“Greed is not good and…we should not endorse the motto of the late lamented Lehman Bros “we make nothing but money…[the Lord also understood]…“the unequalled power of money to fascinate and then harden and corrupt human hearts. God or money is an inevitable choice.” So said Cardinal George Pell in a speech to the Global Foundation on 17 January.
But Pell’s carefully nuanced speech seemed designed to counter-balance the perception that the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Francis has become a forum for raging lefty anti-capitalists. While Pope Francis last July in Bolivia called the unfettered pursuit of money as the “dung of the devil”, Pell pointed out that the Pope has also “made specific and favourable reference to the role of business.”
Pell was an interesting choice to deliver this speech, as he was appointed head of the Holy See’s secretariat for the economy by the Pope. He has also been part of an internal group tasked with the unenviable – and gargantuan – job of cleansing the Vatican’s Augean stables and ridding it of myriad corrupt practices, as laid out in Gianluigi Nuzzi’s recently published astonishing book Merchants in the Temple.
Coincidentally, Edward Mason, Head of Responsible Investment for the Church Commissioners for England, last week published a thoughtful piece on faith-based values and ethical finance. The Church of England sits on a £6.7 billion endowment and, according to Mason, has an “outstanding investment record. Over the last 30 years the fund has achieved an average return of 9.8% a year, 6.3% a year above retail price index inflation.” Mason’s article was a useful counterbalance to the current fear-based hysteria surrounding the Islamic world, pointing out that Shariah financial principles – treating customers ethically – “chimed with me because it is how the Church Commissioners see ethical investment…Like Christian ethical finance, Islamic finance is grounded in exclusions of certain financial practices…Like Christianity, Islam attaches great importance to stewardship of creation and care of the poor and vulnerable.”
The movement towards bringing intangible values into the very tangible world of finance is, of course, a backlash against the untrammelled anything goes/grab-it-while-you-can world of pre-2008; the growth of interest in and support for the Social Stock Exchange is clear testament to that. That faith leaders are engaging in and providing leadership for this movement is laudable, but not sufficient. Their example – and the examples they set – need to feed through into policymaking and, indirectly, are doing so, for example in the powerful support the European Union is giving to promoting the circular/recyclable economy. And individual economic thinkers, such as Robert Shiller in his book Finance and the Good Society are increasingly focusing their attention on how to marry ethics with finance – how to create profit with progress.