taking the time to join us today. It's great to be able to speak with you.
Sister Helen Alford: Thank you so much, Ryan. I'm very happy to be here.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: I wanted to ask you at the start here: what do you think is Francis's goal in Fratelli Tutti? What is it that he's after?
Sister Helen Alford: I think he wants to call to the whole of humanity. In that sense, it's not by chance that he calls it Fratelli Tutti, all brothers or all sisters together. It's become especially urgent in the context of the pandemic during which he wrote the actual encyclical, although he started it before. But he wanted to do that anyway, and I think we should see it connected also with his previous encyclical, which came out five years ago, 2015, which was called Laudato Si, which is also another quotation from St. Francis. There's very strong connection with St. Francis, both of these documents.
But Laudato Si was much more focused on developing a good relationship with our environment, and the whole question of how are we going to live in the future in a sustainable way on our planet and the sort of religious dimension that... This is much more about how we relate to each other, which is a part of what he would call an integral ecology, ecology being something that's about us in our environment, which means a natural environment, so we can think about an environmental ecology, but also our human environment and that sense of a human ecology, if you like. So, integral ecology. So I think these two documents go together in that sense.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: That's interesting. So economy and ecology have a shared etymological root and in the Greek word oikos, which a then Frances trying to draw tight connections between ecological thinking and economic?
Sister Helen Alford: I think that's a very good point. I think he sees the question of life as a central issue. He wants human life to be flourishing and he wants natural life and the planet to be flourishing. And he wants an economy that puts life and human development, human dignity at the center. And in that sense, he's absolutely classical. If we look at all the modern social teaching, especially the last two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, we see very much the same kind of concern about putting the human being at the center, as well as a concern about the environment. For all these popes, putting the human person center means also respecting the environment. They don't see any kind of big conflict between those two things.
And in fact, we see that now in terms of the way the international sustainable development goals are functioning, that were agreed in 2015, that's part of this big United Nations agenda for helping the world confront the crisis they faces, which are both human and environmental. There's also the idea of the donut in economics, which is a very beautiful, I think, a very powerful image—a donut with an inner ring and an outer ring. The inner ring is the social minimum that our economy should produce. So we need a minimum amount of goods to make sure we can take care of people's health; we can provide the services they need; they can be educated; they can have the kind of freedoms that are consonant with real human development.
But then we also have the outer limits of the ring, the donut ring, which is the environmental ceiling, so we can't go beyond a certain impact on our environment. And the whole idea is that we should try to live within the ring of the donut. And that means we can do lots of different things, but we were trying to do that within that framework. So this idea that human development and environmental protection go together, I think is one of the ideas coming out of Catholic Social Teaching and other traditions, which has now become mainstream and is really influencing economic thinking as well as political thinking of many other areas.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: If that donut principle is one thing that's operating effectively in the way that Francis is writing in Laudato Si and Fratelli Tutti—he's not an economist, so he's not trying to offer policy proposals, but I take it that there are principles that he's trying to lay out that are supposed to guide our discernment and action with respect to economic life and one of those might be the ecological principle that you just said. What else does Fratelli Tutti put out there?
Sister Helen Alford: I think Fratelli Tutti wants to see the economy as situated within a bigger vision of human development. So the economy really has a crucial part to play, but it's, I would say, the foundations of a house. The house falls down if we don't have proper foundations, and social life collapses if we don't have an economy that's working properly. Hence why, for instance, we have so much pressure for migration today. Much of the migration pressure is not because people want to leave their homes, but because they can't get access to the goods and services and possibilities that those give them in their home countries. Most people, if you ask, would prefer to stay in their own home country. So we see this kind of collapsing society around us where there's not enough economic goods.
But we don't just build foundations just for foundations. To do that is absurd. The foundations must support something which is of greater importance, which in the case of the buildings, the house itself. And in the case of the economy is a good human life for human beings in general, in the context of the planet that we've been given, for which from Christian point of view, is a gift of God to us. So another way of saying that would be that the economy is about serving the common good—the common good in the sense of something which is good for all of us, something which is allowing human flourishing and allowing the planet on which we depend to flourish along with us in an integrated way.
As I mentioned before Pope Francis will tend to emphasize this word, integral ecology. It's not coined by him, this term, but he gives a lot more emphasis than other popes before him, especially in Laudato Si, which is where he really talks about it in relation to the environment. But he picks it up again several times in Fratelli Tutti. So between the two documents, we can see this sort of vision of the economy and also, if the economy is going to serve that human flourishing, we need to have a political order that's able to give a proper direction to the economy.
So he will talk, for instance, in Fratelli Tutti about the primacy of politics. And I think we see that. We give huge interests to the elections. You've just had a big election cycle in United States. It's enormously important to people. It fits with what people feel actually is important. Even though often, sadly, and this is one of the things he does in his analysis in the encyclical, we often experience this importance in a negative sense. We see how difficult it is to make a political system really function well today. But that's not because we don't think—well that doesn't make us think that it's not important. It's quite the opposite. We feel the difficulty of that precisely because we see it is important.
So I think this recovery, if you like, of the role of politics and of a political system and of law and regulation as giving a healthy foundation to the economy is also quite important in terms of his economic principles in these two encyclicals.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: That's interesting. Both of the things that we've talked about so far—ecology and then political institutional sort of systems—it seems like maybe one thing that Francis is doing is trying to bound economics a little bit, trying to contextualize it and make sure that it doesn't take up too much space or overflow its limits. Is that fair to say?
Sister Helen Alford: Yeah. And I think so. I think this is a basic gospel principle that he's trying to recover again. You cannot serve both God and Mammon. If you put the economy at the center of human life, you tend to get problems. It's a really important part of human life, but it's not the center. We also have the gospel story about the coin, tax to be paid to Caesar and a very important phrase of Christ, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and give to God what is God's." That sense in which this kind of world order has a kind of place within God's plan and the economy will be part of that, but it's not the center of human life. So this idea that the economy is a good tool but a bad master is I think very important.
And also we find this in completely secular philosophy. We think about Aristotle or some of the early Greek philosophers. Aristotle makes a big difference. You mentioned about oikos and oikonomia earlier. That the economy, which is connected with the home—and it's interesting that Pope Francis subtitles Laudato Si "Care of Our Common Home." He wants to make a reference to that. But he contrasts this with chrematistics, as it would be called in English, a sort of Anglicization of the Greek word, which is unleashed, uncontrolled economic gain. And he sees that as a really dangerous force in society. And I think gospel says something very similar. It's a good tool, but a bad master.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: So Francis has gotten something of a reputation as a critic of contemporary economic systems. He famously said, "This economy kills," and it sounds like one sort of critique is there is a tendency or potential for economics to become the central thing, for the economy to become the master rather than the tool, in the phrase that you just used. What does he mean by this economy kills? What are the other things that he says particularly about the way things operate right now that he's trying to push against?
Sister Helen Alford: I think one of the things he's concerned about is a kind of an ideology, a kind of way of thinking which argues that as long as we have as much freedom as possible in the economy, we will get a good result. And he wants to say—and I think he's speaking a lot out of his experience in Argentina, his personal experience—that that doesn't work. He talks about this idea of trickle-down. This is an idea that you hear sometimes in economic discussion that, in other words, we allow a free range of competition, but this will then create a sort of output that will trickle down to the poorer people as well. And he's very skeptical about this.
And I think that there's a lot more thinking now about how to think about economics now, because that whole idea of a sort of freedom from—the free market in the sense of take away all regulation, take away all rules. That is very compatible with a particular idea of the human being and of human freedom, which I think we could characterize as individualistic. If I have my objectives and I want to achieve them, then what I need is the most space in which to do that. Okay. Now I think a lot of modern social genetic neuroscience, behavioral economics, a lot of research now, apart from the whole moral questions—a lot of modern research in these sciences is showing us that actually we have very strong a relational component to what we do in the economy, not only in the family and in the church and all that kind of thing.
There's a famous experiment that behavioral economists have done, called the "Ultimatum Game," where you have two people playing a game—it's one of these things that behavioral economists do; they get people to play games and see how they react. So you tell the first person, "You're going to be given a big sum of money, say $500 or $1000 or something, but you'll only receive this money if you give some of it to another person." So let's say we call the first person A and the second person B. "So A, you will only get this money if you offer some of it to B and B accepts your offer." A knows that B doesn't know how much money A's got. And then the other part of the experiment to say to B is, "A has a certain sum of money and they're going to offer you some money and you can decide whether you're accepted or not; if you don't accept it, neither of you will get the money." So what happens in these experiments? The classic economic thinking would be that A will offer the minimum possible in order to keep as much as possible, but B get something because if B refuses it then B doesn't get anything. So it's in the interest of B to say yes.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: B should always say yes as long as it's greater than zero, because the options are zero or that.
Sister Helen Alford: Exactly. But what happens actually is that the most common offer that people give is a 50-50 offer, if you do this experiment around the world. This is written up in scientific research. And then the next most common is 60-40 after that. And the way they try to explain this is to say that people experience this money as a gift, that they've been given this gift, and they feel like they should share it with this other person who is going to help them get this gift. That's just one example. We could have lots of other examples. It may not be the best one of how relationships really count in economic transactions.
So if we come back to the thing about the free market, a lot of people are rethinking economic ideas for the sake of the good economy—not for just moral reasons or Christian reasons or anything like that—because they're beginning to see that this idea of just clearing out all the kind of obstacles to my free behavior is a very reductionist and limited view of the way we behave. And we could have a better idea about this.
For instance, it's not particularly new. The Nobel Prize for Economics was given in 2009 to a US woman, Elinor Ostrom, for her work on how traditional peoples use common resources, say a fishing ground. How do they manage the fishing ground so that everybody can continue to live on the fishing ground? It doesn't get exhausted. We don't have some people taking advantage of the fact that nobody actually owns this. It's a shared good. And they have all kinds of quite sophisticated systems for managing and stopping it from becoming exhausted. A lot of what we could learn from in the sort of more Western world of this stuff. Anyway, there's lots of examples in history and today as well. Cooperatives will be another example. Social enterprise will be another example—lots of really interesting examples today of how we, behave as relational beings in the economy.
So if we go back to the earlier idea I said that business should be serving the common good, it should be part of something, then it starts to make a lot more sense if we think of ourselves as beings in relation. From a Christian point of view, that's obvious if we think of being made in the image and likeness of God and if we believe in God is a series of relations—one God, but relations within that. It shouldn't be a surprise to us from a Christian point of view that relationality is really important to us.
And also the geneticists would say—oh, by the way, another really interesting thing I could tell you: there's a famous book, which you may have heard of, which was published by an important geneticist called Richard Dawkins—The Selfish Gene—published it decades ago. Now, when the 30th anniversary edition came out, in the new preface he wrote for that book, the celebratory preface, he actually said in it, "I could have called this book—instead of The Selfish Gene I could have called it The Cooperative Gene because in all the genetic research that's been done subsequently, we've realized more and more that human societies have survived because they've cooperated with each other, and there's been a kind of selection of genes in the human communities over hundreds of thousand years, which favor cooperation." So that's just another sense in which cooperation is built into us. Relationality is built into us. We know that from our religious traditions and our philosophical traditions. We now know it more and more from the scientific research that we're getting, including economic research. And it's beginning to change our thinking about how economies work.
So I would say that what the Pope is saying, and what lots of environmentalist is saying, and a lot of people interested in development and that kind of thing is saying this sort of sense that the economy is here to serve the good of society as a whole. I think there's a lot of things moving in that direction anyway, even within economics. So I think this is very interesting, important dialogues that could be had between the church, between economic thinkers, between philosophers and the scientists that are producing these results to help us live more in that way, which is also coherent with our faith, for those of us who were Christians.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: There are lots and lots of people whose experience of economic life, primarily in terms of, say labor markets and things like that, is not one of cooperation but quite a bit of conflict intention and struggle, a sense that they're being taken advantage of. And how does what Francis is doing, how does Catholic social thought more broadly speak to that experience and what sort of stance—does it offer any guidance on how to live in an economy that doesn't seem to be cooperating with you, but maybe even just grinding you up in its gears?
Sister Helen Alford: I would say a couple of things about that. Ideas really count. Ideas really formed the way people think and form what the possibilities are. So if people who are really have good will—a lot of people who are running our economies today really have goodwill. They really think that you have to run an economy like this, otherwise you don't get a good result. They're going to do that because they think that's the right thing to do. So I think changing these ideas is in the long term the most important way of dealing with the problem that you were talking about.
If we think about the long impact over history that—for instance, the medieval monks had in changing the idea about manual work. In the classical times, Greek and Roman times, manual work was for slaves, for the non-people; it was considered beneath the dignity of an important person. But the monks over hundreds of years, living on it, copying Christ, following the apostles and that, they changed the way people thought about manual work. And if they hadn't, we wouldn't have been able to have the kind of economic development that we've seen subsequently in the second millennium. They also brought in the idea of human dignity, which is another Christian idea that's become a secular idea now, gradually influencing society.
So these long-term changes of ideas are really important, but that's not going to help the person you're talking about right now who's experiencing these problems right now. So I would say that the most important answer that the church has, or that the Catholic Social Teaching has for that kind of problem, is solidarity. Since the beginning, the first modern social encyclical of the modern period of Catholic social teaching, 1891, which was called Of Modern Things, Rerum Navara, it really focused on the problem of the working people in a modern time, mostly manufacturing economy. And its main solution was we have to come together in solidarity.
Now interestingly, Pope Leo XIII—at the time, he was the Pope; he wrote it. He offered two possibilities of solidarity. His favorite possibility was a kind of solidarity between workers and owners, of coming together to help each other in the business. And we do see that in some businesses. People helping, managers—we see kinds of approaches to work especially in the smaller, medium size businesses, a sense of helping each other of working together to support each other during family crises, during ups and downs of the economy. You do hear about higher paid people taking cut so that people don't have to be laid off and things like that. That can happen.
In general, the more important form of solidarity, at least the way the economy has been working, is a solidarity between workers who are in a vulnerable position and need each other's support. And once we start to get that—which historically was unions, but it could be done in different ways; it could be through cooperatives; it could be through local community support; but this idea of using our relationality in supporting each other, building together a different kind of bargaining power, a different kind of position in the market, valuing human skill as skill, maybe coordinating with other actors like universities or think tanks—finding ways in which we can be and do different things in the economy, but don't create a situation which is the opposite of the free economy for so many actors. They don't feel any freedom. They feel completely constrained. They can't get the jobs they want. They can't develop the way they want. They have maybe heavy debt burdens. They can't get the healthcare they need or all kinds of things like this, that they experience exclusion and oppression a lot of the time. And those are the kinds of people that Pope Francis is talking about when he says this economy does a lot of damage or this economy kills.
Like Christ himself who went, as he said, "I haven't come for the well but for the sake," the Pope is especially concerned about the people who are suffering in our society today. So he's going to be especially thinking about them. So solidarity can do a lot. It can achieve a lot if we can have hope, if we can have perseverance and if we can keep at it.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: A Catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor, made this, I think, really astute observation about Fratelli Tutti. He says that Francis isn't just prescribing rules that are supposed to regulate our conduct. It's not saying here are the bounds, do what you want within them. But he's writing about the shape of what Taylor calls the fullness of humanity and how to reach it. And I think there's one place in Fratelli Tutti where that part of its project comes to the fore, which is when Francis talks about dreaming. He has this invitation. "Let us dream as a single human family," he says. And I wanted to ask because I think it's actually related to the idea of solidarity and you've mentioned the common good: what is Francis's vision of that fullness? What kind of dream is he wanting us to dream about our life together beyond just the rules, but what sort of life would be really full life for us?
Sister Helen Alford: It's life where we have a kind of basic framework of recognition of human rights. We have the universal declaration of human rights. We have a lot of other documents, which lay down what are the kind of minimums, if you like, in terms of the negatives, and then some aspirations in terms of the positive rights, like a right to education. So we can think about it in terms of human rights.
We can think of it in terms of how do we think about our own human development and how would we want others to be able to have the kind of development that we have? We all need basic things enough to live on. We need shelter. And of course housing is a big issue in many parts of the world. We need health care, another big issue. And then we need the chance to develop in many ways. We need cultural opportunities. We need the chance to listen to, and to learn to express ourselves and that includes in terms of listening to preaching about possible faith, listening to God, having openness to the transcendent, to the spiritual dimension, to the life of faith. All that would be part of it.
And I think often it can sound a bit vague when you talk about that kind of thing, but the vagueness is because the good is so diverse. If I focused on one thing and said, "He's really concerned about that," then I would leave out a lot of other things. And the wonderful thing about goodness—which often doesn't come across because so often in our media and in the kind of advertising, we see kind of religion and living a good life is connected with keeping rules, as you say.
The idea of living the life to the full, living a good life is about having far more possibilities than you would have if you didn't do that. Doing things which are morally wrong or negative tend to cut down your possibilities and reduce your life, or give you fewer opportunities that you'll end up. This sense of opening up diversity, and there's a lot of discussion in that encyclical about how one of the things about this life of goodness that the Pope is calling us to, and many people of goodwill are calling to us to, is going to increase diversity and that we will need to be able to have dialogue with each other and live with each other in a real encounter—he uses that other word several times in the encyclical—really to meet each other and learn from each other in our diversity, and be able to love each other in that diversity because love is also a crucial world. He talks about political love, which might seem like an oxymoron in today's society.
Going towards the good is going towards the greatest freedom we could ever have, and that's what we do expect as Christians. Our Lord came to give us life and give it in its fullness—to set us free.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: The kind of picture you're painting is fullness of life doesn't look like a clearly demarcated path through a canyon, but like coming to the edge of an expansive vista. You can't really capture what's there. You can only point and say, "Look at the possibilities."
Sister Helen Alford: Yeah. A good summary.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Thank you so much for this conversation. It's been really lovely talking to you.
Sister Helen Alford: Thank you, Ryan.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Friends, thanks for listening to For the Life of the World. We're honored to bring these conversations to you every week. We'll be back next Saturday with Father Martin Schlag reflecting on work, business, property, and the common good in Fratelli Tutti.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured Sister Helen Alford and theologian, Ryan McAnnally-Linz. Special thanks to Louis Kim for his feedback and guidance on the series. I'm Evan Rosa and I edited and produced the show. For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu. We produce new episode every Saturday, and you can subscribe through any podcast app. We're grateful that you're listening to this podcast.
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