Business Leaders Move to Strengthen Vatican Ties

Corporate executives seek common ground with Catholic Church on the ethics of global capitalism
By Francis X. Rocca – Published in the Wall Steet Journal

ROME—Global business leaders sought common ground with the Vatican on a range of ethical issues at a conference that ended here Monday, the latest effort to improve relations strained by Pope Francis’ criticisms of global finance and capitalism.

At the two-day meeting organized by the Global Foundation, an Australian nonprofit that promotes dialogue among the business community, government and other civil society institutions, participants discussed issues such as how to foster broader job opportunities for young people and women and how to eradicate modern slavery.

The conference was headlined by Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s finance chief. Cardinal Pell is one of the few Vatican officials espousing pro-business sympathies that stand in contrast to those of Pope Francis, who has derided money as the “dung of the devil” and frequently excoriated the free-market system.

“Market economics have brought unprecedented prosperity and represent, despite their many faults and deficiencies, an extraordinary human achievement,” Cardinal Pell told the 50-odd attendees, among them Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund; Dominic Barton, managing director of McKinsey & Co.; Mark Cutifani, CEO of Anglo American PLC; and Robert Thomson, CEO of News Corp, which owns The Wall Street Journal.

On Monday, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, also addressed the roundtable, where he recalled the pope’s comments lauding the “spirit of enterprise.”

The Catholic Church has long had a conflicted relationship with commerce, rooted in the Gospel’s warnings against the spiritual perils of wealth. Monks and nuns emulated Jesus by taking a vow of poverty. But medieval Catholic theologians reinterpreted biblical injunctions against usury, thus facilitating the emergence of modern banking and capitalism.

In modern times, a 19th-century encyclical by Pope Leo XIII criticized the excesses of the free market and affirmed the rights of workers to organize, while also defending the right to private property.

During the Cold War, the Vatican was often more concerned with denouncing communism than capitalism. In 1991, the anticommunist Pope John Paul II gave qualified recognition of the virtues of entrepreneurship, in what free market enthusiasts hailed as the most positive papal statement on the subject to date.

The end of the Cold War freed the Vatican to pursue a critical line on capitalism. Pope Benedict XVI, who, while still a cardinal, praised democratic socialism for its similarities to Catholic social teaching, warned as pope against the “logic of profit.” He called for a “true world political authority” in order to “manage the global economy,” and won the nickname of the “green pope” for his vocal environmentalism.

The 2013 election of Pope Francis, the first pope from the developing world, raised tensions between the Vatican and defenders of modern capitalism to unprecedented levels.

The pope’s “concern for the rights of workers is completely in line with Catholic social teaching, but it comes sometimes at the expense of the entrepreneurial side,” said Kishore Jayabalan, a former Vatican staff member who now works for the Acton Institute, a free-market-oriented think tank. “He provides the rhetoric and moral high ground for enemies of capitalism, for those who would take us back to a feudal and backward-looking society.”

Business has made several attempts to build relationships with Pope Francis’ Vatican, with limited success. In the runup to the pope’s environmental encyclical last year, which called for reduced use of fossil fuels in order to limit global warming, Exxon sent a top lobbyist to brief the Vatican on its views on the energy industry.

Other corporate figures, including Unilever CEO Paul Polman, have praised the pope’s environmental message.

In 2013 and 2015, mining executives came to the Vatican for two meetings focused on criticisms of the sector’s social and environmental impacts. The two meetings were occasions for “learning to speak each other’s language,” said the Rev. Séamus Finn, who helped organize the gatherings.

The first of those meetings drew complaints from activists critical of the mining companies. As a result, the Vatican organized a separate meeting with the protesters last year. Pope Francis sent participants in that separate meeting a pointed message saying that the mining companies had been guilty of causing pollution and violating human rights in their labor practices.

The Vatican’s office for justice and peace, which organized the mining meetings and serves as the main interlocutor with the business community, has limited credibility in the corporate world.

In 2011, in the wake of the financial crisis, it proposed the establishment of a “world central bank” to regulate the “flow and system of monetary exchanges similar to the national central banks”—an idea that drew little response.

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