“The Church has always acknowledged, appreciated and encouraged the co-operative experience”, said Pope Francis a few days ago to seven thousand members of the Confederation of Italian Co-operatives.
Pope Francis referred to past teaching that chimed with co-ops, such as the encyclicals “Rerum Novarum”, with Leo XIII’s appeal for a society in which “All [are] owners, not all proletarians”. But he urged co-ops to look to the future: “It is a real mission that requires creative imagination to find forms, methods, attitudes and tools to combat the throwaway culture cultivated by the powers that support the economic and financial policies of the globalised world”.
He proposed five actions for co-operative action, to build an ‘economy of honesty’.
1. Co-operatives should “continue to be the motor for lifting up and developing the weakest part of our local communities and of civil society”. This involves “giving first place to the foundation of new co-operative enterprises, along with the further development of those already in existence, so as to create, above all, new work opportunities that currently do not exist … especially for the young, as we know that youth unemployment … destroys their hope”, but also for the “many women who need and wish to enter the world of work. We must not neglect the adults who often find themselves prematurely without work. Aside from new enterprises, let us look also to the companies in difficulty, those that the old owners leave to die, which could instead be revived through co-operative ‘workers’ buy out’ initiatives.
2. Look to become active agents of new welfare solutions, above all in the healthcare sector, “a delicate field where many poor people no longer find their needs to be adequately met”. The answer may be found in applying subsidiarity, “with strength and coherence”, creating an effective network of assistance and solidarity between co-operatives, parishes and hospitals.
3. Co-ops can be symbols of a different approach to the economy. “It is well known that a certain liberalism believes it is necessary first and foremost to produce wealth, and that it is not important how, before promoting any form of redistributive policy”, explained the Pope. “Others think that it is the same enterprise that must donate the crumbs of accumulated wealth, thus absolving it of its so-called ‘social responsibility’”. However, we know in achieving a new quality of the economy, it is possible to enable people to grow in all their potential. A member of a cooperative must not be merely … a worker … but must instead always be a protagonist, and must grow, through the co-operative, as a person, socially and professionally, in responsibility … an enterprise managed by a cooperative must grow in a truly co-operative way, involving all”.
4. Co-operation can strengthen the link between work and family – including “helping women to fully achieve their vocation and to put their talents to use” through initiatives that meet the needs of all, from nurseries to domestic care.
5. Use money wisely. Pope Francis says “you must invest, and you must invest well. In Italy certainly, but not only, it is difficult to obtain public funding to compensate for the scarcity of resources. The solution I propose to you is this: unite with determination the right means for carrying out good works. Collaborate more with cooperative banks and businesses, organise resources to allow families to live with dignity and serenity, and pay fair salaries to your workers. … Money, placed at the service of life, can be managed in the right way by the co-operative, if however it is an authentic and true co-operative, where capital does not rule over people, but people over capital”.
Co-ops must “promote an economy of honesty, a healing economy in the treacherous sea of the global economy. A real economy promoted by people who have at heart and in their minds only the common good”.
“It is necessary to have the courage and imagination to build the right road to integrate development, justice and peace throughout the world”, he concluded.
These are inspiring words, hopeful words. Pope Francis is, in the words of Dame Pauline Green of the International Co-operative Alliance who has spent time with him and talked of his upbringing in Argentina, ‘the Co-op Pope’.