Pope Francis late last year attacked the “new tyranny” of the global economy, with its “thirst for power and possessions [that] knows no limits”. In doing so he joined a chorus of criticism of the world’s top bankers, whose irresponsible trading has been seen as a key element of the recent financial crisis.
But just weeks later, the pontiff reached out to those very business leaders he had so fiercely criticized in November.
"Those who have demonstrated their ability to be innovative and for improving the lives of many people by their ingenuity and professional expertise can further contribute by putting their skills at the service of those who are still living in dire poverty," he said in a message read out to delegates at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos.
The Pope’s message to turn greed into good is part of a turning point in Vatican relations with the business world, as the Catholic Church seeks mutual benefit from bringing the corporate world into its congregation.
Just this week the pontiff appointed the head of the Vatican’s new finance ministry, which was set up with the help of financial service firms such as Ernst&Young and KPMG.
As the Pope cleans up the Vatican’s accounts, marred by corruption scandals, Catholic leaders are following his Davos message in trying to better big business.
Vincent Nichols, one of the Pope’s 19 newly-appointed cardinals, has been working with company directors in London to revamp corporate practices.
'Business must benefit society'
“For a business to ask, ‘Is it lawful?’ ‘Is it profitable?’ is not enough. They must ask other questions if they are to regain trust and operate in a constructive way for the benefit of all in society,” Nichols told The Local after the Vatican ceremony of cardinals.
As Archbishop of Westminster, Nichols leads the Catholic Church in Europe’s financial centre. He argues that it is his role – and that of other Catholic leaders – is to reconnect business to the public and steer decision-making at the top.
“Big business overall gets feedback from market research, but they are no longer trusted by the public. The public think business is interested only in profit,” he says, not dissimilar to the Pope’s earlier description of the “thirst for power”.
As a result the newly-appointed cardinal has been working with the City of London, the authority presiding over a sea of skyscrapers, to develop a list of “principles that he says can help guide key decisions in the business world”.
These include allowing employees and customers to give feedback, to ensure companies are living up to their stated corporate values.
Nichols says that while Catholic leaders can go some way to revamping big business, a broader approach is necessary.
“One of the things I’m doing is getting thinkers from other faith traditions involved. Saying, for example, ‘How does Judaism underwrite and expand these five principles?’ ‘How does Islam see these issues in the best of it tradition?’”
He also advocates Catholic leaders using their influential positions to speak out about the impact the economic crisis has had on local communities, following his high-profile critique of the “disaster” of British people relying on food banks in an affluent country.
“I would hope that those that have the evidence at their fingertips would be able to do the same,” Nichols says, when asked whether Catholic leaders in Rome should be equally outspoken.
“That my voice can draw attention to these realities is a privilege for me,” he says. “So I hope that others would do the same with the reality that they face.”
His view echoes that of Pope Francis, who in recent months has called for a "poor Church for the poor" and spoken out for the rights of vulnerable groups such as the homeless and migrants. The latter has however caused controversy in Italy, with centre- and far-right politicians criticizing the pontiff for what they view as his interference on the national debate on immigration.