Kari Polanyi Levitt

Emerita Professor of Economics, McGill University, Montreal – Canada

Pope Francis and Karl Polanyi

Pope Francis - Wikimedia Commons

Pope Francis – Wikimedia Commons

My sincere thanks for the many responses to the invitation to comment on Pope Francis’ first Apostolic Exhortation as outlined in the Atlantic article:”Pope Francis’s Theory of Economics” http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/11/pope-franciss-theory-of-economics/281865/

Below we are posting a selection of the more substantive comments received.

I am confirmed in my initial view of the importance of Pope Francis’ intervention and its resonance to the social philosophy of my father.

I also refer you to a communication by Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, available in Spanish on the ALAI website: alainet.org

An English translation is available here:

Leonardo Boff-Pope Francis and the political economy of exclusion

The most recent communication is from Argentine-Canadian economist Alberto Rabilotta. He writes: “At the end of the 1920s, the economist Karl Polanyi wrote that “it is necessary to transcend the individual Christian ethic, to recognize the reality of society, the ultimate and insuperable nature of society, and to acquire consciousness of this insuperable character” (1).

In a recent article (2) the theologian and philosopher Leonardo Boff underlines some of the positions of Pope Francis in the Pontifical Exhortation and notes that there is a “perceptible affinity” with the thought of Karl Polanyi. In effect, reading what the Pope has written, and knowing something of the work of Polanyi, whether by accident or by design, this affinity exists.”

For the full article, see:
I refer you also to the excellent article by James Carroll, in the New Yorker, “A Radical Pope’s First Year”

James Carroll_ A Radical Pope’s First Year _ The New Yorker

In connection with the origins of liberation theology, we are reminded of Karl Polanyi’s close association with the tradition of Christian socialism in England, where he co-edited “Christianity and the Social Revolution” with Joseph Needham, the author of a multi-volume account of technology in China. It contains his essay “The Essence of Fascism.”


“It is a great time to hear and see the actions and thoughts of a man with such great institutional authority abandon the market mentality. It generates a type of mystical euphoria. But be aware. A couple of months ago he participated and condoned a ceremony of canonization of all the catholic martyrs that died defending Franco’s coup against the republic, which was promoted by the reactionary Spanish Catholic church hierarchy, with the support of the previous popes.

The historians that have studied the life of around three of these “saints”, have found that their social activities during the war could best be defined as crimes against humanity. There are many other Basque priests that died defending the second republic, and none of them is in the new list of saints.

Fascism, according to Karl Polanyi, was also a response to the collapse of the ancienne régime, also being a rebellion against the hegemony of the markets.

Theology is easy, but let us remain scientifically sceptical.”

- Francisco Bozzano-Barnes


“Je n’oublie jamais l’hommage fait par Karl Polanyi à la fin de la Grande Transformation d’Owen et du Christ…

Il est arrivé à Durkheim qui était athée de répondre à quelqu’un qui lui demandait “mais ce que vous appelez société c’est dieu?” réponse
“oh si vous voulez l’appelez ainsi cela ne me dérange pas”…”

- Jean-Michel Servet


“I’m sure your father would be pleased with this
article–just as he was glad to see included in an early edition of
Co-Existence an article that discussed Pope John XXIII’s ‘Pacem in
terris’, the 1963 Encyclical that, in his reading, warned the flock
against chasing after “the daydream of a capitalist world community.””

-Gareth Dale


“I think this commentary does justice to what your father was suggesting, and the considerations seem to fit with some of the growth models being developed in parts of the world, particularly in China. In short, the struggle between economic and social man continues.”

-James Palombo


“My friends in Argentina – survivors of the dirty war – were cautiously optimistic when Francis was appointed. It seems their judgment is being borne out. InRome and Milan, they tell me that he is having a shock-effect on the Italian political classes, and that too cannot be a bad thing.”

-James Galbraith


“I live in Argentina. The actual pope lived all his long life here, and he never agreed or shared liberation theology. More than that, in the middle of 1970, he, as the chief of Jesuites, had separated priests who maked option for the poor. More! He is accused of facilitating the kidnapping of two priests by the military. The involvement of the Catholic Church in the dictatorship was never repudiated by the church or by the pope. Today we still expect the Pope to compel the Argentina Catholic Church to open adoption files because we are looking for the 400 children stolen under the dictatorship.”

- Nora Britos


“This document is mostly about the Church.  Some of it goes back to the Middle Ages.  One of the slogans of the medieval reform movements was to call for reform “in capite et in membris”,  “in the head and in the members”.   Pope Francis is quite explicit in saying here that reform must begin at the top, at the centre.  But the Church does not exist in a vacuum.  It exists in societies.  So he is looking at some of the problems of these societies, and in addition to a severe critique of inequality he is also — both in the Church itself and in various societies (the plural is important) — questioning the very notion of a pensée unique.   Thus he cites the African bishops who complain about the imposition of European or North American institutions on the African reality.  Thus the passage cited in the Atlantic article:

“If we really want to achieve a healthy world economy, what is needed at this juncture of history is a more efficient way of interacting which, with due regard for the sovereignty of each nation, ensures the economic well-being of all countries, not just of a few.”  

    That is to say,  globalization is not a solution: it is the problem, or one of the problems.  Different societies have different needs,  demand different structures. Hence his emphasis on decentralization, both in the Church and in the world at large.   His approach to the so-called free market is here similar to that of Karl Polanyi:  the market is a social creation,  and as it actually functions,  it supports social structures that are inherently unjust.   It is, however, extremely important to note that for Pope Francis “decentralization” does not involve individualism,  much less the extreme individualism of a consumer society. Margaret Thatcher denied the existence of society.   Francis is very much aware of societies,  and aware of the fact that societies are different one from another.

    Hayek complained that an economy controlled by a central bureaucracy demanded a kind of knowledge that no one could attain.  Keynes simply noted that the same is true of markets,  let alone a “Market” which is supposed to control the whole world.  Polany noted that this is quite impossible,  and that reactions to this are inevitable.  Inevitable but not a  kind of automated magic.   The form that this reaction would take may well be different in different societies,  although in nineteenth century Europe it appeared to be somewhat the same in very different societies:  Germany,  France,  Austria, England.  They all evolved institutions to protect people from the dictatorship of markets.   As was the case with Polanyi,  Pope Francis simply does not accept economic determinism,  either of the Marxian variety or of the Washington Consensus.   Different societies have different needs,  and solutions must be found there,  not in Washington or Brussels. Here again the parallel with  Polanyi is striking. “

- Jordan Bishop 


“I was not at all surprised reading the very interesting and important “Apostolic Exhortation”[1] of Pope Francis.The encyclical letters of John Paul II on social and economic  issues have been in many ways very similar.In his famous statement in 1991,in the Encyclical letter “Centesimus Annus”. He said,that the Marxist solution has failed,but the realities of marginalization and exploitation remain in the world. He added that there was a risk that radical capitalist ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems. and warned the world about the inevitable failures of solutions based on the free market forces.[2]In other letters he said similar things. Pope Francis in his recent  “Apostolic Exhortation”[3] was referring to the ongoing transformation of the world.Many of his ideas reminded me also of Polanyi’s work about the „Great Transformation” and are in many ways similar to Kofi Annan statement in 2003. Pope Francis’  formula “In our time humanity is experiencing a turning-point in its history, as we can see from the advances being made in so many fields”. This epochal change has been set in motion by the enormous qualitative, quantitative, rapid and cumulative advances occurring in the sciences and in technology, and by their instant application in different areas of nature and of life. We are in an age of knowledge and information, which has led to new and often anonymous kinds of power.I think that in Chapter I of the encyclical letter on Capitalism, he went much further than just trying to rehabilitate the liberation theology.His analysis of the main structural, and systemic aspects of contemporary capitalism went   in many ways beyond his predecessors. A few examples:  “The family is experiencing a profound cultural crisis, as are all communities and social bonds….” A completely new culture has come to life and continues to grow in the cities .. . Cities are multicultural; in the larger cities, a connective network is found in which groups of people share a common imagination and dreams about life, and new human interactions arise, new cultures, invisible cities. Various subcultures exist side by side, and often practice segregation and violence”….” We cannot ignore the fact that in cities human trafficking, the narcotics trade, the abuse and exploitation of minors, the abandonment of the elderly and infirm, and various forms of corruption and criminal activity take place. At the same time, what could be significant places of encounter and solidarity often become places of isolation and mutual distrust”. The “four no” „No to an economy of exclusion”…„No to the new idolatry of money”.. „No to a financial system which rules rather than serves”.”No to the inequality which spawns violence” and the detailed explanations” resemble to many, more radical  UN documents and  neo-marxist works. All these  problems and the process of transformations comprise radical challenges also to the Roman Catholic Church. This institution of course survived many transformations, but the ongoing one is in many ways unprecedented. The adjustment or the new tasks will have to be radical and difficult.Not only because the doctrines. Theological changes have of course never been smooth and easy: In this era the Church has to take into account  the forces o fan increasingly global ideological competitors which are both secular and clerical. The competition with Islam for example  is not confined any longer to the developing regions of the World. Therefore  I found the following statement also very important:

“I am aware that nowadays documents do not arouse the same interest as in the past and that they are quickly forgotten. Nevertheless, I want to emphasize that what I am trying to express here has a programmatic significance and important consequences. I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are. “Mere administration” can no longer be enough”.

-Mihaly Simai

[1] An apostolic exhortation is a type of communication from the Pope,which is aim is to inform and  encourages the Church, the clerics and the Laymen. but does not define the doctrines. It is considered lower in formal authority than a papal encyclical.
[2] John Paul „Ont he Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum:Centesimus Annus” Encycical letter.May 1 1991 Publication 436-8.United States Cattholic Conference,Washington DC. P.82
[3] Evangelii Gaudiumof the Holy Father Francis to the bishops, clergy,consecrated persons and the lay faithful on the proclamation of the gospel in today’s world. Chapter II.Vatican Press, 2013. 52-75

“My guess is that the Pope may try to rehabilitate Liberation Theology, specifically regarding the debt issue. He can’t afford to be called Marxist, which is what the Liberation Theologists were called, even though I published my critique first through Orbis books (the Maryknoll order) rather than by a left-wing publisher.But all my Catholic colleagues were isolated by the two bad popes that followed the murder of the last “good” pope just as he was to sponsor an Academy of Geoeconomics to focus on liberation theology. (The plan was for it to have been in New Orleans.)In any case, Polanyi is “safe,” at least as compared to Marx.It would be intriguing if our research into the ancient Near East and the Mesopotamian origins of the biblical economic laws (esp. the Jubilee Year) were picked up by the Vatican.I’m afraid that would take a new generation of Catholic officials ? and the last two popes have pretty much sterilized such a generation by empowering Opus Dei in place of the Liberation theologists.(Our group, by the way, is the International Scholars Conference  on Ancient Near Eastern Economies, ISCANEE, funded by Harvard and the Institute for the Study of Long-term Economic Trends, ISLET. Our fifth volume, on labor in the ancient Near East, is just being completed now.)”

-Michael Hudson