Vatican City — Profit must never be a Christian's god, although it is one of the tools for measuring the effectiveness of business choices and the ability of a company to help workers feed their families, Pope Francis said.
"Money is the devil's dung," the pope said Saturday, quoting St. Francis of Assisi. "When money becomes an idol, it dictates people's choices."
Meeting with members of an Italian association of Catholic farm, credit, housing and shopping cooperatives, the pope urged the co-ops to remain true to their original inspiration of modeling an economy where the needs of the human person are the absolute priority and where sharing and solidarity are at the center of the business model.
When unemployment rates are high and there are long "lines of people looking for work," he said, workers are easily exploited. They will accept long hours for low pay, knowing that if they don't they will be told, "If you don't like it, someone else will."
"Hunger makes us accept whatever is given," even a job that pays under the table, the pope said.
Italy's birthrate has been declining for 50 years, leading many government and church officials to raise an alarm about the financial risks associated with a steady growth in the number of retired people and the shrinking pool of people working and paying taxes.
Pope Francis told the Catholic cooperatives that supporting and "even encouraging family life" must be part of their mission in serving their members and influencing the economy. "An economy can never be renewed in a society that is aging instead of growing," he said.
In addition, he said, "to help women fully realize their vocations and allow their talents to bear fruit" and to help them be "protagonists in companies as well as in the family," the work world must include greater flexibility and services, such as childcare.
Cooperatives and anyone truly concerned about the human person and the economy's impact on individuals and families, he said, must keep in mind the "dizzying increase in unemployed people, the constant tears of the poor" and the need for development that provides jobs and an income while protecting human dignity and ensuring access to health care and a future pension.
Pope Francis asked the Catholic cooperatives to solidify their original ties with Catholic parishes and dioceses, but also to look for ways to work with other cooperatives to expand their reach, involve more people and discover new areas where co-ops could meet social and economic needs.
"It is a real mission," he told them, a mission that "calls for a creative imagination to find new forms, methods, attitudes and instruments to combat the 'throwaway culture' in which we live, the 'throwaway culture' cultivated by the powers that prop up the economic-financial policies of the globalized world where the god money is at the center."
The predominant free market economic model is not working, the pope said; cooperatives need profits to survive, but they must ensure profits do not become an exclusive goal.
Catholic co-ops cannot be like "certain forms of liberalism" that believe "it is necessary first of all to produce wealth -- and it doesn't matter how -- and then to promote some redistribution policies on the part of the state," the pope said. He described that approach as being one of "first filling up the glass, then giving to others."
"Others think that companies themselves must share crumbs from the wealth they accumulate, absolving themselves in that way from their so-called social responsibility," he said. "They run the risk of thinking they are doing good when, unfortunately, they are just doing an exercise in marketing without breaking the fatal cycle of people and businesses who are focused on the god money."