Cardinal George Pell  (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
Cardinal George Pell © AP

A senior cardinal chosen by Pope Francis to manage the Vatican’s finances has launched into a spirited defence of free markets, countering the perception that the Catholic church under the Argentine pontiff has turned against capitalism and business.

George Pell, the head of the Holy See’s secretariat for the economy, told a conference hosted by The Global Foundation in Rome on Sunday that “no better model is available at the moment” than market economies, citing their capacity to “rejuvenate” after the Great Depression and recent global financial crisis, and their failure to produce the “massive alienation” predicted by Karl Marx.

“I like to quote Maggie Thatcher who pointed out that if the Good Samaritan had been without capital he could not have paid for the care of the man who was beaten and robbed on the road to Jericho,” he said, according to prepared remarks obtained by the Financial Times. He went on to add: “We may have too much sugar in our society, such as consumerism, but we are not being poisoned by deserts of salt.”

Cardinal Pell’s remarks contrast with the harsher tone towards unbridled capitalism often adopted by Pope Francis. In a speech last July in Bolivia he described the unfettered pursuit of money as the “dung of the devil”. Pope Francis also lashed out at multinational companies for plundering the planet in a high-profile encyclical letter on the environment published last June.

But Cardinal Pell insists that the Pope’s views may be more nuanced than is often believed — particularly by conservatives who have criticised the Argentine pope for being a socialist.

“We are all aware of Pope Francis’ commitment to social justice, his option for the poor and those on the peripheries, and his condemnations of exploitation, abuse and consumerism,” he said. “What is not so widely known is that Pope Francis himself … has made specific and favourable reference to the role of business,” Cardinal Pell said. He cited how Pope Francis wrote in last June’s encyclical that business was a “noble vocation” and on his visit to the US he spoke of “the spirit of enterprise” as essential to a sustainable economy.

Vatican experts argued that the cardinal’s speech did not necessarily represent a softening in the Catholic church’s tone and his words were unlikely to have been authorised by the Pope or his inner circle. Although Pope Francis picked him to lead the economic portfolio within the Holy See, they are far apart in other areas. Cardinal Pell is known as a climate change sceptic — compared to Pope Francis’ open demands for action to fight global warming. He has also expressed concern about some of less rigid tones on family matters sought by the Argentine pontiff.

Nevertheless, the speech comes on the heels of a private audience last Friday between Pope Francis and Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google and leader of one of the most dominant global companies, despite the Pope’s reservations about the role of technology and particularly social media in contemporary society.

The Global Foundation conference discussed a new governance model for the world economy and the cardinal specifically praised the US Congress move last year to pass a law paving the way for a recalibration of voting rights at the IMF to give emerging markets more power, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s efforts to crack down on tax avoidance. But he said: “If we are to truly mobilise the global economy, in a sustainable fashion, it will require business, not regulators, to take a leading role”.

The cardinal was not entirely rosy about the role of business, however. “Greed is not good and we should not endorse the motto of the late lamented Lehman Brothers ‘We make nothing but money’,” he said.

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