Pope Francis will arrive in the United States this week. (VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Michael R. Strain is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Washington, D.C., where I live and work, is abuzz with talk of Pope Francis’s upcoming visit, commencing Tuesday. But what matters much more for the universal church will take place seven days after the pope departs the United States for the Vatican, when the Synod of Bishops on the Family begins.

Because of a recent move by the pope, the upcoming synod may include a discussion of broader issues than did last year’s. I sure hope so. Hot-button issues related to divorce and homosexuality are obviously important and need to be discussed, but so do many other issues. The synod bishops and critics of the church alike should spend more time on those issues. And I hope one such issue will be the relationship between economics and the family, the topic of a great panel I sat on at Georgetown University earlier this month. The church’s understanding of this relationship — or, more accurately, this Catholic’s understanding of the church’s understanding — may be instructive and edifying to our national conversation.

We must begin with the human person — that is always the starting point. And we must begin with the understanding that each of us is called to love God and to love others. I do not refer here to sentimentality, but rather to a deep, abiding commitment, rooted in duty — to live for others, our families not the least. This is the central human calling, and the benchmark against which to judge the efficacy of social and economic systems.

The free enterprise system, then, is good insofar as it enables individuals to fulfill this central human vocation. It does this quite well.

First, free enterprise dramatically reduces extreme poverty. In 1970, over one-quarter of the world lived on less than one dollar per day. By 2006, about one in 20 people lived in extreme poverty — an 80 percent reduction. We have the adoption of free markets across the developing world to thank for this massive reduction. That it happened in less than four decades is all the more impressive.

Poverty is obviously a serious obstacle to the flourishing life — it is hard to reach your full potential if you don’t have enough to eat, and it is hard to meet your obligations to your family, as well. By reducing poverty in the developing world, free markets help to strengthen families.

The effect of liberalizing markets on extreme poverty and the good this does for families is a fact I wish the Holy Father discussed more often, and that I hope will be part of the upcoming synod. Reading His Holiness’s encyclical on the environment, I was left with the impression that the pope’s primary socio-environmental concern is not pollution per se but rather mankind’s ability to generate pollution — an ability which is the consequence of industrialization and market economies. If I’m reading him correctly, the Holy Father’s view is a shame, because dramatically rolling back free markets would weaken the greatest anti-poverty tool in human history. It would, of course, extract a large toll from families. Hopefully the Holy Father sees that markets generate solutions to intractable problems, in addition to causing problems of their own.

Free markets also enable flourishing lives through meaningful work. Pope John Paul II writes in Laborem Exercens that man is “called to work.” “Man is the image of God,” writes Saint John Paul, “partly through the mandate received from his Creator to subdue, to dominate, the earth. In carrying out this mandate, man, every human being, reflects the very action of the Creator of the universe.” In our ordinary tasks — in our day jobs — we are, according to the church, “unfolding the Creator’s work.”

The free enterprise system allows individuals to choose where (and if) to work, educating our passions by directing them to productive ends — ends that we choose ourselves, and that are therefore likelier to bring us fulfillment and to maximize our potential. They allow us to express creativity, to make our contribution to society as we see fit. The remarkable capacity of market economies to generate jobs sufficient to match a growing population allows us the opportunity to fulfill one of our most basic human desires and meet one of our most basic duties: to provide for our families.

The previous sentence may give you pause, given the hard times so many have faced since the onset of the Great Recession. Telling you that I was referring to the long term — decades and decades — is insufficient.

This highlights the need for civil society, for bonds of mutual obligation within and between families to help and support each other through hard times. It also highlights the need for limited but energetic government and public policy judged by the same standard as the market economy: How well does it help individuals to fulfill their basic vocation, lead truly flourishing lives and meet their duties to their families?

Neither the market nor the state is to be made idols of, golden calves elevated above their proper station. And just as the economy must serve and advance human freedom — properly understood as the ability to do what you ought — so, too, must government and policy.

In America today, that means public policy designed to bring more prime-age citizens into the workforce. In some cases government needs to get out of the way; for example, by relaxing onerous and unnecessary occupational licensing requirements. In other cases, programs need to be reformed, like disability insurance. And in others, government needs to take an active role, like expanding earnings subsidies.

Different countries have different needs, but the central logic remains the same: To be our best selves, we must have the freedom to provide for our families. We must therefore have economies that allow us to provide that support and reward work. And we must have civil society and public policy that augment economies and that orient economies to that end.

As the world has seen, Pope Francis knows how to start a conversation. At next month’s synod on the family, I hope he starts a dialogue on this, the relationship between economics and family. In a church of many voices, this conversation could use a champion.