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Sachs Vatican appointment cements ‘odd couple’ relationship with pope

ROME – With Pope Francis’s appointment of renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs to the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences last week, perhaps the world’s leading critic of global capitalism has formalized his partnership with one of the world’s most prominent experts in economic affairs.

While this might seem like an odd pairing at first blush, given the pope’s repeated criticism of the capitalist system, it cements a “bromance” of sorts between Pope Francis and Sachs that has been budding since Francis’s election in 2013.

Sachs, 66, was appointed an ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences (PASS) on Monday, Oct. 25.

A longtime consultor to the academy, Sachs is currently both a professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, and he also serves as president of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Though he is not Catholic, Sachs has maintained strong ties with the Vatican for decades, advising Holy See officials on economic matters the pontificate of St. Pope John Paul II. Notable papal works he was consulted for include John Paul II’s 1991 social encyclical Centesimus annus, and Pope Francis’s 2015 environmental encyclical Laudato Si’.

Sachs is often seen in and around the Vatican, attending academy events as either a speaker or participant every few years. Pope Francis personally appointed him as a participant in the 2019 Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, along with Korean former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon.

Although Sachs advised the Vatican under both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, there has been heightened criticism of his growing role in the Francis papacy, as Pope Francis tends to seek out his advice and consultation more than his predecessors.

The main reasons for this criticism are due to Sachs’ support of positions at odds with Church teaching on matters such as abortion, contraception, and population control.

He also came under fire for orchestrating a brief meeting between Pope Francis and then-Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. The short encounter was little more than a handshake, but Sachs was accused of attempting to spin the moment as papal support for Sanders as the presidential race tightened.

The decision of popes to consult with pro-abortion scientists and others who oppose Church teaching has long been a bone of contention for many Catholics, however, since the PASS was established in 1994 under John Paul II, its stated purpose was to study progress in the social, economic, political, and juridical fields, “thus offering the Church elements which she can use in the study and development of her social doctrine.”

This requires input from people of different backgrounds, which is why the academy “is open to experts in different fields who desire to serve the truth,” John Paul II said at the time, insisting that the Vatican’s intention with the academy “is to gather all the grains of truth present in the various intellectual and empirical approaches.”

While Sachs certainly differs from the Catholic Church’s position on life issues, his work as an economist has gained a distinguished international reputation, making him one of those experts whose input on economic and social affairs the Vatican believes is worth considering.

Pope Francis has criticized free market capitalism often, dedicating a large portion of his 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti to condemning its consequences for the poor, making his enthusiasm over Sachs seem curious.

However, Sachs, while a supporter of capitalism generally, shares many of the pope’s critiques and has made his own condemnations about an unbridled system with little sense of social responsibility and consideration for the poor.

In an October 2020 article in The Economic Times, published the same month as Pope Francis’s Fratelli Tutti, Sachs stressed the need for virtue to be incorporated into economic science, saying the idea of virtue itself was “barred” from this field in the 20th century.

“We now need to restore a virtue economics, emphasizing moderation, friendship, trustworthiness and social justice. Without this, capitalism is not sustainable,” he said.

Sachs went on to describe what he said are different variants of capitalism, pointing to the social democracy practiced in Nordic countries or European nations such as Denmark, Finland, and Sweden as “a sustainable variant,” whereas the free-market variety adopted by countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom is not sustainable, “because it leads to huge inequalities of income and environmental destruction.”

“Capitalism has certainly contributed to economic growth, and to a long-term reduction of poverty – but capitalism has also contributed to a certain contempt for the poor, which is morally unacceptable,” he said, and accused capitalism of also contributing to the climate crisis “by allowing the environment to be treated as a free dumping ground.”

Free-market capitalism is environmentally destructive, but it is not the only system that causes harm to the planet, he said, and cited Soviet central planning as an example of mega-pollution. 

What the world’s economies need, Sachs argued, “are human values, intelligent objectives for the common good (including a safe climate, the conservation of biodiversity, clean air, water, oceans and healthy soils), and the technical engineering system to support them.”

However, in order this to happen, there first needs to be “an acknowledgement of capitalism’s purpose and its responsibility,” he said, insisting that it “has a social responsibility.”

Sachs’s positions here are reminiscent of the same critiques and calls to responsibility found in both of Pope Francis’s major encyclicals, Laudato Si and Fratelli Tutti, making Sachs’s fingerprints in the documents, and the pope’s shared views, obvious.

The heart of Pope Francis’s calls in both texts is for current economic systems to stop serving their own private interests, and to transform in ways that better serve the poor, and the environment, which Sachs himself has stressed.

So, while the relationship between Sachs and Pope Francis might seem like an odd choice at first, the two seem to be a natural pair, and Sachs’s appointment to the PASS only cements his role in the Vatican and his professional influence in the Francis papacy. 

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