Re-Animating Economics: The Economy of Francesco and the Pursuit of the Common Good
After hours of waiting, I wiped my jet-lagged eyes to experience the culmination of one of the most transformative experiences of my life.
Pope Francis began to address us, a crowd of young economists, praising our work at the Economy of Francesco’s first global gathering. After a weekend of brainstorming ways to “bring a soul to the economy”, our proposals promoting Integral Human Development were, at last, well received by the Holy Father. As the Pope continued his speech, however, I realized the immediate celebration was to be short-lived. As he tasked us to go beyond theory and to, in all practical ways, “look at the world with the eyes of the poorest”, I remembered the daunting task I came to embark on. Yet, somehow, I was filled with a newfound hope: a hope that has inspired me to a calling of work in international development.
The Economy of Francesco’s global gathering in Assisi in September 2022 was a response to a 2019 letter from Pope Francis, calling young economists, entrepreneurs, and change-makers to come together and find creative ways to “re-animate the economy”. In his letter, the Pope specifically urged all of us to see the realities of the global economic system through the eyes of the poor, judge the way that it affects human life, the environment, and the common good, and act in personal and public ways to promote an economy 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.”
This renewed call for a life-affirming economy is echoed throughout the encyclicals of Pope Francis, but it is also rooted in the rich history of the principles of Catholic Social Teaching and the Church’s social encyclicals, dating all the way to Rerum Novarum (1891).
While even since the early first century, the early church fathers engaged in social life and concerns, the recent social encyclicals have clearly defined the Church’s principled approach to human development issues. The principles that developed (subsidiarity, solidarity, and the promotion of the common good) all serve to achieve the goal of human development — the promotion of human dignity, fulfillment, and flourishing. In writing Laudato Si and Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis added a specific emphasis on the nexus between human flourishing and our care for all of creation. “The cry of the Earth” and the “cry of the poor” are two aspects of development that must go hand-in-hand. In other words, this “Integral Development” inspires us to promote the full development of every human person and to protect all of creation: an essential component of the common good and global human flourishing.
Integral Development and the primacy of human dignity within the field of development can even be observed in secular notions of economic development. Although the exact definition of “human dignity” may vary, the notion of it and its implications are often cited throughout the mission and vision statements of numerous NGOs and international development groups. It is often also cited as a concept in Western and non-Western academic literature regarding development in both religious and secular contexts. Integral Development can also be seen in increased literature on the need for the combination of human development and sustainability practices throughout business and economic institutions. The Economy of Francesco, while often promoting these same goals, also offers something more: hope. For, if the goal of Economics is simply to measure inequality and poverty, without the hope that fresh ideas (and concrete actions) can create a better human condition for all, then it runs the risk of becoming a sad discipline. The young economists of The Economy of Francesco recognize this, and with the support of Pope Francis and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, the movement has continued to grow, approaching development issues with an emphasis on human dignity and a preferential option for the poor.
The movement has grown into hubs in over 20 countries, and members of each of the 12 “villages,” or groups focusing on specific aspects of integral development, collaborate on the national and international levels. While the international movement and each of the villages have had many meetings in the past, The Economy of Francesco’s hubs are becoming increasingly active in the countries and regions they operate in.
This summer, for instance, the Croatian hub was the first to host an International Summer School. The conference was entitled “On Environmental and Social Crises: New Economy”. I was able to attend the conference, and I am ever thankful to Dr. Dawn Carpenter, the Solidarity Economy Workshop, and the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor for their support in making my attendance possible.
Conversations that I took part in involved innovative financing and development, the circular economy and Laudato Si, organizational justice, and Catholic Social Teaching and its response to different crises over the years. After these plenary sessions and lectures, we were invited to think critically about the current crises the world faces. Environmentally, for example, over 26% of the world population lacks access to clean water, and global Carbon Dioxide emissions continue to grow at unsustainable levels. Yet, we ignore the “cry of the Earth” and continue to exploit creation, especially in the global south, to meet our seemingly endless need for consumption. Economically, 25,000 people die from hunger and poverty daily, yet in the news, our media would rather prioritize coverage of a 0.25% drop in the stock market. Our priorities continue to lie in achieving profit as an end goal in itself, and not in using it as an important tool for achieving the greater good. Socially, we are more isolated, polarized, and, in some ways, more confused than ever before. We lack a clear, objective, good, and we yearn for a greater purpose. Through dialogue and discussion, those of us at the conference came to understand that these complex social crises are deeply intertwined, and that the questions driving them lie at the heart of human purpose and dignity— questions that Integral Development aims to answer.
Together, we discovered that the solutions to these global crises lie in using the systems we have to promote the common good: mainly, the dignity of each human person and respect for our common home.
Moving beyond our critical analysis of the global situation, those of us at the conference also took time to look for the good in the world, learning from each other and our experiences as economic consultants, mechanical engineers, interreligious actors, academics, and members of the religious community. Together, we discovered that the solutions to these global crises lie in using the systems we have to promote the common good: mainly, the dignity of each human person and respect for our common home. We need to promote the uniqueness of each human person and properly recognize the gifts they bring to the world simply through their existence, but also through their labor, a way of living out one’s dignity and purpose in the economy. These changes must occur at all levels, including our personal lives, families, civil society, governments, and institutions. Therefore, there is no overnight fix. The solution requires a change of hearts and an openness to accepting responsibility and graciousness towards the lives of the most vulnerable. It requires a new notion of freedom, one that respects our liberties but also emphasizes our ability to turn away from evil, choose what is right, and be able love our neighbors, standing with those at the margins of society while expecting nothing in return. While this task is daunting, the Economy of Francesco knows that it is not impossible. Even when we make the smallest changes in our own lives, we will see ripple effects in the lives of those around us. Even more, when each of us does this in our own corners of the world, we might just ignite the spark needed to put human dignity back at the center of our economic lives and, therefore, at the center of the global economic system as well. This is why the Economy of Francesco is so important. It allows our view of economics to become much more personal and much more hopeful. Moreover, it inspires us to take global responsibility and solidarity into our own hands. It allows us to use our talents, education, and careers to dream of creative ways of being men and women for and with others, re-animating economics along the way.
Carson Rayhill is a second-year master’s candidate at the BMW Center for German and European Studies and pursuing a certificate in Global Human Development in the School of Foreign Service.