Sister Helen Alford: ” ‘Fratelli tutti’ could contribute to a refoundation of the economy on the model of human fraternity”

Sister Helen Alford

The Dominican nun and member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences says that Pope Francis’ encyclical should spur us to reconcile the need for collaboration with the need for competition.

The third encyclical of Pope Francis on “human fraternity” “could greatly contribute to a refoundation of the economy on a more realistic conception of man and social relationships,” says Sister Helen Alford, vice-rector of the Angelicum. Appointed as a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences by Pope Francis on September 4, 2020, the Dominican nun recalled that the wake of a crisis is the opportune moment to rethink the structures of the current economic and social system.

Pope Francis’ new encyclical focuses on “human fraternity” and “social friendship.” What place is there for these values in an economy essentially governed by contractual relations, by the individualistic pursuit of happiness, etc.?

We are at the dawn of great changes. At first glance, the theme of “human fraternity” does not seem to be a priority, or at least we could think that it’s simply one more concept among others and will have few consequences. In truth, we know that ideas make history. The great economist John Maynard Keynes wrote somewhere, with humor, that “the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”

I would like to emphasize two points in particular. First, especially after the financial crisis of 2008, everyone realized that our model was too simplistic. Studies in behavioral economics, especially neuroscience, tend to prove that we are not exclusively individualistic, focused on our own interests. In this sense, although there are still few changes in economic structures, we can hope that there will be many in the future. The old idea that wealth was produced on the one hand, and on the other was distributed in education, health, etc., has been progressively pushed aside. The economy in its present model does not satisfy the humanity’s deep needs. We have now understood that inequalities and economic disasters are born from the production of wealth.

On the other hand, we could think of the great slogan of the French Revolution: “liberty, equality, fraternity.” From a historical perspective, we can see that the liberal parties that were born of the Revolution were founded on the defense of freedom, the economy of “laissez-faire,” private property, etc., and that they were not based on the principle of “equality.” Other political groups decided to support equality in particular, but always with their eyes on human freedom, because they wanted more distribution so that people would be freer. These are the two movements that have their roots in the French Revolution. The third path, that of fraternity, was not really developed: no doubt this is the opportunity today to initiate it. 

Since the crisis of 2008, new ideas have emerged along these lines, and are pushing us to reconcile our individualistic genes and the need to live in community which drive human beings. Speaking about his famous book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins said, in the preface to a new edition, that he could’ve called the book The Cooperative Gene. The need to cooperate is in our genes.

In economics, the challenge is to reconcile this need for collaboration with the need for competition. It’s necessary to reconcile the two different parts of society: cooperation, the family, the Church, the communities on the one hand; and on the other hand, competition, “laissez-faire,” the world of economics. The idea of fraternity could help bring about this reconciliation.

The problems we face today are profoundly different from those our societies faced in the 18th century. We need to renew our way of thinking, no longer centered on the individual and his interests, but on social systems. This encyclical could make a major contribution to this re-foundation: it’s the ideal moment to address the theme of fraternity.

What connections can be made between fraternity in the French Revolution and that of Pope Francis? Is this not proof that “the modern world is full of Christian virtues gone mad,” according to the famous formula of G.K. Chesterton?

One could say, with Jacques Maritain, that the French Revolution, with all its problems that we know well—its anti-Christianity, its anti-theism—had certain aspects that derive from the Gospel. The project of the Revolution is first of all to recognize the dignity of human persons through equality, freedom, and fraternity. These ideas do not come from Greek and Latin cultures but from Christianity.

Human dignity is an idea that is properly Christian but which has acquired an autonomous existence with respect to the Church, which is a rather good sign. On the one hand, there’s the risk of these ideas being hijacked, as Chesterton’s phrase says; on the other hand, there’s an opportunity to make them part of the patrimony of humanity. As John Paul II says, Jesus “fully reveals man to himself” (Redemptor Hominis): we can therefore expect ideas that come from Christianity to survive outside it.

We often speak—and Pope Francis was the first to do so—of the difficult concordance between Christian morality and the financial markets, models of consumption and management. What’s your opinion on this subject? What does the social doctrine of the Church say on the subject?

One could use the analogy of cancer to answer this question. Cancer grows in the human body because it manages to get into healthy cells and reprogram them for another purpose. The economy is, fundamentally, part of the healthy cells of society, and economic development too, when it goes well. The problem is that we have allowed the economy to dominate other sciences and sectors of society. The solution would be to reintegrate the economy into social life.

We have to admit that the economy is subject to morality, contrary to the distinction we tend to make between the realms of morality and economy. In this sense, the Pope points to social realities, especially since the part of the world from which he comes, Latin America, is hard hit by economic disasters and social inequalities. One need only look at a world map with the Gini coefficient to realize this. These dramatic situations are finding some solutions today. One of the major challenges of the Pontifical Academy is to reinforce positive responses while continuing to criticize and point out the defects of the present system. The situation is dramatic but not without hope.

Another way to face these problems is to return to the sources. We should go back to the roots of modern economics, as Joseph Schumpeter does, for example, in his history of economics, written more than a hundred years ago, when he traces the birth of modern banking back to the Franciscan banks of Monte di Pietà – the famous pawnshops.

The recovery of economic activity became a major concern in the post-COVID recession. Why is this a crucial moment for the future of the economy?

Every crisis is a difficult time but also an opportunity, according to the Greek myth of the Phoenix rising from its ashes. After the financial crisis of 2008, economic thinking changed significantly, but reflection has not been sufficiently broad and deep. Perhaps the coronavirus crisis will have more consequences. Above all, it’s necessary to introduce a more realistic conception of humanity into economic theories, in order to transform economic policies, structures, management models etc. down to the most concrete level.

The social doctrine of the Church insists that we are not individuals guided by our selfish interests and without spiritual aspiration, as economic science would have us believe. The famous phrase “there is no society, there are only individuals” [editor’s note: former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher] is not enough: political and economic problems cannot be solved with this kind of thinking. To this, social doctrine responds, for example, with the “universal destination of goods”: God made the world for all people. At the same time, history has shown that if we completely abolish the principle of private property, we exposes ourselves to other dangers and other economic and political disasters. It’s up to the Pope to remind us of this imperative of human fraternity; it’s the task of politicians to find mechanisms to resolve these difficulties.

Interview conducted in Rome by Augustin Talbourdel and Claire Guigou.


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