“There is a strange paradox in today’s world that business ethics is big business but business does not necessarily always act ethically,” said the Catholic archbishop.

And, he said, acting ethically must mean more than window dressing.

“Soft ethics in a situation like this is not good,” he warned.

While the market was vital, it had an essential social function. While there had to be freedom, there had to be a “normative framework” and norms existed to protect the weak and curb the natural arrogance of the powerful.

“In any system, there is a tendency, if you have power, to become arrogant and to lose an understanding of the social responsibility that you have and I am afraid that is what has been happening.”

Dr Martin, who was speaking on RTÉ, was asked if the common good had been affected by the profiteering of a few people.

“We must remember that when the rule of law is not respected and when the social goals of a market are not respected, it is always the poor who pay the highest price,” he said.

He was also asked if high-risk lending where loans were given to people with poor credit ratings that was widely practiced in the US and to a limited extent in Ireland was wrong.

“The market is a social phenomenon. Therefore it has a social responsibility for the long term consequences of any actions that it takes,” he said.

The market was needed but so was an effective government that knew how to move in to see that the market regulated itself and where it was not doing that, it could intervene.

Asked if he had advice for Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, who has been charged with producing a very difficult budget next month, Dr Martin said he should ensure that long-term damage was not done to education and health systems. Mathematical cuts across the board might cause long-term damage and not sow the seeds for a recovery of the economy and of the social system in the future, he warned.

The world economic crisis was also an issue at the autumn general meeting of the Irish Bishops’ Conference in Maynooth, Co Kildare, on Thursday night.

The bishops said it was particularly worrying at this time, as the economy across the island declined, inflation was being felt most by those on low wages on State income support.

Of particular concern to the Catholic bishops was the rising cost of food and fuel.

“Hope is not a commodity which can be bought or sold. It is important that we hope — and act — so the most vulnerable are protected in these more challenging times,” they said.