The National Catholic Review

The subtitle of Pope Francis’ stunning new encyclical, “‘Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home,” belies the preference of some that a pontiff not venture into economic matters—Jeb Bush, for instance. Etymologically, after all, economics is the discipline of managing a home; the encyclical’s heading therefore presents it as an economics for the world we hold in common. But what kind of economics is it?

As the document’s most uncomfortable critics have pointed out, the pope has little faith in the capacity of the market mechanisms of global capitalism to smooth out our reckless abuse of creation on their own. He is less than sanguine also about the capacity of national governments to do the job, especially since many are in the thrall of the same multinational corporations that profit from doing the damage. With neither capitalism alone nor the strong arm of states to turn to, it is no surprise that critics—Catholic ones most venomously—have accused him of economic naïveté and incoherence.

There is, however, a different sort of economics that helps us see the sense in what Francis proposes—the economics of the commons. This is a tradition that includes the “all things in common” described in the New Testament Book of Acts and the primacy of the common good over private property, upheld from Augustine to modern social teaching. People throughout history have practiced the art of “commoning” to steward goods that states and markets are not equipped to handle. The late Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize in economics for her research on how longstanding communities govern resources like fisheries and forests, and today the commons of information is undergoing a revival through practices like open-source software. Communities manage their commons in many different ways, using many of the same tools we use to manage our households—like relationship, custom, listening, ritual and love. Act like a greedy homo economicus at the dinner table, and don’t expect to be offered dessert.

The Italian economist Stefano Zamagni, a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, has participated in the development of Catholic economic teaching before and during the present papacy. “From an economic point of view, the environment is a common good,” he told me. “It is not a private good or a public good, which means that we cannot cope with the problem of the environment using market mechanisms per se, or government intervention.” The ideas of Elinor Ostrom and other scholars of the commons have figured prominently in the academy’s proceedings. The Belgian open-source advocate Michel Bauwens and the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, have been invited speakers.

The kinds of remedies Francis proposes for our ecological sins often fit the logic of commoning. He calls for cooperative kinds of business that share wealth rather than accumulating it. He calls for prayer, for repentance and for dialogue—the kinds of things we do when something goes wrong in our household.

Especially controversial are the passages where Francis proposes “systems of governance for the whole range of so-called ‘global commons.’” Some have understood this as some kind of overreaching world government. But Zamagni insists that it is no such thing. Like the World Trade Organization, for instance, this might be something like the very agencies that capitalism relies on, though far more accountable than the W.T.O. to the world’s poorest, who are often the first to hear and suffer from the planet’s groanings.

Commoning is not a replacement for markets or states. Zamagni stresses that the consumerist capitalism that dismays Francis is not synonymous with markets as such. “The pope is not against the market economy,” he says; the problem is an idolatry that imagines markets can solve our moral crises for us. We can respect the usefulness of markets without needing to affirm their omnipotence.

This is the first third world encyclical—drafted by an African cardinal, Peter Turkson, and completed by a South American pope. Like Catholic social teaching in general, it declines to bow before the competing altars of Cold War economics. The commoning it calls for is the wisdom of the ancients, still hidden in plain sight among the “informal economies” at global capitalism’s margins. This is the art, at once, of keeping a loving home and of sharing a precious planet.

Nathan Schneider is the author of Thank You, Anarchy and God in Proof. Website:; Twitter: @nathanairplane.


Mario Goveia | 8/13/2015 - 1:40am

The seething contempt that Pope Francis has for the very capitalists who, with their employees, have funded our Church's ministries for centuries is unprecedented. His abusive language aimed at capitalists and those who disagree with his misguided foray into economics is something I never dreamed I would hear from a Pope - "savages", "dung of the devil", "doubters", "deniers".

This is language he is yet to use against the Islamic savages massacring Christians in the middle-east and Africa. Neither has this Pope done much to rally the world against the deadly oppression by Islamic animals, or spent any time wondering why some 3 million Catholics have left the Church since 2007 according to a Pew Research study.

Christianity is burning while this Pope fiddles and preaches to the world about economics and climate change that he knows nothing about. It is positively embarrassing.

Now, finally, a Cardinal who has obviously had it with this Pope's stunts took the rare step of rebuking him in public. Thank God that a Cardinal was brave enough to fire a shot across this runaway Pope's bow:

Mario Goveia | 8/13/2015 - 12:31am

Nathan - I don't meant to be flippant, but, am I, an American immigrant from India, a refugee from the Fabian socialism that delayed India's progress towards economic super-power status for 50 years, supposed to be impressed by an encyclical written by an African cardinal and endorsed by an Argentinian? What useful economic ideology is to be found in their experience coming from countries where such ideas have INCREASED poverty and oppression?

What "wisdom of the ancients" are we looking for since every ancient society was unable to sustain itself?

India's mindless Fabian socialism created the classic conditions to be found in every socialist economy - bribery and corruption, black markets, massive misallocation of resources, wide-spread tax cheating and political patronage for those with money. The poor, with no money to bribe the politicians and bureaucrats fall further and further behind.

Macro-economics is nothing like managing a home. Are you kidding me? Macro-economics is about creating conditions under which an economy can thrive, like the US before Obama, or fail, like the old Soviet Union.

It is a misrepresentation to describe Pope Francis as having no faith in capitalism. Actually, Pope Francis has a seething contempt for the free market mechanisms of real capitalism. For example, I never thought I would live to see a Pope describe the very capitalists who, with their employees, have funded our Church's ministry for centuries with vicious invective like "savage" and the "dung of the devil", terms he has yet to use for the savage barbarians massacring Christians in the middle-east and Africa. I can't read his mind but he may be confusing free market capitalism with the right-wing oligarchies that once dominated south America, which are just as bad as left-wing socialism as far as creating economic inefficiencies and misallocated resources.

What "reckless abuse" of the environment by which multi-national corporations are you referring to in countries with economic policies towards the capitalist end of their policy mix? These are self-serving canards by the elitists seeking control over an economy. It is only in socialist leaning countries where multi-national corporations can be reckless and then bribe their way out by paying off the politicians and bureaucrats who have an inordinate amount of control in such economies. The reckless abuse is taking place in India and China and in every less developed country. The more capitalism in the policy mix, the cleaner and better the environment by every possible metric. Why? Because the checks and balances that are built into true free market capitalism make it risky and prohibitive as well as very expensive for those who do abuse the environment.

A simple example is the logging industry. North America today has more trees than when the first settlers from Europe arrived because loggers knew that deforestation would put them out of business. Deforestation is only found in economies towards the socialist end of the spectrum.

What you are calling "economy of the commons" is simply econobabble for some version of Marxism or its adaptation under Barack Obama we call "statism". This is where a government seeks to control an economy with government regulations written by nameless, faceless, unelected bureaucrats, and executive orders by an administration seeking to by-pass the Legislature, that stifle the small and medium sized businesses where most of the jobs in a free market economy traditionally come from.

The rich and large corporations that can better deal with such obstacles get richer while the middle-class and poor stay stagnant or decline. This is exactly what we are seeing in THe US under Obama.

While you cite those who support commoning, you fail to cite a single economy that has benefited from such a system where ruling elites think they know what is good for everyone else better than they do.

The USSR failed to survive, the eastern European countries that split off and rejected commoning have done much better thereafter, the European experiment in commoning is failing, India and China have rejected it and moved away from it and their economies are thriving, and the most extreme cases are all poor and oppressive dictatorships.

When Stefano Zamagni says, "“The pope is not against the market economy,” he is either being disingenuous or is unfamiliar with sections 53 through 58 in Evangelii Gaudium. This the Papal exhortation that has highly commendable and Christ-like objectives that we should do more to help the poor, combined with policy prescriptions guaranteed to increase poverty and oppression. Karl Marx must have smiled in his mausoleum at the irony of a Catholic Pope fiercely advocating economic policies that have failed wherever they have been tried because they show contempt for the wisdom of the average citizen and reduce incentives on the margin for achievers and non-achievers alike.

When you write, "....the problem is an idolatry that imagines markets can solve our moral crises for us. We can respect the usefulness of markets without needing to affirm their omnipotence." it is you who is imagining that you and the ruling elites can know what is good for everyone else, better than they do.

The question that you and your ilk ignore is very simply, "Who gets to decide?"

Under what you are spinning as "commoning" ruling elites decide and the world is strewn with their failures.

Economist Walter E. Williams has shown using mathematics why what you are calling commoning cannot work efficiently to benefit the most people most of the time, and why the free market always works when politicians and bureaucrats allow it to by wisely sticking to providing a sound infrastructure for the use of an entire country and leave the decisions on supply and demand and pricing to the free market. Here it is:

Chuck Kotlarz | 8/13/2015 - 5:34am

“Macro-economics is about creating conditions under which an economy can thrive…the question…is…who gets to decide?" Capitalism can create only great wealth, but democracy can create a great nation. America’s founding fathers perhaps had the best answer to your question "Who gets to decide?"

Capitalism can be as godless and soulless and evil as its counterpart at the other end of the spectrum. G K Chesterton

Mike Van Vranken | 8/4/2015 - 11:44am

As I see it, we must practice commoning, first and foremost, in our own parish boundaries. What if each parish provided food, shelter, clothing for EVERYONE who is needy that reside somewhere within the boundary of that parish? What if that same parish provided health care to EVERYONE who physically resided there? Oh yes, some parishes would need help from larger ones; easily provided through a diocesan effort. But sadly, we want to turn commoning (as well as feeding, clothing, sheltering and healing) over to a civil government who has no interest in treating people as if they were treating Jesus. Combine the free market with a mindset of commoning in each parish and we include God in the mix who then has a chance to bless and even multiply our efforts. The question, as always, is: what are we, individually, willing to offer from our own, personal gifts we've received from God himself? The responsibility belongs to the church; it belongs to each of us. When we shirk that responsibility and turn it over to a civil government, we give away our opportunity to be Christlike. With man it's impossible. With God, all things are possible.

Chuck Kotlarz | 8/5/2015 - 12:08am

Wow! Is it now up to the church to make America a great country? Fifty-six men perhaps altered the course of history with their passion for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

“It (Citizens United) violates the essence of what made America a great country. Now it's just an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery…” Jimmy Carter July 28, 2015

Lisa Weber | 8/3/2015 - 4:36pm

Thank you for this article and its explanation of "commoning." We badly need a different framework in which to discuss values.

Mark Wonsil | 7/24/2015 - 5:15pm

History suggests that shared ownership and commons usually end up in "tragedy." Once we create a "system of governance", the rich and powerful eventually gain control and we end up with exactly the opposite we set out to prevent. Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments has a lot to say how we should take care of each other. He was very suspicious of the mercantilists who used political might to take advantage of the weak and poor. Coming from Argentina, I totally understand where Pope Francis is coming from. He would have never seen an example of free exchange! There is a lot of idolatry going both ways and maybe we need to find the nuance in a world that encourages both liberty and a framework that we can all work in.

Nathan Schneider | 7/24/2015 - 8:57pm

Thank you for your feedback. It's worth noting that "the tragedy of the commons" is an economic trope that has not fared well intellectually and emperically, even though it has continued to be repeated by those who believe markets can solve every kind of problem. This article describes Elinor Ostrom's refutation of the idea, to the point that Garrett Hardin, who coined the term, rolled back his position. At least as much of a problem, as David Bollier suggests, is a "tragedy of the non-commons."

I think it's highly condescending to claim that Francis is speaking solely from an Argentinian perspective. Many of his ideas about the economy are indistinguishable from those of Benedict XVI—whose Caritas et Veritate drew heavily on the work of Zamagni, quoted above. One doesn't have to look far in the United States, for instance, to see plentiful market failures in the form of poverty, homelessness, and a cruel, embarassing healthcare system.

That said, an economics of the commons shouldn't rule out states or markets. And I think that's related to what Adam Smith argued; as much of a prophet of markets as he was, as you point out, he recognized that there must be other forces that guide us toward the common good.

Jim Lein | 7/24/2015 - 4:08pm

Our system has gotten more unbalanced and unreal, with money being speech and corporations being persons. How could we seriously have effected this fantasy world? The speech of the wealthy few is amplified many times that of the many who have less money. And corporations are giant persons and average and especially poor persons are Lilliputians with little or no say. Such a system. Such a deal. It was bad enough, unequal enough, before money became speech and corporations persons. We've really done it now. Someone has to speak up, someone who can be heard.

Mike Evans | 7/24/2015 - 1:42pm

Naturally those who have it made economically are going to defend their behavior and the systems which enrich them. The proclivity not to share what they think belongs to them by right is too strong. The stories of the rich young man and the rich entering through eye of the needle are strongly worded examples used by Jesus to depict their plight. Thus in our country, the GOP especially, but not exclusively, is ganging up on the pope claiming he has no right or jurisdiction to make complaints about our Puritan inspired so-called "free market system." As popes over the last two centuries have noted, the "free market" does not bring economic justice nor does the market dominated by monopolists or oligarchs or international agreements. That is why it is studied as a "political" economy where ownership and basic rights are dictated not by morality but by political power - e.g. Citizens United.

Nathan Schneider | 7/24/2015 - 2:42pm

Thanks for this. Failing to recognize the commons is certainly not the exclusive practice of the GOP; Catholic tradition, thankfully, is a reminder that the totality of social possibilities, and certainly not all the demands of justice, are not encompassed by the existing political spectrum, here or anywhere. We need to be perpetually breaking out of ideological boxes in order to more completely recognize the challenge of the common good. Thinking of "the commons" is one way of doing that, but overly fixating on it, of course, would mean just hopping from one idolatry to another.

Aidan Guest | 7/25/2015 - 1:15pm

Although I very much enjoyed the above article and the insights offered, I disagree with your comment here. With respect, I think your thinking on the need to be "perpetually breaking out of ideological boxes in order to more completely recognize the challenge of the common good" is a little out of touch. It smacks of the "rising above partisanship" truism beloved by so many media commentators. But how in practical terms would this even work? I think the Pope's got it right on this issue; adopt a position, consolidate it, knuckle down and be prepared to fight the good fight. Trying to "move beyond ideology" may very well be nice and gentlemanly, but pretty wishy-washy and unhelpful in the face of reality.

Nathan Schneider | 7/26/2015 - 5:09pm

Thanks for this corrective—I may have misprepresented myself, as I completely agree. I don't think that church tradition leads us to a mush of relativism or transcendance of all positions, certainly; rather, that it holds positions that call into question the political lines drawn in secular discourse. For instance, it asks us whether it makes sense for the rights of unborn life to be on the opposite side of the political spectrum from the rights of non-human species, or for just redistribution to be posed against calls for local autonomy.

One of my favorite mantras consists of the entirety of Fr. Dan Berrigan's (highly unpopular at the time) commencement speech at a wealthy Jesuit high school: "Know where you stand, and stand there." The theology of the incarnation demands this, I think. We cannot be forever transcending the demands of the moment. But as Zora Neale Hurston put it, "There are years that ask questions and years that answer."

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