Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity Sister Kathleen Murphy reflects on Pope Francis’ monthly intention to pray for those in finance.
“Sell in May and go away” is a well-known financial-world adage. It is based on the underperformance of some stocks in the “summery” six-month period commencing in May and ending in October, thus making it a season for selling. For us, it is a season of praying for those in finance. Pope Francis gives us this intention: Let us pray that those in charge of finance will work with governments to regulate the financial sphere and protect citizens from its dangers.
This call to prayerfully consider the practices of the financial world harmonizes with our ongoing reflection on the sin of racism. Our Bishops tell us that financial systems can have close ties to the ongoing evils of racism. They write in Open Wide Our Hearts, “The roots of racism have extended deeply into the soil of our society. Racism can only end if we contend with the policies and institutional barriers that perpetuate and preserve the inequality—economic and social—that we still see all around us. With renewed vigor, we call on the members of the Body of Christ to join others in advocating and promoting policies at all levels that will combat racism and its effects in our civic and social institutions.”
So, the leaders of the Church have called us to consider finance, wealth and how we make decisions about these social realities. To begin, here is a story to ponder.
There was a wealthy landowner who lived in the Scottish Highlands. He had a stately mansion overlooking a beautiful valley. But he had no religious belief, he lived alone, possessed by his possessions.
He employed a farm manager, John who was a man of simple faith. With his family John was a regular church-goer, and the Lord’s presence was a reality in his home.
One morning the landowner heard the bell at the door ring and upon going down, found John on the door step. ‘What’s the matter John?’ he asked.’
‘Sir,’ said John hesitantly, ‘last night I had a dream, and in it the Lord told me that the richest man in the valley would die tonight at midnight. I felt you should know’.
The landowner dismissed him, but John’s words kept bothering him, so much so that at eleven o’clock he went to the local doctor for a complete check-up. The doctor examined him, pronounced him fit as a fiddle and said he’d give him another twenty years. Lingering doubt caused him to invite the doctor around. They enjoyed a meal together and eventually when midnight passed and he was still in the land of the living he saw the doctor to the door and then went up the stairs to retire.
No sooner was he in bed when he heard the doorbell ringing. Going down he found a sobbing girl whom he recognized as John’s daughter.
‘Sir,’ she said through her tears, ‘Me Mum sent me to tell you that Daddy died at midnight.’ The landowner froze as it was suddenly made clear to him who was the richest man in the valley. (Stories for Preachers by James A. Feehan)
Thus, as we proceed, we keep in mind that wealth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. What is truly of value can vary from one to the next. Let our reflections bear in mind that the Church has given us a wealth of teachings which bear on the accumulation and use of money. Many of these teachings can be found in the area of Catholic Social Principles. Let us see what the Church has to say.
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis instructs: “Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.” The Pope’s words have those important qualifiers that business or finance is to improve the world and serve the common, rather than the personal good.
It is in this context that Pope Francis says “no to an economy of exclusion and inequality”. In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, he says: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality.”
In the same document, the Holy Father speaks about people’s relation with money, and what happens when one accepts its dominion over oneself. The Pope says: “We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”
As Church, we hold that the economy needs ethics in order to function correctly—not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people centered. John Paul II explained it this way: “The economy is only one aspect of the whole of human activity. If the production and consumption of goods become the center of life and society’s only value, the fault is not so much in the economic system itself as in the fact that the entire socio-cultural system, by ignoring the ethical and religious dimension, has been weakened, and ends by limiting itself to the production of goods and services alone.” One has only to look at a magazine or newspaper, listen to the radio, surf the internet or watch a bit of TV to come to the distinct conclusion that this misguided veneration of “things” and the power to possess them has become an idol. What has become of working for the common good?
Finance should be related to the correct understanding of common good. The Second Vatican Council defined common good as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their members, ready access to their own fulfillment”. Common good is not ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’, because this can allow for the exclusion of individuals or even segments of society. Looking after the common good means making use of the new opportunities for the redistribution of wealth among the different areas of the planet, to the benefit of the underprivileged that until now have been excluded or cast to the sidelines of social and economic progress.
Another of the Church’s social principles involves the preferential option for the poor. It affects the life of each Christian inasmuch as he or she seeks to imitate the life of Christ, but it applies equally to our social responsibilities and hence to our manner of living, and to the logical decisions to be made concerning the ownership and use of goods”. Once again, we return to the idea that our primary aim is not to possess as much wealth and property as we can solely for our own pleasure.
This option is a special hallmark of the Pontificate of Francis who says that, while loving everyone, rich and poor alike, “he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor.” Pope Francis says that this option “is an ethical imperative essential for effectively attaining the common good.”
At the same time, Catholic Social Teaching, while emphasizing this promotion of the poor, speaks against a culture of dependency. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis says that helping the poor financially “must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work.”
Economy and finance, as instruments are inherently good, but can be used badly when those at the helm are motivated by purely selfish ends. Therefore it is not the instrument that must be called to account, but individuals, their moral conscience and their personal and social responsibility.” The role of Christians is to rethink and develop new answers and proposals, inspired by Catholic Social Teaching, and translate them into actions which may be effective in the world of today.
As a Franciscan Community, we give thanks for our Sisters who have gone before us and who continue as stewards of our funds. We are blessed by the ways they have and continue to work for the common good, hold sacred the preferential option for the poor and are ever mindful of the ethics called for as followers of Jesus. Let us pray that all financiers great and small may be as diligent in their service to God’s people.
NOTE: A major reference for this article was Catholic
Social Teaching on Finance and the Common Good
Joseph Galea-Curmi, Auxiliary Bishop of Malta