Rev. Robert Sirico: Pope Francis makes an enemy of the poor's best friend—the free market

Without a market, how do we feed anyone?

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How do we feed the hungry?

It’s a question Pope Francis brought to the forefront on World Food Day in a series of tweets. "The fight against hunger demands we overcome the cold logic of the market," the pope tweeted, "which is greedily focused on mere economic profit and the reduction of food to a commodity, and strengthening the logic of solidarity."

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But without a market, how do we feed anyone?

Yes, the Christian community must call for human nourishment. But the pope’s anti-market message leaves many wondering how food to nourish the hungry will be produced. Pope Francis's message juxtaposes two contrasting approaches to the scandal of hunger: one expresses such solidarity and another builds businesses that attempt to meet the needs of hungry people.

In Matthew 21:28-32, Jesus poses a dilemma to the religious leaders of his day. It is the story of a father who sends two sons into his vineyard to work. The first declines the command, but changes his mind and goes out to the vineyard. The second promptly replies that he will work, but never does. 

Jesus asks: Which son did the will of the father? Of course, it is the first son—the one who accomplished what his father commanded.

The underlying effect of the text is to marginalize the religious leaders of his day who professed to be accomplishing the word of God, but who never did the work. Jesus's indictment is clear: To his mind, it was the very marginalized ones—"the tax collectors and the prostitutes (might we include capitalists here?)"—who are entering the kingdom of God ahead of the pious do-gooders professing God’s mission. 

The market system feeds more hungry people today than ever before in the history of the world

All this came flooding into my mind as I read the pope’s words decrying the very market system that feeds more hungry people today than ever before in the history of the world.

So how would Pope Francis reply when asked, "Who did the will of the father?" Is it the person who publicly supports the position that destroying the market is the best way to feed the hungry? Or is it the person who brings in the harvest capable of feeding multitudes?

The pope speaks of the "cold logic of the market" which he associates with a greedy focus on "mere economic profit" and the reduction of "food to a commodity."

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One presumes by "cold logic" the pope is raising the concern that the market lacks a personal, subjective intimacy. This is true, but only to the extent that a market, when unobstructed by various interventions, furnishes vital information related to things like supply and demand. 

Without ruthlessly accurate data, the entire capacity of providing for people’s needs would be mis-calibrated and people would starve. Paradoxically enough, the information being calibrated is anything but objective in that it reflects the very intimate and subjective knowledge that comes from workers, investors, and producers acting—not merely out of greed—but knowledge of their families’ needs.

The profits, too often described as the result of "greed," are really just an indication that the process to "harvest" the produce was well-planned. Pope Francis's predecessor, St. John Paul II, made this point in his 1991 encyclical, Centesimus annus: "The Church acknowledges the legitimate role of profit as an indication that a business is functioning well. When a firm makes a profit, this means that productive factors have been properly employed and corresponding human needs have been duly satisfied."

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An economy without concern for profit is like a ship without a rudder—it simply would not have the capacity to steer itself. How are we expected to fight hunger if we cannot reliably produce an abundance of food?

Perhaps the least coherent assertion by the pope's is his lament of "reducing food to a commodity." We may have differing definitions of commodity, but most understand it to be a basic good that is produced and can then be bought or sold—or, given away. But it has to be produced first. The father in the aforementioned parable was in essence asking his sons to engage in a profitable enterprise.

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As a priest, I am bewildered when my colleagues (even the pope), out of great moral intention no doubt, nonetheless insist on making an enemy of the very institution that has and can continue to be the most effective tool to fight hunger and poverty—the free market. 

Granted, it is only a tool, not a god. But in the right hands, the free market can aid us in concretely fulfilling our moral responsibilities much more than mere good intentions.