Saturday, February 22, 2014

Pope Francis Urges an Ethical Basis for Markets: Taking on the Prosperity Gospel?

Going after the “profit-at-all-cost mentality . . . behind Europe’s economic crisis,” Pope Francis told reporters travelling with him to the Church's Youth Day 2011that morals and ethics must play a greater role in future regulatory policies. “The economy doesn’t function with market self-regulation," the Pope claimed. Like Adam Smith who had situated his own theory of perfect competitive on a foundation of moral sentiments to keep markets from going to excess and thus self-destructing, Pope Francis asserted that a market needs "an ethical reason to work for mankind.” He added that the moral dimension is “interior and fundamental” to economic problems.

The Pope's appeal to the ethical dimension as the foundation of a market begs the question: What would a theological, or distinctly Christian, basis look like? The prosperity gospel would not stand a very good chance of being chosen, for it holds that God rewards true believers with earthly wealth rather than only with salvation. The basis for this interpretation is well represented in the Old Testament. During the years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008, a significant number of subprime mortgage borrowers were convinced that their Christological belief qualifies as true belief and, furthermore, that God would provide, even miraculously if necessary, so said borrowers would be able to make even the higher (ARM) mortgage payments on houses beyond the borrowers' own financial means. Viewing God as the font of earthly treasure is to leave Christianity impotent in acting as a constraint against greed and wealth.

Facing the headwinds of deregulation and a Wall Street government, religious Americans weary of the excesses of uninhibited greed in the financial sector may want to press the Roman Catholic Pope to provide a constraining theologically-based ethic capable of counterpoising the hegemony of the prosperity gospel. Historically, the first three or four centuries of Christianity sported many anti-wealth theologians whose arguments could be appropriated to fill the gap left open by insufficient regulation.


David Roman, “Pope Visits Spain, Says Ethics Should Guide Economics,” The Wall Street Journal, August 19, 2011.