Friday, August 19, 2011

One Cheer for The Pope

According to this morning's papers, Pope Benedict XVI is in Spain, where he gave a speech on the problems caused by pure bottom-line-driven capitalism. Not a bad theme to take up in a country where, last time I checked, the unemployment rate was above 20%--one of the highest, if not the highest, in Europe.
(So even though I'm not a fan of this particular pope, let's give one cheer to him for raising the right issue in the right place at the right time.)
Seeing the coverage reminded me of a conference I attended in Rome some time back at the invitation of the Opus Dei-affiliated university there.
The theme was capitalism and social change.
The opening text was a papal encyclical on the subject, and the participants ranged from academics who wanted to debate the history of capitalism in Europe and the fundamental properties of the free market to social activists using their faith as the basis for economic and social activism to the former head of the IMF and the current head of the Vatican Bank.
Talking with one of the university professors after the formal conclave was over, I was struck by a huge opportunity--and reminded of it just now by the pope's speech in Spain.
The idea goes something like this.
Capitalism, as we practice it in the United States, isn't working--or, to be more accurate, needs to work better.
As the pope said in Spain, capitalism that focuses only on the bottom-line leaves out too much--too much social, environmental, emotional, even spiritual value.
Voices around the world are joining in this discussion; Michael Porter's recent piece in HBR is one example; the rise of social entrepreneurship globally is another; the efforts by finance professors to generate interest in integrated reporting, yet another.
But who can lead the conversation?
It seems unlikely, maybe even undesirable, for the US to lead such a discussion, a gathering compared by a friend in Vienna to a "Geneva Convention on Capitalism."
Who might have the standing to bring together the nations and interests for a convocation on the rules of capitalism?
My thought after the conference in Rome: What if the road to the future of capitalism runs through Rome?
What if a pope--not this one, but perhaps the next one, a younger, more enlightened one--were to take up the message that capitalism needs to find a new basis, a new way of keeping score, a more fully articulated set of values?
Could the future of capitalism emerge from a forum in Rome? Could we some day be talking about the Rome Convention on Capitalism, the way we talk about the Geneva Convention?
So: here's one cheer for this pope. And we'll hold off on the other two until we see who his successor might someday be.

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