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St Francis, a socialist? Really? Well, not quite. Socialism was a generic term created in the nineteenth century, responding to social issues of the time. However, I would like to argue that Francis in his outlook shared a great deal of concern with that much later movement. His solutions were surprisingly similar, too.

Europe in the Late Middle Ages saw the beginning of a flourishing long-distance trade that had its epicentre in the towns of Italy. Merchants were the pioneers of a new economic approach that was to sweep the world in centuries to come: Capitalism, whose lifeblood was money. It is in that Italy that we find the cradle of the man who was to become the saintly Francis. For us, who were born and bred in Capitalism, it is hard to imagine what a rare substance money was in an economy based on subsistence farming. Francis’ well attested contempt for this idol-in-the-making spoke volumes about his appreciation for the new age.

Merchants like his father Pietro Bernadone did not produce anything themselves; they exchanged what others had produced. Trade potentially benefits the entire economy, by encouraging greater efficiency through inter-regional division of labour. However, Bernadone and his colleagues made most of their profits in luxury items, like fine cloth, if only because the costs of transport were prohibitive. Now, as then, however, there is little economic benefit in the luxury industry. Thus merchants did not enlarge the cake by adding value, they only took a large slice for themselves, at the expense of others. This rise in trade fuelled the growing inequality of society.

We might not sympathise with the nobility fighting against social decline, but the growing army of beggars in the streets of Assisi were a much more disturbing sight for the young Francis. Although his conversion was a multi-layered process, the early sources leave us in no doubt that the abhorrence about the plight of the poor was a major driving force for his change of life. When Francis left his father’s house, he also rejected the inhumane society of Assisi where some grew rich, not caring about the sorry state of those they left impoverished.

There are surprising parallels to our time. We, too, have witnessed a group of people, who through the last few decades have grown surprisingly rich: investment bankers and their clientele. Western economies saw a rapid growth of the financial sector after the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1973. Britain is the prime example of this process that economists came to call ‘Financialisation’. The City of London has reached an overbearing position, both in the economy and in politics. Just like international trade, the financial sector has two faces. According to textbook economics, banking is very useful: it facilitates an exchange between savers and entrepreneurs, who need loans for new business opportunities. However, this amounts to only 15% of financial business today. Most of the turnover in the City deals with highly speculative structured investment products, which are of virtually no benefit to the economy at all (while causing massive crashes, and requiring tax payer funded bail-outs).

Finance has been twisted into a powerful instrument for some people to enrich themselves at the expense of others. Most people usually say that they do not understand Finance. It is important to realize that this is no coincidence! The financial system is consciously designed to be notoriously difficult, because difficulty is an admirable defence shield against unwanted public scrutiny. Although the vast majority of us cannot see through it, we feel in our guts that something is not quite right here. And indeed: the flip side of bankers’ affluence is the growing destitution at the bottom, whilst the middle class is stagnating, at best. Financialisation has produced growing poverty and inequality in our time; just as the rise of trade did in the 1200s.

Now, back to Francis: After he broke with his Father, he started to live in a radically different way that appeared mad to most of his contemporaries (at first). He became a little Brother to the poor and despised in town. As long as they were treated without dignity or respect, he would not accept any privilege either. He put into practice a foundational, yet often forgotten teaching of Jesus: that the whole human race is essentially one big family, and that we should be brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers to each other. This involves sharing our material possessions, especially with the most unfortunate. Jesus explicitly said that he would accept such deeds as done to himself. Following in the footprints of Jesus, Francis had no time for the self-centred greed that shaped his father’s business, and just as much rules the 24/7 trading floors from Wall Street to Shanghai.

Francis called people to a life of penance, which meant nothing else than a complete turn around: away from accepted, yet heartless ways of treating fellow human beings, to gospel values. His vision for society, and indeed for the whole of God’s creation, was that of a Brotherhood (note: the Italian word fraternitàis gender neutral). A good practical example for this philosophy is how Francis approached the wolf in Gubbio. A conflict had arisen out of exclusion that put the two sides into fierce confrontation. The solution that Francis brokered was the inclusion of both into one community of love, where they would look after each other’s needs. It is easy to romanticise this story, when its simple wisdom is so desperately needed.

Nobody has put the vision of Francis into words for our time better than Pope Benedict XVI, when he tried to summarise the lessons from the Financial Crisis. In his Encyclical Caritas in Veritate, he concluded:

‘One of the deepest forms of poverty a person can experience is isolation. If we look closely at other kinds of poverty, including material forms, we see that they are born from isolation, from not being loved or from difficulties in being able to love. Poverty is often produced by a rejection of God’s love, by man’s basic and tragic tendency to close in on himself, thinking himself to be self-sufficient. The theme of development can be identified with the inclusion of all individuals and peoples within the one community of the human family, built in solidarity on the basis of the fundamental values of justice and peace.’

We live in a world where the profiteers of Financialisation lock themselves into the isolation of their golden ghettos, just like Pietro Bernadone would have done. Many a Lazarus lies at their doorstep; but with hearts of stone they refuse to share, perhaps except for a tiny fraction of their affluence that they might give to charity. The Bible leaves us in no doubt as to the rich man’s end! As Franciscans in this ‘age of austerity’, how are we going to respond to the question of the former pope? How can we help to bring about the real development of humanity, into one family based on justice and peace? f

Br Robert SSF lives in St Anthony’s Friary, Newcastle upon Tyne.